Dangerous Visions, editted by Harlan Ellison
Synopsis: One of the best-known and most-praised anthologies in Science Fiction.
Book Review: Well now. This was interesting.
Every anthology is a wide variety of hits and misses, and what hits and what misses will vary from reader to reader. Also, it’s been nearly 50 years since this was first published, and the world has changed significantly. But all in all, reading this, I had no idea why this anthology was a big deal. Every single story was either a Tomato Surprise – a short setup with a Gotcha Twist at the end, ala Twilight Zone; or else a story that went nowhere and did nothing and honestly isn’t really a story at all, it’s just an interesting world-building idea without any legs.
Which is weird, because it won so many awards. Stories from this collection won Hugos for Best Novella and Best Novelette, and a Nebula for Best Short Story. So I’ll touch on those three.
Best Short Story winner was “Aye, and Gomorrah…” is written with a lot of soul, as one would expect from Delany. The prose is elegant, and it leaves you with a melancholy feeling of loneliness. But the plot can be summarized as “Some people are asexual, and some other people fetishize asexuals.” I guess that saying this 50 years ago was a big deal, but… it’s not anymore. I kept expecting some sort of character development or plot movement, but there was none.
Best Novelette was “Gonna Roll the Bones.” It had very compelling visual descriptions, and great emotional action, centering around a gambler with amazing skills going up against Death (or possibly the Devil). But, again, nothing happens. It’s exciting while you read it, but there’s no there there. Also, it turns out in the end that It Was All A Dream. So why did I even bother reading it?
Best Novella was “Riders of the Purple Wage,” and BOY do I have mixed feelings about this one. The prose is lurid and beautiful and really just to die for. OMG so pretty. It’s got the borderline schizophrenic quality that puts the whole world out of tilt, which I loved so much when I read Vellum. It is like James Joyce, except with a purpose and drive, instead of just literary masturbation. I was in love with this for the first half.
And it portrays a post-scarcity society where yeah, OK, most people just sit around and watch TV, but there are some bright parts to it, some people working to improve the human race. Except… the further you read, the less that looks to be the case. EVERYONE is a jerk-off doing nothing except squandering their lives. Everyone is incompetent, immature, and nasty. It’s humanity at its most petty and distasteful. Our protagonist is supposed to be one of the exceptions, actually pursuing something of value. But then a girl he barely knows refuses to be his personal baby-incubator, and he gets so pissed off that he sexually assaults her with a spermicide container. This sexual assault goes on for PAGES, and it’s played for laughs. She says later that she was unable to walk without pain for over a week, and the whole assault is written as a nearly slap-stick comedy. I guess back in that era most people still thought that a husband threatening to pummel his wife was hilarious, so why should this be different? Damn it left me with such a sick taste in my mouth. THIS is the best of humanity? We, the reader, were being invited to view all humans as the worst sort of Jerry Springer guests, and to laugh at their lower-class mouth-breathing idiocy. Even just talking about it infuriates me.
Anyway, not all stories were that bad, but many of them were. Either just plain bad as stories, or grossly misogynistic or misanthropic. So what’s the deal?
The SF historian of our group let us know what the deal was. Before this, there was only one type of SF. The straight Golden Age narrative. Great Men do Great Things. Whether via Science or Integrity or some other High Virtue, the straight-laced protagonist advances through adversity and rescues humanity. There wasn’t much literary artistry, the plots were fairly simple, the morality was fairly simple, and the whole genre was viewed as inferior tripe by the literati. Very much the way most people roll their eyes and snicker nowadays when they talk about Fan Fiction.
In the 60s this had started to change. Borders were being pushed. Exciting new ideas were being explored. The prose was moving from “functional” to “beautiful”, at least among those writers who were into that sort of thing.
But the Old Guard were unhappy with this sort of change. And the outside world still held their noses. The stimga of simplistic Flash Gordon-style fiction was hard to shake.
So Harlan Ellison put out “Dangerous Visions” partly as a big “Fuck You” to everyone who thought SF couldn’t do experimental, beautiful, and uncomfortable things. It had prose to rival anything Lit Fic had on tap. It had stories that didn’t do much, except show off what COULD be done. It was a display of literary showmanship. Whenever someone was confronted with “Ugh, you read that childish tripe? Why don’t you read real literature?” they could point to this anthology and say “Read this you sonovabitch, and update your decrepit old opinions!”
It serves that purpose well. But it’s also a weapon that was used in a fight that’s half a century in our past. It’s not very relevant to the present day, and the world has moved on to such a point that much of it is unpalatable. As a foundation of the growth of my genre, a herald of what SF can do, I have tons of respect for this anthology. I acknowledge and appreciate the work my elders have done to get us to were we are. “The Shoulders of Giants,” etc. I’m thankful for this anthology, and the battles it fought.
That being said, if you are into SF history and retracing our progression – sure, Recommended. For any other purpose (general reading, etc) – Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: Every year after we finish reading the Hugo shorts, we say “This was really fun, and quite different! We should do it more often!” And this year we finally did! It was great to switch things up with short stories, rather than a novel. We’re glad we did this, and the shake up to the format was welcome.
The anthology itself led to a fair bit of conversation. Everyone liked different things, and recommended different stories. I’m going to go back and read several that I had skipped in the interest of time (and due to being kinda disgusted and disinterested in the anthology as a whole). There was a fair bit of comparison of notes (“You liked X? WTF, pls explain why, that’s crazy!”), as well as the excitement of bringing something cool you found to the attention of others. And we got to talk about both the growth of SF, and the changes in society overall.
Still, I’m not sure this anthology really fits an SF reading group, unless everyone there is OK with horror. I would’ve been more prepared for some of this crap if it had been marketed as a horror anthology. Seriously, lots of sexual violence. And in almost every case, no real pay off for it. :/ Unless your group is really sure – Not Recommended.