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Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison, Signet, 1975, 514 pp. (originally published in 1967)

Dangerous Visions was the landmark anthology put together by Harlan Ellison with the express purpose of giving the new writing in science fiction a place of welcome. Ellison committed great amounts of personal sweat and tears to the project, in trust that the material in the collection deserved as much attention as possible.

Looking back on Dangerous Visions, I am struck again and again by how many of the stories prove Ellison correct. Publishers have never really been in the business of taking chances, and Ellison was just tenacious enough to bring this remarkable collection into being. Ellison gave the genre a challenge, and the genre answered with more than an affirmation -- more like a shout of joy at the opportunity, a declaration of principle about the possibilities opening before everyone. As I've already mentioned, the awards flowed like water for this ostensibly controversial New Wave material. Let me take a minute to detail how honoured these stories from Dangerous Visions became. The 1967 Nebulas included nominations for Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage" and Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?", and wins for Leiber's "Gonna the Roll the Bones" (Best Novelette) and Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah" (Best Short Story). The 1968 Hugos gave nominations to Dick's "Faith of Our Fathers", Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah", and Niven's "The Jigsaw Man", with wins for Farmerís "Riders of the Purple Wage" (Best Novella) and Leiber's "Gonna Roll the Bones" (Best Novelette). That year at the Hugos must have felt like massive vindication for Ellison himself, because he also won two Hugos personally, Best Short Story for "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" and Best Dramatic Presentation for his famous Star Trek script, "City on the Edge of Forever."

What might it mean that the establishment of the genre embraced these stories so whole-heartedly when it came to award time? And are Ellison's picks really that good?

"Gonna Roll the Bones" is a flashy story about a gambler named Joe Slattermill. Leiber's prose sparkles with wit and intelligence, and the story remains long in the mind for its feel. But "Gonna Roll the Bones" also holds up well to multiple readings because the glitter goes deeper than the surface. I confess that I had completely misremembered the ending from my first reading of the story about ten years ago -- I remembered the identity of the Big Gambler that Joe ends up betting his soul against, but Leiber pulls a subtle trick with the conclusion that crept up on my blind side. "Aye, and Gomorrah" is another dazzling piece, shorter than "Gonna Roll the Bones" but just as effective. Delany populates a future with people and details and customs so vividly imagined that the headlong rush of the story is something more than a shock. Ellison points out in his introduction to "Aye, and Gomorrah" that this was Delany's first short story, and it shows the same mastery as demonstrated with Delany's novels.

Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage" looks forward to the quartet of warnings that Brunner was already writing (the first, Stand on Zanzibar, would win the Hugo in 1969). Like Brunner's novels, Farmer's story is marked by linguistic playfulness linked tightly with a deadly serious intent. The reader pieces together fragments and shattered stereotypes, and the result is quite magnificent.

Ellison expends a great deal of verbiage on how controversial these stories are, and the grandness of his efforts at putting the anthology together. Controversy is a relative thing, and the shock value of most of the material has long since worn away. However, these last thirty years of science fiction owe a vast debt to Ellison and the contributors in Dangerous Visions, as the book was indeed part of a sea change in the genre. It matters not in the least that the consternation over the shocking content has faded; Ellison made some strong editorial decisions, and the stories have (mostly) stood the test of time. The awards were certainly part of the deep shifts in the genre, but also acknowledgement that paradigms were being shattered by people who knew what they were doing.

Perhaps the only flaw in the book is the paucity of female writers -- only three of the thirty-two contributors are women. I don't mean to downplay the achievements of Miriam Allen de Ford, Carol Emshwiller, and Sonya Dorman. In fact, this trio provides some of my favourite stories in the collection, especially Emshwiller's "Sex And/Or Mr. Morrison," a disturbing and hallucinatory journey without peer. By the time of Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions a few years later, the situation was improved, but not by much -- that collection had stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, Joanna Russ, Joan Bernott, Evelyn Lief, and Josephine Saxton (as well as the memorable "Milk of Paradise" by James Tiptree Jr., but of course Tiptree was still a man at that point; more on that in the next review). Again, I don't mean to condescend to the achievements of these women, but it would be another decade or more before numerical equality between the genders would come about.

To close, I would like to point out that Ellison acknowledges his debt to other anthologizers of the time, as well as the inanity of any one label like New Wave. In his introduction, Ellison relates how Norman Spinrad gave him the original idea: "[Spinrad] said he thought I should implement some of the rabble-rousing ideas I had been spreading about 'the new thing' in speculative fiction, with an anthology of same. I hasten to point out my 'new thing' is neither Judith Merril's 'new thing' nor Michael Moorcock's 'new thing.' Ask for us by our brand names" (xxiii-xxiv). British SF, New Wave or otherwise, is an entirely different matter than what I've been discussing here. And the life and works of Merril will be the topic of my next column, as her influence is too important to do justice here.


Last modified: July 20, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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