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Dangerous Visions, 35th Anniversary Edition
edited by Harlan Ellison
ibooks, 544 pages

Dangerous Visions, 35th Anniversary Edition
Harlan Ellison
One of the most acclaimed and prolific writers of the genre, Harlan Ellison has published over 1,300 stories, essays, scripts and reviews. His work has received seven Hugos, three Nebulas and he was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1996.

Harlan Ellison Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Edgeworks 4
SF Site Review: Slippage

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson


Thoughts on the Development of Science Fiction, Part 1

In 1967, Harlan Ellison sought to shake up the science fiction universe with the publication of Dangerous Visions. In many ways, he succeeded. Different ways of telling stories were introduced, writers who might otherwise have escaped the attention of the hardcore SF reader gained a reputation and an audience. But what was the long-term influence of Dangerous Visions? Is science fiction different now than it would have been without Ellison's ambitious anthology? The publication of a 35th Anniversary Edition brings with it not only the chance to remember a milestone of the field, but also to take a look at how science fiction has changed in the thirty-five years since Dangerous Visions was first published.

To a thirteen-year old seventh grader who had, over the previous year, read Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, Robert A. Heinlein's The Past Through Tomorrow, and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, Dangerous Visions had exactly the effect its editor was hoping for. Stories like Philip Jose Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage" and Theodore Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" were filled with images of sex and violence seldom, if ever, found in the SF of the 40s and 50s. The language was also different. The writing was more evocative, especially in its descriptions and focus on the emotional responses of the characters. Surrealism and avant-garde literary stylings had made their mark in other areas, but they were new to science fiction.

In some ways, it is easy to look back and see Dangerous Visions as a divisive force in science fiction. It was at this time that the hard SF/soft SF dichotomy begins to appear. It's also the Vietnam War era, and the young New Wave writers tended to be liberal, left-wing, and against the war. The older writers, generally more conservative, and supportive of the U.S. presence in Vietnam, found themselves being criticized both for their style and for their politics.

This is a generalisation, of course, but it's these kind of generalizations that we first remember when considering past events, and for the next twenty years or so, that division was often true. Hard SF remained the most conservative part of the field, literary experimentation and a pre-occupation with the inner lives of characters was more likely to be found in soft, social science fiction. Hard SF maintained a fascination with technology, and with stories which were in essence more about the speculations they indulged in than they were the characters doing the speculating.

It's amusing, then, to note immediately upon re-encountering Dangerous Visions that some of the best stories in the volume were written not by radical New-Wavers, but by such mainstream SF stalwarts as Lester del Rey, Fritz Leiber, and Larry Niven. The suspicion starts to grow that the real reason Dangerous Visions has earned such a high reputation is not for its stylistic experimentation, but simply because it contained a high number of good ideas turned into good stories. That these writers were consciously seeking new ways of expressing those stories and ideas was an added bonus.

And since Dangerous Visions was successful and influential, the literary experimentation, sexual imagery, and graphic violence in some of the stories is not going to be experienced as new and shocking to someone reading them for the first time now. For that reason, not quite everything holds up to renewed scrutiny. The Jack the Ripper stories read less like psychological horror than exercises in descriptive violence, and stories like Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers," which relied on shocking sex scenes to make their point, now seem less shocking, and have less impact.

The good ones, though, are still very good. Chief among these is Philip K. Dick's "Faith Of Our Fathers," one of the few times Dick manages to work the complexity and reality-inverting scenes of his best novels into a short story. R.A. Lafferty's "Land Of The Great Horses" is simply more proof that Lafferty was an exceptional writer whose work remains hard to classify. And out of all the stories, Samuel R. Delany's "Aye, And Gommorah" may best preview what was eventually to come, science fiction with a technological underpinning that tells its story through character and style.

For Dangerous Visions was part of an attempted revolution in science fiction. Through the New Wave, the methods, styles, and to some extent, standards of mainstream and avante-garde literature would be worked into science fiction. Ellison was not alone in this. Michael Moorcock, Judith Merril and others were also promoting a new way of approaching SF. If they and the New Wave did not entirely revolutionize the way SF was written, (the exploration of an invented world through the use of an adventure plot remains the prototypical SF story outline), they did succeed in pushing the boundaries of what could be considered SF, and their use of stylistic innovations from outside SF helped raise standards. It became less easy for writers to get away with stock characters spouting wooden dialogue laced with technical jargon. Such stories still exist, and are still published, but are no longer typical of the field. That's the reason Dangerous Visions remains important and worth celebrating thirty-five years later. The call for experimentation that Harlan Ellison demanded from the anthologies' contributors resulted in some good stories, some bad, and several that have achieved the status of classics. What Ellison and his fellow writers brought to SF had as much to do with their attitude as it did with their talent, and it was an attitude that opened SF up and helped it to continue to grow beyond its original genre limitations.

For a generation, the main holdout to that attitude, and that sense of style, was hard SF. How that changed over the last fifteen years, and what that change means for the current and future state of science fiction will be taken up in a review of David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's The Hard SF Renaissance.

Copyright © 2003 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson lives in Minneapolis, where the most dangerous vision is the view across the Mississippi River to St. Paul. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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