Dangerous Visions (Harlan Ellison ed.)

“Dangerous Visions” is a semi-legendary compilation of science fiction stories, originally published in 1967, most of them written by legendary science fiction authors. The compilation features both the stories themselves, and for each an introduction and postscript by Harlan Ellison (himself legendary). There is also a longer set of introductions, forwards, etc., at the beginning of the book, including new ones written in 2002 to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of this tedious, silly book of stridently bad stories.

Those stories range from the bizarrely awful to the merely boring.  The worst story is by Theodore Sturgeon.  It is a lengthy story, written in a juvenile style, about a man who realizes there is a “hidden” planet in the human universe of several thousand planets, and his attempts to find that planet over the obstacles put up by the authorities.  He comes to realize that the planet exists and he is ultimately able to reach it.  He finds it to be a nearly literal paradise—the people have preternatural physical abilities; they can cure all disease with their minds; and although the planet has only normal natural resources, they are incredibly materially wealthy.  His final realization is that the reason that the planet is “hidden,” and the reason it is so wonderful, is the same.  It is because its inhabitants practice incest, which (along with dropping all other sexual hang-ups, including silly things like bans on sex with children, yours or other peoples’), is the key to unlocking ultimate human happiness and near-godhood.  No, this is not a joke.  Yes, the author is totally serious (we even get a long direct lecture on the wonders of incest, not dissimilar in some ways to John Galt’s legendarily tedious lecture in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”).  No, I am not making this up.

The comparison to Ayn Rand is illustrative, because the problem with this book is not that the writers are incapable—as I say, most of them are legendary, including Ellison (who wrote, for example, “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”).  The problem is, as with Rand, that the authors here are writing tendentious Message Fiction.  Their goal is to bludgeon the reader in the face with purportedly “dangerous” ideas, which the reader must accept with vigor, or self-identify as a Loser, who Just Doesn’t Get It, that Times Have Changed.  When you write Message Fiction, it’s usually mostly message, and the fiction suffers.  This book is the best example of that phenomenon I’ve ever seen.

The book contains four basic types of stories.  One group is stories with the theme, “Hey, we all need to get over our sexual hangups, man, and groove out.”  The second group is “Hey, I just thought of something nobody ever thought of before—God is dead, and stupid too!”  (Of course, none of these stories actually involve God in the sense universally understood.  They instead are merely imaginings about a fairly powerful creature called, for some reason, God, who in each story is of course a toothless idiot to whom Man is far superior.)  The third group is “Hey, let’s write some gruesome stories without a plot!”  Most of these are just violence, though some throw in nihilism for good measure, naturally always without the understanding of human nature necessary to make nihilism compelling (e.g., as Lovecraft did).  And the fourth group is stories that are simply incomprehensible or pointless, so we are supposed to believe they are therefore good, because to do otherwise is to show we’re not sophisticated.

But with all these stories, whatever bucket they fall into, the problem is identifying them as “Dangerous Visions.”  That is, and was, a lie.  None of these ideas were dangerous in 1967, much less now.  All of these authors were celebrated, then and now, by their peers, by their publishers, and by a wide and approving audience, for their pansexualism, their aggressive atheism, their crudity, their nihilism, and whatever other characteristic was allegedly “dangerous.”  So, of course, these authors risked nothing at all, any more than such “artists” ever do.  It’s the difference between submerging a crucifix in urine and submerging a picture of Muhammad in urine.  Only one of those is dangerous.

I’d like to say a few of the stories are good, but that would be a lie.  The authors did not even try to write good stories that would interest readers then and now.  Instead, they wrote agitprop, knowing they would be therefore be lionized.  As a result, the stories were bad then and are worse now.


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