Sometime between the first Dangerous Visions anthology and the second, Harlan Ellison jumped the shark. Perhaps in those four years, he started to believe his own hype. It is true that the first anthology did seem to set a fire under a number of writers, both old and new, to experiment and try new things, and it happened because Ellison championed it. But in the preparation of the second volume, Ellison took on much more than a simple championing role—he became a dangerous vision of himself.
But before I get to the real criticism of this volume, let me note that it still contains a couple of the greatest short fiction stories ever published: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest,” a piece that merges environmentalism and racism in such a talented way that it’s as hard to read it as, Le Guin says in her afterword, it was easy for her to write it; and Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed,” one of the best feminist science fiction stories, posting a world where the men died off and the women did what they had to do to continue, then the ramifications of being “rediscovered” by the rest of humanity. Both of these stories are as powerful today as they were forty years ago, because the problems remain. To be entirely frank, I’ve never been a fan of either writer, some of whose other stories set my teeth on edge. But there’s no disputing that these stories are worthy of being read by every reader, especially any reader who wants to understand the power of science fiction when it’s done well and done correctly.
There are some other good stories in this 46 story anthology as well. “Ching Witch” by Ross Rocklynne is one of the funniest stories that incorporates a cat. H. H. Hollis’ “Stoned Counsel” is an interesting idea of how legal work could be transformed in the future through hallucinogens. The two stories by Bernard Wolfe, “The Bisquit Position” and “The Girl With Rapid Eye Movements,” are unusual and strange in their mixture of 70s cultural themes (Vietnam war, sleep research) with 50s era style (world-weary protagonists caught up in weirdness). Gregory Benford’s “And the Sea Like Mirrors” predates Stephen King by a decade, containing much of what has become King’s stock-in-trade: a horrific world in which an “everyman” tries to survive.
But the majority of these stories are simply “meh,” and in some instances, downright awful. One story, Richard Lupoff’s “With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old Alabama,” was so annoying (i.e., made-up language similar to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker), I skimmed it after the first section. And it’s not hard to discover why this may be, because the very process of putting this anthology together can be pieced together from the introductions and afterwords. The culprit: Ellison’s increasing need to grandstand, to puff up the book and himself. One of the earliest things you learn is that this huge volume comprises only half of what Ellison had accepted and bought, and that it became so large, he and the publisher agreed to release this volume and then one called The Last Dangerous Visions later—so much later that it never appeared.
Grandstanding? The best example of which can be read in the introduction and afterword to “Bed Sheets are White“ by Evelyn Lief, which is more of a story than the story itself. Basically, Ellison shows up at Clarion determined to be a holy terror to the students by tearing apart their stories on the first day of his week. In the afterword, Lief reports that Ellison said this about her story that first morning, “This story is trite and schoolgirlish. It’s the perfect example of every single thing that can be done wrong, all in one piece of writing.” She goes back to her room and writes “DAMN YOU, HARLAN ELLISON” on a sign and hangs it above her typewriter and then proceeds to write something that he will like. He likes it and immediately buys it for Again, Dangerous Visions.
And that would be a beautiful story if “Bed Sheets are White” was any good, but it’s not. It’s short enough that you can forgive it for being mediocre, but Ellison lauds it as on par with Le Guin or Russ or Benford? Sorry, not even close. What the foreword by Ellison and afterword by Lief depict is Ellison’s increasing role in the creation of not only the book, but the stories themselves, as he started to see himself as the great savior of literature, challenging both established authors and beginning students, and becoming their benefactor, muse, and daemon. It becomes all about him, both from his standpoint and the author’s. And thus, when it fails to be about the story, things fall apart.
Unlike others before me who’ve laid criticism at Ellison’s feet, his recent departure from this world means I have no fear of a late night phone call or sharply worded threat made in a public place. The thing is, I’ve always liked Ellison’s writing—his short story and essay collections were meat and potatoes to me in my formative years, and I loved his zeal and passion to champion perceived and real injustices in the world. In particular, his essays in The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat were early influences on how I viewed popular entertainment and the role of the critic. The Dangerous Visions anthologies were a great idea, and the two that were published had an impact that could be felt beyond the SFF world. Yet the warning signs for the project going off the rails could clearly be seen in A,DV even if Locus picked it as the best original anthology published in 1972.
It’s probably for the best that The Last Dangerous Visions never appeared, because it simply could not have lived up to its hype. What’s sad is that the stories got bumped into that stillborn volume never had the opportunity to feed their author’s careers aside from cover letters where they might have been listed as a sale. The other sad part of the whole debacle is how it continually cast a cloud over Ellison’s career, even until the very end.
[Finished 21 Jul 2018]