On reflection, not very dangerous: Harlan Ellison’s The Last Dangerous Visions

I suppose everyone knows the history of this volume. Harlan Ellison edited two brilliant anthologies, Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again Dangerous Visions (1972). The Last Dangerous Visions was announced, and came out over budget and ten years late, and only then because Roger Elwood got on board to help Ellison with the heavy lifting. I’m not going to touch the question of whether Elwood’s name should have appeared in the same size print as Ellison’s on the cover—though it’s a question that  can still get fans buzzing whenever there’s a new edition.

The important thing is the stories.

The first time I read the book I was disappointed. I don’t think this was avoidable. After all the buildup and all the controversy, after the amazing success of the earlier books, I was expecting something that no book could possibly have fulfilled. “Visionary” proclaimed the cover, and even more provocatively “We have seen the future!” Well, it wasn’t visionary and they certainly hadn’t seen the future. But we don’t condemn science fiction for not being prediction—and it’s just as well.

The best thing here is Ian Watson’s “Universe on the Turn”, a darkly funny satire of a future Britain that has become a surveillance state where everyone is obsessed with watching a “reality” TV show about ordinary inane people trapped in a house together. Calling the show “Big Brother” is perhaps a little unsubtle, but the parallels between the claustrophobia of the show and the highly surveilled everyday lives is done with a light touch that recalls the author’s “The Very Slow Time Machine” and Whores of Babylon.

Also brilliant, if implausible, is Bruce Sterling’s “Living Inside”. This reminds me of his “We See Things Differently” with its Islamic terrorists—but this time they steal planes and crash them into the World Trade Center, bringing down both towers. Don’t ask whether that could even happen—within days of the event people are questioning whether it was an inside government job. Sterling makes you think you’re getting one kind of story and then gives you another—the attack becomes the excuse for wars and loss of civil liberties across the world. Chilling and memorable, much like Distraction.

Sterling’s president is kind of an absent figurehead, but in Sheckley’s “Primordial Follies” the US presidency has become a dynasty of morons. I laughed, I always laugh at Sheckley’s tall tales, no matter how thin he stretches them. The Monsters and Other Science Fiction Tales collects some of his best.

Jerry Pournelle is here with a story called “Free Enterprise” in which NASA pretty much abandons space to robots, the shuttle fleet is allowed to decay, and prizes are offered for the first private companies to meet various space goals. This has the usual Pournelle style and flair, but this is a very familiar subject for him—not dangerous, not visionary, not to mention so very much not what happened. I like him better in more upbeat romantic works like Exile and Glory.

I was impressed with Doris Piserchia’s “The Residents of Kingston”, in which there’s an ice storm in Canada paralyses the country and one small city in particular. Nothing happens, and that’s what’s good about it. No looting, no riots, and the lights come back on because everyone works together. There aren’t enough stories of co-operation and human kindness. This is a “Man against Nature” story in which man, though actually most of the characters are women, wins. We could do with more engineer heroes like Louise, out in the cold getting the power back, and domestic ones like Peggy making soup for the neighbours. I don’t know that it’s dangerous, it’s certainly an unusual kind of vision. 

James Gunn’s “Among the Beautiful Bright Children” is a solid science fiction story about technology—”cell phones” and the “internet” changing the way people communicate, and even meet. The “children” of the internet age chat online and even fall in love through the medium of text as it whizzes around the world, living more and more of their lives through the computer. Now this is visionary, and maybe even dangerous. (Gunn has a new collection out, Human Voices.)

Other highlights include Cordwainer Smith, Octavia Butler (I like the way China’s becoming capitalist without liberalising, interesting), Michael Bishop, Mack Reynolds (with a utopian story of the fall of the Soviet Union in which it all just collapses like a house of cards in 1989) and Clifford Simak.

Lowlights—well “Emerging Nation”, Bester’s story of a black president trying to force through a healthcare bill while the nation is engaged in a war in the middle east that’s just a carbon copy of Vietnam. (Did they really think it could take so long for the US to become a first world country?) Michael Coney’s story (“Susy is Something Special”) of the complete economic collapse of Iceland and a worldwide depression—this isn’t visionary, this is just 1929 all over again. And I just couldn’t buy Algis Budrys’s “Living Alone in the Jungle”—all about a stolen election, way too much detail about the US system and “hanging chads” and the Supreme Court—who cares about this stuff?

On the whole this is a good collection. It’s not as good as the first one, but probably up there with the second. It’s unfortunate that the delays and the hype made it into something that no book could live up to. It’s also funny looking at all these stories by such different writers, all written at about the same time, could make such weird predictions about the future, while missing all the real developments that were about to happen. These futures, except maybe Gunn’s, are so tame compared to what really happened. And were people paying attention? The first of the experiments that gave us cold fusion and put the solar system in our grasp had already been done by 1982, guys! And what’s with so many people wishing away the Cold War? And why are these visions—with the honourable exception of Pischeria’s—so very bleak? Oh well. Definitely worth reading. I’m glad Elwood helped Ellison get it out—for a while there I was thinking the universe was conspiring to suppress it for some mysterious reason.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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