Apr 1 2010 12:38pm

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.

2. dmg
You really had me going there, Jo, until I remembered... Good show!
3. dreamysusan
Well, this might be the best 4/1 post I've seen today. Way to make me settle back and reflect...

Marcus W
5. toryx
I haven't been able to pick it up yet, but wasn't there supposed to be a story by Arthur C. Clark in there? Something like 2011 about an improbable computer named iPad?

For pity's sake, iPad couldn't even play Hulu! No wonder Dave turned him in for a Delldo.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Toryx: It's Clarke with an e, at least in my universe. But yes, good story, lousy prediction.
Tex Anne
8. TexAnne
I feel sorry for the poor saps one universe over for whom this is merely a cruel joke.
9. Dave Harmon
Wicked... But yes, nothing is so improbable as reality!
10. TNH
I know people have been complaining that it's slight, but I liked Smith's story about the man who ties helium balloons to his folding lawn chair. It makes me want to try it and see whether it works.
11. Randy Smith2
Very funny! Spot on!
12. Calimac
I'm not sure how much of an April Fool's joke to take this for.

Enough stories have actually been pulled from LDV and published elsewhere over the years to make a hefty reprint anthology by now, and I'd like someone to publish that anthology. (It would be titled, of course, "The Last Dangerous Visions".)

Are these stories among those that have appeared? I'm afraid my knowledge of the field isn't good enough to say for sure that they aren't. But they could be. This could be a real review. And it ought to be.
David Dyer-Bennet
13. dd-b
Damn, I was all the way down to the Bester story before I thought about the date. So that takes care of a couple of questions I was going to ask, then.

Nicely played!
Avram Grumer
14. avram
I see that Jo gracefully elided Piers Anthony's "In the Cathedral". I mean, really, the less said about that one, the better.
15. Jeffrey D. Smith
I thought the best part of this was that Jo used the titles and authors of actual stories reported to have been in the anthology.

I was waiting for Jo to tell me what Doris Pitkin Buck's "Cacaphony in Pink and Ochre" was about. I was thinking maybe Katrina.
Marcus W
16. toryx
Jo @ 6:

Yeah, but isn't Arthur C. Clarke deceased? I was talking about his cousin, the one missing both the "e" and the imagination.
17. John Mark Ockerbloom
I have to admit, I find a lot of Butler's work too grim to pick up most of the time. But I love the scene she has in her story where the fellow stands alone in the middle of the street, stopping those tanks from advancing, even if just for a short while.

It's touches like that make even the really dark stuff worth reading. I wish I'd see that sort of thing happen regularly in real life.
Nicholas Alcock
18. NullNix
Not only did Jo use the titles and authors of actual stories reported to have been in the anthology, but the subject matter both fitted the title and was something the authors might perfectly well have written. (I thought the Mack Reynolds one was particularly good.)
Clifton Royston
20. CliftonR
Oh, bravo! Yes, I thought the fitting of the stories to the authors was brilliant.
21. Marcus Rowland
OOOH! I want to read this!
Michael Walsh
22. MichaelWalsh
For those who care about the fate of LDV in that universe next to this one: [url=]LDV
23. foreverwarrior
That Bester. What a sly sense of humor.

You missed mine, Jo. I'm hurt!

Joe Haldeman
Jo Walton
24. bluejo
Calimac: There's a link to the Wikipedia article which lists the table of contents and where else some stories have appeared.
Jo Walton
25. bluejo
Foreverwarrior: Well it's certainly very poetic, but I don't like stories about torture, and the idea of the US doing the torturing and running secret camps that way was -- well, you made it very creepy, but it's just horrible.

And really, it was the word "feelie" that stopped me, because it broke the conceit.
26. parallel
Wasn't there also a story in there about a group of science fiction writers for whom every story they wrote spawned a whole parallel universe in which the stories came true?
27. Rob T.
avram @ 14: Isn't that the one in which Anthony slyly worked in a series of subtle allusions to "In the Barn", his (still unpublished) story that Ellison supposedly wouldn't allow in Again, Dangerous Visions because it "just went too far"?

If that's the one, I was also intrigued by the story's oblique references to a personage known as "pterry", apparently in some sort of very private in-joke, possibly involving a real person who has yet to be publicly identified.
Steve Taylor
28. teapot7
Top marks for the Pournelle story. Not only is it something he'd write, it's something that would make me complain about Pournelle pandering to his own prejudices and writing himself an escapist wet dream.
jon meltzer
29. jmeltzer
@27: "In The Barn" was indeed published, in ADV.

As I remember the one that squicked Ellison out was a Malzberg story about snot vampires.
30. dmg
And now that the cat is out of the bag, Jo...

Your remarks about Roger Elwood are especially inspired. Whew, is it possible HE had more disdain for another person in SF (at that time)?

Really, your entire post is clever, imaginative, and wonderful. Thank you!
Jo Walton
31. bluejo
DMG: I think the Elwood reference is the most in-joke joke of the whole thing. My general rule for in-jokes is that it shouldn't matter if you don't get it -- people who don't know who Elwood is can just slide along with "some guy who got Ellison to finish it" and still be happy. But I'm very glad you enjoyed it.
Barbara Gordon
32. bmlg
This is so much fun that I feel awfully snippy to point out that it's Piserchia, not Pischeria.
I'd like to be in the universe where she kept writing.
Jo Walton
33. bluejo
BMLG: Oh gosh, I always get that wrong. There are some names I just seem to have a blindspot for. Sorry! I'll fix it now.

And all the titles and authors are the real stories, as listed in Wikipedia, that were sold to LDV. So the story exists, just not the way I described it. Well, if it's the way I described it I'd be very surprised.
34. davidtaylornc
You will all laugh...but this is not an April fool.

In August of 1993 I went into a used bookstore on Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, North Carolina to escape the heat. There was a very thick, very beaten up hardcover there atop a shelf. This book was missing the front parts, lacking about 100 pages in the middle, and the pages after about 1100 were shuffled in the back. It picked up in the middle of a long introduction by Harlan Ellison. You know the title, it was 'The Last Dangerous Visions'. I read 'Himself in Anacron' there in the store. I left the book because I didn't have $22 on me, and had the idea that I could buy an less destroyed copy elsewhere. When I returned a week or two later, that book was gone.

But yeah, I held a galley of "TLDV" in my hands for half an hour. I guess somebody who knew what was going on bought it.
Mike Conley
35. NomadUK
I think I like your future a lot better than the one we got.
36. Thomas Lindgren
It truly is a literature of creativity and originality.
37. David 935
Ha ha, I get it--because Last Dangerous Visions was never published, but all those "unrealistic" imagined future scenarios DID happen. You flipped it. Wow. Wow. Wow.
38. Denny Lien
I usually enjoy Ward Moore's stuff, but I couldn't accept his premise in "Falling from Grace" that (a) a US president would be clumsy enough to conduct a tepid sexual affair with a meh intern without taking a lot more secrecy precaustions or that (b) not only other politicians but so many ordinary citizens would think it was a big enough deal to justify impeachment.

I liked the depiction of the minor character of the president's wife. I'd think a sequel involving her later career might be of some interest.
39. ZZMike
Someone once said that prediction is a very inaccurate thing, especially about the future.

I've been re-reading "Stranger in a Strage Land". Heinlein's future technology is not quite like things turned out.

I don't think anybidy gets it right - starting with Staplefon's "First & Last Men".

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