Friday, February 8, 2008

Review - Dangerous Visions

Dangerous Visions
Edited by Harlan Ellison
1968 Special Hugo Award

I mentioned in my Neuromancer review that the book was a revolution that touched almost all corners of science fiction. It wasn't the first, though. Star Wars, for example, has had a profound influence on what people expect from science fiction. But even before then there was another revolution, one so successful that most readers don't even know it occurred.

For a long time the magazine editors were essentially the gatekeepers of science fiction. If this tiny handful of people didn't care for a work then it never saw print and their tastes were firmly set on certain styles (typically a very pulpy 1930 style). It was difficult for many stories to find a place because of this. In the mid-sixties the tastes of the current audience were changing and what authors were writing was changing but those editors were not. Harlan Ellison, one of those authors who was having problems with these editors, decided to put together an anthology of stories too "dangerous" to see print. He told authors to send him their most extreme material and he assembled this massive book containing thirty-three stories from thirty-two different authors that laid out new styles and touched subjects that were being avoided.

It was wildly successful. More than just being a hit with readers the real impact was behind the scenes where those gatekeepers realized that people did want more and so started accepting works that were more like what Ellison had encouraged. Science fiction would never be the same.

I think it is fair to say that if Ellison hadn't set down this manifesto the changes in style would have seeped into the genre through other methods. All of the new wave writers were pushing the existing boundaries and that erosion would have won out eventually. What Dangerous Visions did was mark a moment in time where we can say before it the editors were more restrictive on what they would accept and after it they realized how much more science fiction fans wanted.

So it was very important but the question then becomes was it any good. Some of the stories are, some aren't, and many of the stories are trying too hard to be "dangerous" and read like adolescent ranting. There's not a single story in the volume that I would still consider dangerous, the restrictions are gone and the shock value is lost.

Most of the stories are very short. Two stories that run over forty pages push the average up to around ten pages, but the mean is closer to four. Ellison's introductions are often close to the length of the story itself. Those introductions and the author's afterwords range from fascinating portraits of the authors involved to dull self-aggrandizement. Phillip K. Dick's is especially depressing as Ellison comments that Dick's heavy drug use has not impaired him like it has some others.

So let me hit the stories in one sentence comments. For simplicity's sake I'm going to flag the ones I enjoyed in a BOLD GREEN while ones I did not in a BOLD RED:

"Evensong" by Lester del Rey - A dull religious allegory that wastes its time by trying to conceal the very obvious plot twist.

"Flies" by Robert Silverburg - A creepy and brutal tale of a man given great power by aliens and how it changes him.

"The Day After the Day the Martians Came" by Frederik Pohl - The reactions of some people to a new race are cleverly examined.

"Riders of the Purple Wage" by Phillip José Farmer - The Hugo winning story which I didn't like; a weak Joyce pastiche where the style for a hundred pages gives me a headache despite the interesting ideas.

"The Malley System" by Miriam Allen deFord - This story about punishing psychopaths by giving them exactly what they want starts with some strong imagery but the resolution is less subtle than a hot pink elephant in a library.

"A Toy for Juliette" by Robert Bloch - A time traveling serial killer picks up the wrong guy from 1889 London in this cute story which succeeds despite the fact that even Bloch has gone to this source repeatedly.

"The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World" by Harlan Ellison - This is a sequel to the previous story that takes it in another direction as the prowler stalks a civilization as cruel as himself.

"The Night that All Time Broke Out" by Brian W. Aldiss - A fun gag story about a problem with a system that let's people really live in their past.

"The Man Who Went to the Moon - Twice" by Howard Rodman - The most out of place story in the anthology, this charming fable of tale telling is very enjoyable.

"Faith of Our Fathers" by Phillip K. Dick - This story is what you'd get if H. P. Lovecraft wrote espionage stories in a hallucinogenic haze.

"The Jigsaw Man" by Larry Niven - Organ transplant banks lead to new opinions on the application of capital punishment in this implausible but fun story.

"Gonna Roll Them Bones" by Fritz Leiber - Another Hugo winning story but this tale of a very high stakes dice game is much better than the other winner.

"Lord Randy, My Son" by Joe L. Hensley - A dying man's son is the next messiah in this flat story.

"Eutopia" by Poul Anderson - A man from an alternate world where Alexander the Great's empire never failed gets in trouble for violating sexual taboos which winds up being duller than it sounds.

"Incident in Moderan" by David R. Bunch - It's a one-note story but it does that one-note, a misinterpretation of a brief truce in a war, very well.

"The Escaping" by David R. Brunch - "The Ox-Bow Incident" on LSD which removes the coherence of the original.

"The Doll-House" by James Cross - I didn't care for this tale of a man who gets access to a Greek oracle which had good moments but the resolution was rather trite.

"Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" by Carol Emshwiller - The awkward point-of-view harms this story of a person trying to determine the gender of her neighbor.

"Shall the Dust Praise Thee" by Damon Knight - I'll give Knight points for style in this telling of a Biblical Armageddon but the whole thing just comes across as just an angry rant.

"If All Men are Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister" by Theodore Sturgeon - Removal of all sexual taboos is the key to making everyone healthy and happy in this tale. (And on that subject, why is in the stories about how free love will fix everything that it's only free love of multiple hot women throwing themselves at the uptight men? I've read that theme about a dozen times and it just keeps getting creepier ever time.)

"What Happened to Auguste Clarot?" by Larry Eisenburg - I think this story about the disappearance of a famous chemist is supposed to be humorous but I didn't find it funny at all.

"Ersatz" by Henry Slesar - This gag story about people making substitutions in times of need on the other hand put a smile on my face.

"Go, Go, Go Said the Bird" by Sonya Dorman - Cannibalism is the focus of this disturbing tale.

"The Happy Breed" by John T. Sladek - It's predictable that a utopia where everyone is kept perfectly comfortable is also one no one is allowed any risk but it is told very well.

"Encounter With a Hick" by Jonathan Brand - Yet another joke story; this time I liked the joke about a theologian's encounter with the son of a world builder but didn't care for the style of the telling.

"From the Government Printing Office" by Kris Neville - The unique point of view of a three year old child makes this story about raising better children very interesting.

"Land of the Great Horses" by R. A. Lafferty - A mysterious land appears to give home to wanderers but despite the clever premise the story just feels half told.

"The Recognition" by J. G. Ballard - An twisted circus comes to town and the results are very predictable and it takes far too long to build up to its point.

"Judas" by John Brunner - The creator of an android that has established itself as God returns to shut it down with some very clumsy Christian iconography.

"Test to Destruction" by Keith Laumer - A revolutionary fights aliens on the battlefield of his mind to demonstrate the limits of humanity in this story which just wasn't that interesting.

"Carcinoma Angels" by Norman Spinrad - The build up of a man who can accomplish nearly anything is entertaining but the story descends into a drug trip for the second half and I just stopped caring.

"Auto-Da-Fé" by Roger Zelazny - This simple story of an autodor (think matador but with living cars) is wonderfully told.

"Aye, and Gamorrah..." by Samuel R. Delany - The sexual practices of the sexless is the focus of the final story in book and the exploration of those connections is very interesting.

One final bit of bragging about this. I purchased my copy from a used book dealer for just a few dollars and when I received it I found that someone had scribbled on one of the first pages. On closer examination I saw that the beginning looked like an "H". Yes, I got an autographed, hard cover edition of this key work for less than five dollars. Some days you just get lucky.