The Future of the Fantastic: Dangerous Visions

Dangerous Visions
Edited By Harlan Ellison, iBooks, inc, 544pp, $14.95

Note added 2012:

In retrospect, there are two things I'd like to change about this essay. One is the line accusing Ellison of putting Pohl and Knight in there because of sf-family nepotism. This completely ignores the fact that they were much lauded and well established authors at the time, and so might have been included on the strength of their reputations. Which exposes my ignorance: at the time I wrote this, I'd never heard of Pohl or Knight.

Second, I completely ignore Samuel Delany's story "Aye, and Gomorrah". In retrospect, this story is quite good, and it's whole meditation on sexual perversion was really novel and interesting for the time.

One of the things that comes across clearly in the various introductions to the stories in Dangerous Visions, the anthology that defined the "New Wave" of speculative fiction in the 1960's, is that these aren't just writers to Harlan Ellison, but to a large degree they are friends. Even those writers Ellison isn't close to seem part of an extended family, and Ellison admits at one point that he only accepted two stories for the anthology from people he'd never heard of (submissions that were sent to him by agents). On the one hand, this speaks volumes about the sort of collegiality that existed in sf at the time (and in all probability still exists). On the other hand, it makes for an anthology that reads exactly like someone getting stuff from all his friends together whether or not that stuff is actually particularly good.

One of the things that comes across clearly in the various introductions to the stories in Dangerous Visions, the anthology that defined the "New Wave" of speculative fiction in the 1960's, is that these aren't just writers to Harlan Ellison, but to a large degree they are friends. Even those writers Ellison isn't close to seem part of an extended family, and Ellison admits at one point that he only accepted two stories for the anthology from people he'd never heard of (submissions that were sent to him by agents). On the one hand, this speaks volumes about the sort of collegiality that existed in sf at the time (and in all probability still exists). On the other hand, it makes for an anthology that reads exactly like someone getting stuff from all his friends together whether or not that stuff is actually particularly good.

Not that there aren't fine stories in here. In particular, Philip José Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage" is correctly identified by Ellison as being the best in the collection. The story seems like nothing less then Pynchon-does-the-future, and its absurdities, asides, digressions and interpolated texts come together in a stunning satire of western life. Notable too is Philip K. Dick's story "Faith of our Fathers" which treats of the permeability of reality, totalitarianism, free will and the question of belief in a story from his creative peak. Interesting stories are also in the offing from Carol Emshwiller and Harlon Ellison himself, as well as a few stories that are just fun from writers like Howard Rodman, Poul Anderson and James Cross (whose "The Doll-House" reminds me of the kind of thing Neil Gaimen would come up with, many years later). However in a 544 page anthology, this wheat is buried depressingly among the chaff, in one after another trite, one-note story in dry, uninspired prose. If Ellison is really trying to convince us that sf writers deserve to be put alongside John Updike and Saul Bellow, he's not doing a very good job. The placement of a story like Frederik Pohl's "The Day After the Day the Martians Came," which clumsily grasps for a comparison between aliens and black people, or Damon Knight's "Shall the Dust Praise Thee?" which reads like a teenager's complaint about bad things happening to good people, can only be explained by a kind of sf-family nepotism.

However, the most notable feature of this anthology is the aforementioned introductions by Ellison proceeding each and every story, and the accompanying end notes by the authors themselves. This abundance of material creates a fascinating snapshot of the sf community in the late sixties. Great fun certainly are Ellison's own anecdotes about insulting Isaac Asimov at a con or how Joe L. Hensley saved his bacon and was an all-around badass. But moreover, the anxieties and preoccupations of the writers at the time give us an idea of just what kind of community this was. Carol Emshwiller ponders why adults are so prudish that ballet dancers have to wear "naked" suits, rather than simply dance in the nude. Philip K. Dick postulates "What if, through psychedelic drugs, the religious experience becomes commonplace in the life of intellectuals? ... Science fiction, always probing what is about to be thought, become, must eventually tackle without preconceptions a future neo-mystical society in which theology constitutes as major a force as in the medieval period." Larry Niven, whose story "The Jigsaw Man" posits a future where people are given the death penalty for frivolous crimes so that their organs can be harvested to keep other people alive, writes:

The good side of organ transplantation is very good indeed. As long as the organ banks don't run short of materials, any citizen can live as long as his central nervous system hols out, since the doctors can keep shoving spare parts into him as fast as the old ones wear out. How long can the brain live with a dependable youthful blood supply? It's your guess. I say centuries.

But with centries of life at stake, what citizen will vote against the death penalty for: false advertising, habitual jaywalking, rudeness, cheating on income tax, having children without a license? Or (and here's the real danger) criticizing government policy? Given the organ banks, "The Jigsaw Man" is a glimpse into the best of possible futures. The worst is a never-ending dictatorship.

Before we accuse Larry Niven of, um, insanity, let's just remember it was the sixties. People were running around spouting all kinds of crazy things in the sixties, and as these afterwards evince, sf writers, whose main activity involved thinking of outlandish possibilities, were among the most likely to be swept up in the rush.

But if Larry Niven gives an example of mild insanity and paranoia, then Theodore Sturgeon is psychotic. Sturgeon's story, "If All Men Were Brothers, Would you Let One Marry Your Sister," is about a utopian planet where love is so free it includes incest and pederasty. "How does being aroused harm a child?" asks Sturgeon, and thus his arguments both in the story and afterward read like the propaganda of the National Man/Boy Love Association. And this from a figure so well regarded in sf that he has an award named after him.

But it's important to remember that Sturgeon wasn't the only person espousing these sorts of ideas in the sixties. A year after Dangerous Minds was published, the Children of God was founded, a cult that, like Sturgeon, advocated incest and child abuse (and used a kind of prostitution to attract converts and money). River Phoenix, who was raised in the group, stated that he lost his virginity at the age of four. Which is all to say that Sturgeon gives us a chilling example of how some of the more extreme lines of thought that came out of the freewheeling sixties seriously screwed up a lot of people's lives.

If you just want to read good stories*, find a copy of this book in the library or bookstore and read the Farmer story, the Dick, the Emshwiller, Ellison, Rodman, Anderson and Cross stories, and feel confident you haven't missed out on much. If you want to get a snapshot of a moment in time when a small community of people with some kooky ideas tried to show the world what they were made of and how they could be "dangerous," read the book all the way through. Because really it's as a snapshot that this book is most interesting.

* This originally read "good sf stories," but then I realized that this categorized them in a way that was antithetical to my whole objection that genre labels do more harm than good. The "sf" tacked on there seemed almost like a pejorative, a way of saying they're still not as a good as "regular" stories, but good for their type, or for people who like that sort of thing. Which is not the case, and not what I was trying to say. These are good stories and worth reading by anyone.