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Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

I had already started a reread of Dangerous Visions before hearing of the recent death of its editor, Harlan Ellison, partly because it had passed a half century since its release and I wanted to see how well it had stood the test of time. The other reason was that I had started writing short stories again and thought reading some classics would be a useful background in structure and form, especially the experimental ones from the New Wave time period.

Dangerous Visions was quite celebrated at the time, awarded with a special Hugo for the whole anthology as well as some significant wins for stories therein. Probably the most unusual story was Philip Jose Farmer’s Hugo and Nebula winning novella, “The Riders of the Purple wage,” positing a future where everyone was on social security in an early example of the horrors that might accompany a universal basic income. Farmer’s story still works, mainly because his characters are interesting and vivid, even though the society described is strange and dystopic. Robert Bloch’s story, “A Toy for Juliette,” is more dated today, but when it was new, readers hadn’t spent years reading Stephen King and his imitators. Basically a twist story, its power is in its economy. Ellison’s own “A Prowler in the City at the End of the World,” a sequel to Bloch’s story, however, takes that twist and makes so much more of the concept, creating a judgment on society and culture—what Ellison had wanted to basically achieve with the anthology in the first place.

I love Theodore Sturgeon’s stories, but on rereading, “If All Men are Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” I was disappointed. It’s one of the longer stories in the anthology and, unlike Farmer’s, feels extremely padded. Its meant to be a shocker, and part of the problem today may be that once you know what the shock is, you get tired of the constant tease and build-up to it on the re-read. Or, maybe in five centuries, the taboo, while still in force, isn’t quite as disturbing as it was then. Philip K. Dick’s “Faith of Our Father’s” fares somewhat better, although it too seems overlong for its subject, an examination of au autocratic future in which humans may, or may not, be subjugated by aliens. Some of the stories try too hard, like John Sladek’s “The Happy Breed,” or Damon Knight’s “Shall the Dust Praise Thee….” Within the first pages of these stories, you can predict the endings, telegraphed To Make a POINT. If anything, this was the real flaw with Ellison’s vision, that need to make a point. Some stories could send a message and still be a strong story, like Farmer’s or Ellison’s. But the stories that were just message, like these or Sonja Dorman’s, Robert Silverberg’s, Lester Del Rey’s, or David Bunde’s, really fall flat now.

Some of the stories weren’t really that dangerous, though—not in 1967 nor today. They were, however, excellent SF/F stories. Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man” is Heinlein-esque in its speculation on the future of organ replacement, a real “If This Goes On….” kind of tale. Fritz Leiber’s Hugo and Nebula winning novelette “Gonna Roll the Bores” is one of the best meeting with the devil stories ever written. “Lord Randy, My Son,” like Robert Bloch’s story, was almost made for the Twilight Zone, but, unlike Bloch’s, contained a much stronger kick at its end that is still powerful today. “The Doll-House” is another great example of a story that wasn’t really dangerous, but simply a a great example of a good Twilight Zone story, in this case about a man with access to a Delphic oracle and the comeuppance of his greed. Frederik Pohl’s “The Day After The Martians Came” has a nice kicker that seems to be even stronger now, five decades after the civil rights movement. Humans seem to have a need to treat others as lower them themselves, and Pohl makes his point with a touch more subtly than Knight or Sladek.

A few stories are dated by their style, like “Encounter with a Hick,” which uses hipster slang to recount an incident in the far future when an Earthman comes up against a test of faith. Strangely, Farmer’s story had some similar stylistic quirks, but not as strongly, and the story didn’t rely on the language itself to be strange. Like Sturgeon’s, Poul Anderson’s “Eutopia” deals with another sexual taboo of the time. Unlike Sturgeon’s, however, this is one that’s hardly taboo anymore, at least for a majority of the U.S. population, so really seems dated now.

And then some stories are just…ok. Well written, not overly strong on the sledgehammer with a message, yet not so dangerous, either. For instance, Samuel Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah,” which centers around a fresh sexual fetish to do with space-farers, or J.G. Ballard’s “The Recognition, “about people’s fascination with cages, and how quickly they will create one around themselves. Similarly, Carol Emshwiller’s “Sex and/or Mr. Morrison,” is a well-done character study of how little we know about others, and ourselves.

So, storywise, Dangerous Visions is a very mixed bag. Very likely, stories that work for me today may be stories that you hate are bored by, and vice versa. In some ways, nothing then has changed for the anthology. Reading some of the reviews of it published following its release, critics were divided over just how dangerous it all was.

What Ellison did achieve, though, was to reenergize and challenge the field, at least for a number of years, up to the release of Star Wars and the emergence of the SF Blockbuster Bestseller. His championing of new voices along with encouraging the old guard to adopt new stances could clearly be felt in the SF releases of the early 70s. In particular, I think Frederik Pohl’s Gateway wouldn’t have been written or been the same without the influence of Dangerous Visions.

The other thing that Dangerous Visions did was further dissolve the artificial lines between mainstream and science fiction as labels. Incorporating a wide selection of writers, including those who had previously been known for their television work along with new writers and old guard, Ellison illustrated that writers will be writers, damn the genre.

For me personally, both when I initially read this anthology in the late 70s and today, was the impact of Ellison’s chatty introductions and incorporating afterwords from the authors, some of whom, like Silverberg, were brief, preferring to let the story speak for itself, while others took the opportunity to talk about the writing process or state their own manifestos. The sum of this created an extended dialogue with the reader, making the reader a more active participant in the creation of the event of the anthology. The diversity of responses to how writers described themselves for the brief bio sketches and what they had to say about their stories is basically a study for how many people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints can interact to then create something greater than themselves.

And to give Ellison, a flawed individual like all of us, his due, he was a masterful cheerleader as much as he was a serious gadfly. Reading his introductions, there is no doubt about his admiration for his fellow writers and how pleased he was to shepherd this project into being. Writing is not a zero sum game, and Ellison was happy to see other writers be successful—especially if he had a part in bringing them to the attention of new readers.

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Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison by Glen Engel-Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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