Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

1967: Dangerous Visions 1 (Ellison, Harlan)

Bold, spastic, and pretentious: Ellison's personal collection (3/5)

Science fiction was entering its Golden Age as it neared the 1940’s and as John W. Campbell started his revolution. Campbell insisted that science fiction cast off its super-scientist, monologue-spewing onus in favor of stories with “real science and real story, with neither one dominating the other” (Asimov, 10). With plausibility came realism, dampening the genre’s prior sense of wonder. In response to this tacit shift of importance, Frederik Pohl brought his own revolution in the 1960’s with new writers carrying with them “the aura of the university, of science and engineering, of slide rule and test tube” (Asimov, 13).

Earlier anthologies have always drawn upon the past for its content and portrayal of subject matter. Here in Dangerous Visions, all stories had been written for the now under the discerning editorship of Harlan Ellison so that the Second Revolution (a proper noun!) can make its impact felt. For the sake of an easy transition from one Revolution to the next Revolution, Isaac Asimov had been invited to pen not one, but TWO forewords for Dangerous Visions: the first outlines, as I have above, the history of science fiction revolution while the second details the relationship between Asimov and Ellison. The 7-page cursory glance at the history of science fiction is disappointingly brief, maybe just long enough not to bore the common reader but detailed enough to sate the appetite of the sci-fi spelunker. Then, the 3-page history of Asimov and Ellison is the first indication that the editor, Harlan Ellison, is taking an all-too-personal take on the anthology, a sensation experienced by the reader which borders on pretentiousness, arrogance or egocentric. (Though I'm probably guilty of the same crime after writing this review.)

This personal inclusion into the editorship mars the experience of reading the stories in a pure, subjective sense. Ellison even pens in the introduction, “Why not let the stories speak for themselves?” (22). The guts, the actual stories, of the first book of Dangerous Visions compromise only 64% of the pages (156 of 243). The other 36% of the book is Asimov’s forewards, Ellison’s own introduction, and each story’s introduction and afterword. I enjoy some insight into a short story, but not two or more pages of backslapping… an all-inclusive paragraph or two would suffice. The authors’ own words in the afterwords are often more enlightening than Ellison’s introduction to the stories.

This does not mean that Ellison’s 13-page introduction to the anthology is dull, loquacious, or hoity-toity; actually, it’s insightful into the history of the realm of speculative fiction, the legitimization of the Revolution, and the making of the anthology. I was smiling through all of it and I even laughed aloud reading Ellison’s take on a letter he received from Robert Silverberg: “He signed the letter ‘Ivar Jorgensen’. But that’s another story” (29).

The original stories were published in a single volume of Dangerous Visions but were later, in 1969, divided into three volumes for the publisher Berkeley Medallion. In 1974, Sphere Books reissued the series with their own covers (with differing US and UK covers). I happen to own the Sphere UK edition.

Without further ado…


del Rey, Lester: Evensong (1967, shortstory) – 5/5 – An image of man finds solace on a small planet after fleeing from the Usurpers—mankind itself. The image of man taught the humans and led them upward even though they are barbaric savages by their very nature. The one planet he lands on also happens to be the Meeting World, a sacred place for humanity. Soon, the image of man is tracked down by humankind’s galactic omnipresence. 5 pages ----- Much like other short, short stories in science fiction, this story relies on a gradual mystery leading up to a punch at the conclusion. While most short, short stories are humorous, this story sides with one of Lester’s penchants. Lester says the story is an allegory but it also stands by its own merit.

Silverberg, Robert: Flies (1967, shortstory) – 5/5 – His fellow crewmen killed and his ship disabled, a broken man is saved and regrown by the Golden Ones on the Saturnine moon of Iapetus. Going beyond mere repair, they also “improve” the mind of Richard Henry Cassidy, but the improvement of heightened sensitivity to others’ needs runs awry back on Earth. Visiting his three ex-wives, Cassidy destroys the very crutch that each cling to, actions which dismay the Golden Ones, who request Cassidy to return for adjustment. 11 pages ----- Possibly the FIRST Silverberg story that I’ve actually enjoyed! I don’t think it’s “most penetrating, most originally-written” (52) story, as Ellison orates in ink, but it embodies dichotomous themes: cruel yet humble, emotional yet distant. I don’t think aliens, like the Golden Ones in Silverberg’s story, could understand the diversity of human sympathy; Richard could have been exhibiting his own subjective form of sympathy rather than the objective form which the aliens, and the vast majority of humanity, expect.

Pohl, Frederik: The Day After the Martians Came (1967, shortstory) – 4/5 – Mr. Mandala’s hotel’s rooms are full as are the cots which each room is provided. Based around Cape Canaveral, Mr. Mandala owes the surge in occupancy to the Mars probe’s hitchhikers—alien life that resemble droopy dachshunds yet exhibit intelligence. The news crews occupying the hotel exchange bawdy and racial jokes about the aliens’ existence, which soon unnerve the hotel owner and alters his perceptions of personal and human sympathy. 8 pages ----- Ellison says the story “handles a terribly complex problem in the most basic, nitty-gritty terms” (67) but really Pohl is simply projecting a 1960’s cultural norm onto that of a future possibility. I don’t think Pohl really went “for the jugular” (68), as Ellison saith, because the build up to the conclusion is fairly obvious. The impact is also deadened for the reader in this decade rather than those who had read it forty-six years ago.

