Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions Edited by Harlan Ellison: A Perspective

Out of the blue, “Dangerous Visions” and “Again Dangerous Visions” returned to me.  I had wanted to get my youngest son out of the house for a while on a Saturday, seeing that I spend so much time working at a keyboard and he spends so much time at a PlayStation, and so I suggested we take a bus to a used book store and peruse the merchandise.  Fine by him, especially because this particular store also has used games and DVDs.  In the science fiction section I found excellent copies of the old Signet $1.95 editions of “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions: Part 1” on sale for half price.  They must have just arrived on the shelf; I knew they wouldn’t remain there for long.  You can’t go wrong for a buck apiece.

I had been thinking about “Dangerous Visions” just recently when I attended the small Clarion West connected science fiction convention known as Potlatch.  Instead of guests of honor, it is a Potlatch tradition to have books of honor, and at the closing meeting the organizers normally ask attendees for suggestions about the next honored book.  I had a few ideas, and one of them I came up with was to reread “Dangerous Visions” and discuss whether it was still dangerous.  Back in 1967 when it was first published it was groundbreaking, but how would it hold up now?  Alas, I was unable to offer my suggestion, as the Potlatch organizers said they were tired of administrating the convention year after year and there might not be a Potlatch the following year.

But “Dangerous Visions” would not remain obscure.  It asserted itself at the used bookstore.  So I took the two books, brought them home, and I have been reading some of the introductions and stories.  Not all of them, for they are large volumes and there is so much to read.  The introductions alone, if you took out the stories, would practically be a book in themselves.  This was Harlan Ellison’s brainchild, and an obvious labor of love.  He invested far more time and money in these anthologies than an editor normally would, because instead of merely bringing another book into the world, he wanted to start a revolution.  Back in the late sixties, the book accomplished its task.  It was radical, cutting edge, controversial.  It won special awards as an anthology and numerous awards for the individual stories inside.

As far as the quality of the stories themselves, I would say they are on par with the selection of any original anthology of the era.  There are good stories, so-so stories, and some stories that do not hold up well at all.  The power of “Dangerous Visions” was not so much in the literary quality of the stories but in their content.  Ellison specifically sought stories with edgy subject matter, stories that for the most part were unpublishable in the science fiction magazines of the era.  As such, most of the stories focus on various aspects of sex, theology, and politically unpopular mores.

Some stories that were radical then are blasé now.  Others continue to hold their sharp, biting flavor no matter how many times they are reread.  Some are and will always be classics, such as “Aye, and Gomorrah…” by Samuel R. Delaney, “Gonna Roll the Bones” by Fritz Leiber, “The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula K. Le Guin, “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ, and “The Milk of Paradise” by James Tiptree, Jr.

The “Dangerous Visions” volumes had added significance for those attending the Clarion and Clarion West science fiction writing workshops in the late sixties and early seventies.  The workshops were six weeks in duration, with different guest writer or editor teachers each week.  The attendees relished their time with all the pros, but when Ellison arrived it was different.  He was at his zenith as an influence in the genre and was winning awards right and left.  He was always entertaining, energetic, vitriolic, and erudite, and he put on the best show at the closing lecture and presentation that each visiting writer gave.  But in addition to all that, Harlan Ellison was actively seeking stories for the next “Dangerous Visions” volume, and everyone wanted to be a part of it.  Personally, I didn’t come even remotely close, but others would save up their best stories for Ellison’s week, hoping that he would look favorably on them.  Never one to mince words, if Ellison thought the story was crap he would trash it soundly, but sometimes, not often, he would express interest, possibly request a rewrite, and then buy it.  That’s what we all longed for.

The “Dangerous Visions” era, also known as the New Wave, is long gone.  Many of the freedoms writers fought for back then are readily available.  Consider, for example, the publication of “Spar” by Kij Johnson in a mainstream online magazine.  That story would have been good “Dangerous Visions” material.  The point is, though, that “Dangerous Visions” did it first.  Although it may not be as radical now as it was then, its value to the field is inestimable.  It accomplished its iconoclastic goal of shattering then-prevalent taboos and opened up the field to diversity of expression.  It was an important, risky, but ultimately worthwhile first step.

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