Dangerous Visions : The 35th Anniversary Edition

Dangerous Visions - Harlan Ellison, Brian W. Aldiss, Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard, Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, Damon Knight, Frederik Pohl, R.A. Lafferty, Philip K. Dick, Philip José Farmer, John Brunner, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Robert Bloch, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon, Carol I bought this collection of 33 science fiction stories because it was recommended in A Reader's Guide to Science Fiction on its "5 Parsec Shelf" of the best books in the genre. Here's what it said about the book: Anthologies, no matter how excellent, have seldom had enough impact to be "classics." But the first Dangerous Visions, edited by Ellison, was not only a wonderful sampling of the writers working in the exciting late '60s, it revolutionized science fiction in the matter of attacking more controversial subject matter. It further claimed the book "revived the moribund science fiction short story as a form" by publishing "stories considered unpublishable by the American magazines." In his introduction, Harlan Ellison, said his purpose was to publish "taboo" stories, "all new stories, controversial, too fierce for magazines to buy... a canvas for new writing styles, bold departures, unpopular thoughts." In other words, dangerous visions, particularly dealing with religion, politics, violence or sex. I've been a huge science fiction fan since childhood--especially of the science fiction short story, because at its best it's mind-expanding. I looked at the night sky with fresh awe after reading Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall;" his "The Dead Past" made me see the very nature of time in a new way. Stories such as Vernor Vinge's "The Ungoverned" made me think about the limits of freedom. Did any of the stories in this anthology work the same magic for me? Decidedly not. Maybe these stories were shocking or groundbreaking in 1967 when they were published. But in 2012? Even for 1967, I thought very few of these stories were innovative or thought-provoking. About a good third of the stories I couldn't for the life of me see what could have ever been controversial. Several stories such as Larry Niven's "Jigsaw Man," Henry Slesar's "Ersatz" and John Sladek's "The Happy Breed" seemed ridiculous to me, all the more for the sober afterwords of Niven and Sladek insisting this could be our near future. After 45 years, I'd say the near future has arrived--and doesn't look anything like what they feared. Take the first seven stories that comprise about a quarter of the book. Lester del Rey's "Evensong" opens the anthology and tackles religion. I thought frankly Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" published in Infinity Science Fiction in 1955 and C.L. Moore's "Fruit of Knowledge" published in Unknown in 1940 are both more provocative, more subversive--and much more memorable. (Ditto regarding almost all the other stories with religious themes such as Damon Knight's "Shall the Dust Praise Thee," Jonathan Brand's "Encounter With a Hick," and John Brunner's "Judas.") Robert Silverberg's "Flies" has some gut-wrenching misogynist violence that I could see making it hard to place with a magazine editor, but I didn't think the story had enough payoff to justify the content. Frederik Pohl's "The Day After the Martians Came" examined the potentially explosive issue of race--puerilely. Ray Bradbury's "Way in the Middle of the Air" published in Other Worlds in 1950 and later included in The Martian Chronicles is much more incisive and provocative on the subject. The next story is Philip Jose Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage." In his introduction to the story Ellison said this is not just the longest story in the anthology at over 30,000 words, but the "best" and the "finest." So, I started the first few paragraphs. And reread. And reread. Really trying to comprehend what I was reading. And by and large failing. Yet increasingly suspecting Farmer was trying to imitate James Joyce. This was solidified when I turned the page to read more. I flipped towards the end of the story and saw its last chapter was titled "Winnegan's Fake." You know, I really hated James Joyce's Ulysses, but at least I could respect it as innovative, original, and erudite. But when you're copying a style rolled out in 1922 in a 1967 story, as unpopular as the style might be, you're not being "new" or "bold." I skipped the rest of that story, because I hated the style fiercely. Thus what Ellison pointed to as the best story in the book would be the first I left unfinished. Not a good sign. Then the next story, Miriam Allen deFord's "The Malley System" didn't so much shock me as nauseate me with its depiction of child rape. The next two stories by Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison inspired by Marquis de Sade and Jack the Ripper also hit my ewwwww spot. My reactions to these stories encapsulated my reaction to most of the book--a so-what shrug or a gag reflex or a huh???--at times evoked simultaneously in the same story. I'm not impressed by writers trying to shock for its own sake. Reading many of these I was struck that "censorship" or "taboo" is often just another word for good taste, and if some of these stories couldn't find homes in magazines, it's to their editors credit. And it's science fiction's optimistic inspiring side that hooked me, not this dark, depressing strand. Many of the stories were more horror than science fiction. Nor am I a fan of the '60s counterculture or by and large of modernist literary techniques. But the hell of it is given this is an anthology comprised of different authors, I didn't feel I could just drop it after 50 to 100 pages as I would have were it a novel. I kept hoping for stories to love, especially since there were authors (including Farmer) on the contents page who had written stories or novels I'd enjoyed. For what it's worth, these were for me the standout stories in the order they appeared: Philip Dick, "Faith of Our Fathers" - one of the few stories dealing with a religious theme that felt fresh and not predictable. It was more than a bit chilling in a horror story way. Fritz Leiber, "Gonna Roll the Bones" - a truly chilling horror story well-told--but with more than a dollop of black humor--and humor was rare in this collection. I couldn't see what would be controversial about it though. Poul Anderson, "Eutopia" - the ending I saw a long way off--but this not only had style but an intriguing set of alternate universes it would have been fun to explore further. James Cross, "The Doll-House" - a horror story that would have made Poe or Hawthorne proud. Though another where I'm missing what makes it "edgy" in any way. Keith Laumer, "Test to Destruction" - I liked the ironic twist in the tale at the end. Again, not getting what would have made this at all controversial. Norman Spinrad, "Carcinoma Angels" - I thought it started off both infodumpy and Marty Stu--but it surprised me in the end. A horror tale I could see Stephen King proudly owning, yet another I can hardly see as shocking or controversial. Samuel Delany, "Aye, and Gomorrah..." - Delany in the afterword called it essentially a horror story--but one I found rather poignant in a way I found rare in this anthology. And hey, it takes genius to invent a new sexual perversion! Worth my buying and keeping the book on my shelves for those seven stories? I don't think so. Incidentally, I often found Ellison's introductions to stories off-putting and over-lengthy (in one case I noted it was longer than the story it was introducing) so about midway I started skipping them. They often seemed more about him than the story, and about sucking up to the authors when he wasn't being condescending. In particular, were I Miriam deFord, I'd have wanted to beat Ellison over the head with the book--the hardcover version.