Harlan Ellison (ed.) Dangerous Visions (1967)

Dangerous Visions is an anthology of speculative short fiction published in 1967.

This book is often described as “ground breaking” and I’ve been meaning to read it for a long time. I’m a bit surprised to report that it disappointed me. I expected the stories to be dated by now and I was prepared for the general tone to be dudely – there are only three female authors represented. I also found the quality more uneven than I expected; plus too many of the stories were turn-offs for various reasons.

I wasn’t expecting quite such a broad definition of ‘science fiction’.  Quite a few of these stories would be just as comfortably placed in horror anthologies.  J. G. Ballard’s ‘The Recognition’, for instance, is a good story, but I can’t really see what defines it as science fiction as opposed to horror. Howard Rodman’s ‘The Man who Went to the Moon Twice’ could fit happily in a realist anthology. The high level of horror probably isn’t surprising when you think that the Vietnam War was going on at the time of publication and I guess the point of this anthology was to blur the boundaries between “serious literature” and science fiction.

The stories I disliked the most are the ones written in that super-clever, self-aware, satirical 1960s style (Philip Jose Farmer’s ‘Riders of the Purple Wage’, for example; brilliance, or pretentious twaddle?).  This is a style of writing that you probably either love or hate.  It leaves me cold and there are several which I didn’t read past the first page for this reason.  I also dislike heavy-handed religious allegories (Del Ray’s ‘Evensong’, Knight’s ‘Shall the Dust Praise Thee’), and then there are the overly-long stories that just didn’t deliver at the end.  I’m sorry to say, these include Philip K Dick’s ‘Faith of our Fathers’, and Theodore Sturgeon’s painfully dull post-summer of love, hippie utopia, the last third of which is basically a sermon on the joys of incest.

Another gripe has to do with Harlan Ellison’s dude-arrific, back-slapping introductions to each story. These quickly became irritating and conveyed the distinct impression that his editorial policy consisted of inviting his drinking buddies to submit stories.  All the witty anecdotes, in-jokes and name dropping really got on my nerves.  And if I read the phrase “muscular writing” one more time … here’s an example of Ellison attempting to introduce a female author’s story:

But when you read Sonja Dorman you don’t think about the muscularity of male writing. You read it as written by a woman, but there is no pretence.  There is no attempt to emulate the particular strengths of male writing. It is purely female reasoning and attack, but it is strong. A special kind of tensile strength. It is what is meant by something turned out by a potent woman. It is the kind of writing only a woman can do.

Gosh, it’s such a mystery that feminism re-emerged around the same time in the late 1960s isn’t it?!

There are some very good stories which are still well worth reading. The stories by the three women authors are all interesting.  Miriam Allen deFord’s ‘The Malley System’ is brilliantly chilling, Carol Emshwiller’s ‘Sex and/or Mr Morrison’ is a classic and probably one of the most ground breaking stories in the anthology. Dorman’s ‘Go Go Go said the bird’ is an effective proto-feminist piece which can now easily be read as an allegory about patriarchy.  I suppose my favourite science fiction stories are usually the ones that do allegory well.  Frederick Pohl’s ‘The Day after the Day the Martians Came’ is a very upsetting but very good take on racism and slavery.  Harlan Ellison’s own ‘The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World’ takes consumer culture to hideous extremes and while Ellison’s introductions annoyed me, I have to admit that he’s a good science fiction writer.  ‘Lord Randy my Son’ uses religion in an interesting way.  James Cross’s ‘The Doll House’ is another good take on greed and consumerism, while John T. Sladek’s ‘The Happy Breed’ questions the implications of our desire to be ‘happy’ and has creepy machines taking over the world.  The final story, Samuel R. Delaney’s ‘Aye, and Gomorrah’ stands out as pushing the imaginative envelope and already suggests a great writer in the making.

The illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon accompanying each story are excellent.

All in all, it’s a mixed bag. I think that your enjoyment of this anthology will very much depend on what types of science fiction writing you like to read. If you’re not keen on horror, I’d give it a wide berth and it’s probably not one for the casual reader who isn’t already interested in the genre.


One thought on “Harlan Ellison (ed.) Dangerous Visions (1967)

  1. That introduction to Dorman is hysterical (in both senses). I wanted to tell him, “Dude, it’s just a short story, she’s not actually going to cut your balls off!”

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