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Consideration of Works Past: Dangerous Visions

I was never the audience for Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions.

(Picture from here.)

DV came out in 1967. I was fifteen. I read it but DV was intended for adults. While I was advanced for my age, I was still a fairly repressed teen in Alabama at the time. I was obsessed with science fiction but I was not part of the SF fan community. I didn’t really know about such a thing until much, much later. Thus, I did not grow up with the concept of readers contacting readers and discussing what they read.

When I was growing up the rule was, I could read anything I could reach on a bookshelf. My mother didn’t take into account my ability to climb so I read everything in the house. This included such things as For Whom the Bell Tolls, From Here to Eternity, The Arrangement, and As I Lay Dying. I read most of the library before I was twelve.

I discovered science fiction as a branch from comics—of which I remain an avid reader to this day. I started at one end of the SF section in my local library and worked my way left to right. There weren’t SF novels in the house until I became a member of the SF book club.

SF entered my life just before Junior High and has remained with me ever since.

I think I encountered DV late in high school. It was a good collection of stories. It wasn’t my favorite. My favorite collection remains the Robert P Mills Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction (1960) with Anthony Boucher’s A Treasury of Great Science Fiction (1959) a close second. The Mills collection had such stories as Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon,  Bester’s The Pi Man, Heinlein’s All You Zombies, and McKenna’s Casey Agonistes. Treasury has Budrys’ Rogue Moon and Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

DV was fun but it didn’t strike me as all that interesting in comparison. Also, close to a quarter of the book was commentary. Ellison had a long introduction to the book and introduced every story. After each story, the author had an afterward. As far as I was concerned, this material was to be skipped. I’d rather the work speak for itself. It’s been nearly sixty years and I still can’t bring myself to read it. I’ve never much cared for literary commentary.

(As a side note, since Ellison wrote all of the introductions and had a story in the collection, he ended up being the largest contributor. This may have influenced my opinion.)

I read DV and went on relatively unscathed. DV spawned Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), which I found somewhat impressive. Meanwhile, the long moldering Last Dangerous Visions will soon be published. I’ll probably make myself read it.

Meanwhile, while DV didn’t have a strong effect on me, it did seem to have a strong effect on the field. In college, I met other SF readers and many of them thought this collection was world-shaking. It was amazing. It was dangerous.

Really? I thought. More dangerous than Rogue Moon, which examined an alien artifact in a work that seemed to channel Norman Mailer? More dangerous than The Stars My Destination, which as a main character who starts out a rapist and murderer and ends up a tortured saint? More dangerous than From Here to Eternity, which seems to me at this point in my life a deconstruction of the American idea? More dangerous than John Dos Passos? (whom I’d just discovered and thought was world-shaking, amazing, and dangerous. Also since he wrote his best work in the first half of the 20th century, what does that say about me?)

I mean it was a good collection. Several stories won awards. Not all of the stories have aged well—Gonna Roll the Bones could use some really strong editing, is essentially a glorification of a philandering, gambling, wife-beater. I liked it when I was seventeen. Not so much now. A Toy for Juliette, The Doll House, and The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World are essentially hubris stories: where something is given to the main character which ends up destroying the person due to the person’s unthinking arrogance. The ideas surrounding them are interesting but not so the stories themselves. I didn’t like hubris stories in The Twilight Zone. I don’t like them in DV.

Other stories have been overtaken by time. For example, Anderson’s Eutopia, is a somewhat tired story about an alternate world traveler trying to get home. He’s persecuted for mysterious reasons throughout the story until finding his way back to his lover, a boy. (I’m not being facetious. The lover is directly referred to as a “boy” in the story.) This is presented as a surprise but it’s pretty obvious half way through the story.

On the other hand, Spinrad’s Carcinoma’s Angels is pure genius. In this story, the main character is an unrepentant, successful, ambitious businessman struck with cancer. All cures fail and he resolves to tackle his cancer himself, by going inside with a cocktail of hallucinogens. From there on, every battle, encounter, and victory is metaphorical.

I thing the “dangerousness” of DV reflected a lack of understanding of where SF sensibilities resided within the context of the literary world. DV has been described as launching the New Wave approach to characterization in SF. New Wavers considered themselves breaking from the whole pulp, American ideal, SF.

I don’t agree with that self-assessment. The characterizations they discuss were already there in Bester, Budrys, and others in the field, and across the world outside of it.

But my agreement is not important. While I don’t think DV stories are as good as people think, the writers that came after it— Le Guin, Ballard, Delany, and Zelazny as a few examples—are as brilliant as any writers anywhere. I wasn’t much influenced by Ellison or the DV books, but I was inspired by those who were appeared subsequently. If DV enabled their publication, it deserves every honor given it.



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