Thursday, July 05, 2018

Dangerous Visions (1967)

Well, I enjoyed doing the long short story project completed last month—not least because I got to add some of my own horror and mystery genre choices along the way. Even the three main anthologies indulged themselves a little in that regard. But too late, I thought of science fiction, which was also a staple of early reading and ended up mostly shut out of the story project. One Kurt Vonnegut story was not enough (and Vonnegut's story isn't even such a good representation of science fiction). To rectify that, I turned to Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison's landmark science fiction anthology. That was about a year ago, and just as I was preparing to start posting about it came news of Harlan Ellison's death this past June 27, 84 years old. Sad news—he was a formidable, unique, and always interesting writer, editor, and character.

Dangerous Visions is over 50 years old now, and science fiction has gone through multiple eras since. But arguably the collection still has claims on our attention—for one thing, it's the first science fiction anthology ever that was made up only of commissioned work (rather than plundering back issues of SF magazines such as Astounding Stories or Galaxy Science Fiction, which had been the norm and often still is). I remember when I came across Dangerous Visions in the early '70s the stories still had a jazzy charismatic glow of transgressive zing—"dangerous" is probably fair enough.

With perspective, and reading through them more systematically this past year, I'm not as convinced. Fair warning. All things pass, and time and changing circumstances have eroded much of the impact some of these stories made on me originally. Or maybe I'm doddering out of step. Many of the stories locate their sense of high stakes inside religious themes, which surprised me until I remembered the Time magazine cover of Easter week in 1966, the year before (which would be the time period when Ellison was probably starting to work on getting commitments from writers): "Is God Dead?" it shouted in satanic red letters on a glossy black background. Oh, brrrr! Although Vietnam and Bob Dylan were in the air, I suspect the Time spasm was inspired more by the last two digits in the year, as 666 is reliably a number that gives Christians the willies and 1966 is close enough (if 9 turned out to be 6 ... a Jimi Hendrix song? See also 1666, when plagues and fires made people in London nervous).

I have the impression Ellison and this collection still bear much of an outsize reputation, though I'm far from conversant with science fiction currents nowadays. My kindle edition has no fewer than six introductions or forewords (three of each), written as recently as 2011 and as long ago as 1967 for the original edition. Isaac Asimov chipped in a couple of these pieces (two forewords from 1967), sounding a little sheepish and possibly envious because he felt too "old guard" to contribute a story. The longest and most important is Harlan Ellison's original introduction, which reads like New Journalism or rock criticism, chatty, opinionated, and infectiously enthusiastic. (It also reminded me a little of Paul McCartney talking about "Helter Skelter" as "the loudest, the filthiest, the grittiest" song they could make.) Ellison is all over this collection—it's his baby. He wrote a long story himself for it, one of the high points still, and he also wrote introductions for every story, which of course he personally commissioned. He is with you and me every step of the way, and though the writers get a chance to explain themselves in afterwords for each story, it sometimes feels Ellison is crowding them and us a little. I don't mind all the information—it's the spittle spray that worries me.

On the other hand, that's pure Harlan Ellison. That intensity likely brought in a lot of these names and their Babe Ruthian swats for the fence, which range from old-guard Asimov peers like Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, and Lester del Rey, to British and American New Wave characters like Brian Aldiss, Norman Spinrad, and Roger Zelazny, to a gaggle of in-betweeners from TV production, law offices, the U.S. Foreign Service, and elsewhere. There are stories here by J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven, and more. Dangerous Visions was a hit. Four of the 33 stories won individual Hugo and/or Nebula awards and many others as well as the collection itself were nominated for numerous others. The collection furthered Ellison's credentials as a troublemaker, winning him for example a citation at an SF convention for "the most significant and controversial SF book published in 1967." A sequel came in 1972, which I don't know, and a third sequel notoriously remains unpublished, because unfinished. It may never see the light of day now.

There is definitely a sense in these stories of writers winding up to give it everything they have. They have been sold a place where there are no limits and everything is allowed. Let it all hang out, baby (remember: 1967). That's one reason I find it interesting that the result for so many ended up relying so heavily on religiosity, whether it is belief redeemed or exercises in blasphemy, about an equal split across the stories. My science fiction reading tended originally toward anthologies of stories, but they were more conventional and from the era that preceded this. Groff Conklin was a favorite editor, for example. In fact, Ellison mentions Conklin here with regard. But Conklin is definitely another specimen of Asimov's old guard. In the '70s I was ready for the kind of iconoclastic cultural smash and grab operation this purports to be. It's here to change your reality if it can, or at least be as sassy as you can stand. Ellison wanted to shake up that whole stodgy pre-'60s era of science fiction, and shake it up very hard. Let's see, story by story, how he does.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

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