Farmer, Philip José: Riders of the Purple Wage (1967, novella) – 0/5 – Shit. 78 pages ---- I’ve said this time and time again: If a book or story is loaded with praise, prepare yourself to be disappointed. Here, Ellison’s praise borders on idolatry, religious reverence: “richness of thought and excellence of structure … demands of the reader a kind of intellectual mastication reserved for the best in literature”. This is an absurdly pretentious statement and reflects the pretentiousness which Ellison includes in his anthology introduction, each story’s introduction, and the inclusion of his own story later in the collection. I’m a fan of the bizarre and the twisted, but when the ludicrous structure, chaotic spasticity, and jumbled garbage of the story distracts from the core of the plot, I can’t help but relinquish attention after reading only 20% of the story. I tried, honestly. I’ve wrapped my head around Heller’s Catch-22, deconstructed Golding’s TheLord of the Flies, swam in the inanity of Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland, absorbed Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, reminisced with Updike’s Rabbit, Run, and supported the Socialist agenda of Sinclair’s The Jungle. Farmer’s inclusion in Dangerous Visions 1 offers nothing to the whole because, on the microscopic level, there’s no substance in the story itself aside from one man’s mental diarrhea and one editor’s high opinion of himself and his friends. (I’m sure many people love this story and would consider my own opinion to be ignorant dysentery. Fuck it.)

deFord, Miriam Allen: The Malley System (1967, shortstory) – 4/5 – Five individuals live their respective violent fantasies of rape, assault, murder, amputation, and cannibalism. These fantasies are repeated into the minds of the same prisoners in 2083, where Lachim Malley has devised the therapeutic process of numbing the perpetrator’s to their own crime, thereby lessening the urge to commit the same heinous act again; however, though there are no repeat offenders, the resulting stability of the rehabilitated prisoner is in question. 9 pages ----- I’m not sure whether the reformation of the penal system or the rehabilitation mechanism is the “dangerous vision” here, but certainly the opening scene of the rape and murder of a child is… eye-opening. Dark visions of humankind’s inadequacies are one thing, but this really pushes the envelope. Thankfully, deFord gives the story a decent structure and legitimizes the barbaric opening scene. This story isn’t the most dangerous vision in the collection, but it certainly isn’t one for the faint of heart.

Bloch, Robert: A Toy for Juliette (1967, shortstory) – 4/5 – Earth’s population has been reduced from three billion persons to a mere three thousand. The brutality of man is the course of its own destruction, a brutality which survives in the heart of Juliette, granddaughter of the owner of the Visitor—a device used to visit the past. Historical observations are passed over for casual kidnapping, a gift for his granddaughter in order for her to indulge in her hobby—human torture.  8 pages ----- Ellison indulges himself with an 8-page introduction for an 8-page story. It’s a dark vision of the future with a shared penchant of Bloch’s and Ellison’s, but it’s not really a social struggle or push for reform; the vision is merely a passing whim of self-interest and disconnected with all the other stories in the collection, aside from Ellison’s own entry which follows. So, Bloch’s inclusion in this collection is just a 16-page introduction (8 pages of intro plus 8 pages of story) for Ellison’s own 24-page novelette.

Ellison, Harlan: The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World (1967, novelette) – 3/5 – Retrieved from 1888, Jack the Ripper is confronted with an incomprehensible city and the unfathomable motivations of the city’s people in 3077. Wiping his memory of its future experience, the city’s people send him back in order to vicariously experience the murder and dissection of yet another victim. One man’s enjoyment piques Jack’s awareness, yanking him back to the future, where his bloodlust is soon unleashed on the future city. 24 pages ----- I enjoy stories of bloodlust and murder. I enjoy the dark element of human nature in horror stories versus the typical supernatural horror in many stories. This isn’t so much a “dangerous vision” as it is a dark portrayal of a serial killer in the past and his displacement in the future. It’s also a mere whim of Ellison’s which he feels deserves a place among the much better stories of Pohl, Silverberg, and del Ray. I understand that Jack the Ripper is a historical curiosity, but I don’t feel that the subjectively fanciful subject deserves 47 pages of the 242-page book.

Aldiss, Brian W.: The Night that All Time Broke Out (1967, shortstory) – 3/5 – Beneath the bucolic English village of Rouseville sits a massive deposit of time gas. Recently commercialized, the gas can be piped into one’s own home, such as Tracey and Fifi have done. Reliving a lobster dinner from the past, a malfunction at the time gas plant causes them to sickingly experience the flavors of meals in rapid sequence. The two exhibit childish behavior, due to the time regression, as the rest of the village sinks through the centuries.  13 pages ----- Perhaps a “dangerous vision” of the commercialism of nostalgia, the whole story is quite unlike the other stories in the first volume of Dangerous Visions. “The Night that All Time Broke Out” is yet another part of Aldiss’s diverse range of short stories, a diversity best showcased in The Saliva Tree (1965). Ellison’s introduction is for this story is only 2 pages long, a majority of which is in Aldiss’s own words. Though only 2 pages long, Ellison mentions once and Aldiss mentions twice of Aldiss’s recent divorce… perhaps this was his conscious or unconscious motivation to have his characters of Tracey and Fifi relive their early days love again; though Tracey hints at his own touch of hebephilia when Fifi suggests they relive their romance as children. That’s a one line eyebrow raiser rather than a full blown “dangerous vision”.

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