Almost every aspect of Harlan Ellison's 1967 anthology of science
fiction tales,
Dangerous Visions, disrupted the status quo. Unlike
other anthologists, Ellison insisted on brand new stories for his book
—in stark contrast to the time-honored tradition of collecting works
that had already appeared in magazines. This proviso created, in
turn, economic disruption for both Ellison
and the publisher, because they had to
pay more for new stories than for recycled
ones. Ellison was even more daring in his
choice of contributors, aiming to bring in
both leading literary heroes of avant-garde
fiction, famous genre writers and the very
best of the up-and-coming sci-fi authors.

But the most disruptive aspect of the project
came with the instructions Ellison gave his
contributors. He really wanted
visions, stories that broached themes and
subjects too hot for the science fiction
magazines of the day. He insisted that
the tales in the book confront taboos, break
down barriers and challenge prevailing attitudes and values.

See also:
Harlan Ellison: I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream (reviewed by Ted Gioia)

Ellison did not achieve all his goals. He failed to secure an adequate
advance from his publisher, and was forced to draw on his own money
to pay his authors. One of the contributors, Larry Niven did the same,
lending $750 to cover some of the publication costs. Ellison also ran
into obstacles in his choice of writers.  He successfully enlisted many of
the best science fiction authors of his day for his project, but his hopes
of snagging the leading literary lions from the counterculture proved

His initial list of possible contributors included Thomas Pynchon, William
Burroughs, Terry Southern, Kingsley Amis and Thomas Berger. The mind
reels at how they would have responded to Ellison's request for dangerous
visions. But none of these writers participated in the project. I lament their
absence, but still can’t find fault with a final roster that includes Philip K. Dick,
J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Theodore Sturgeon, Brian Aldiss, Robert
Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Fritz Leiber and Robert Bloch, as well as an
introduction from Isaac Asimov (who refused to offer a story on the grounds
that he was "too sober, too respectable, and, to put it bluntly, too darned

Ellison lived up to his promise of violating taboos. I suspect that this
willingness to offend, and risk the opprobrium of censors and the
censorious, created much of the buzz around the book. Certainly
sales were brisk.
Dangerous Visions has stayed in print, and also
spurred a high-profile sequel (
Again, Dangerous Visions), as well
as a proposed third volume slated for release in 1973, but still
in publishing limbo. (A few years ago,
Jo Walton reviewed this
oft-discussed but never-seen anthology,
The Last Dangerous
, as an April Fool's Day joke. As recently as 2007, Ellison
was still claiming that he wanted to publish the work, but griping:
"It’s this giant Sisyphean rock that I have to keep rolling up a hill,
and people will not stop bugging me about it.")

Strange to say, the dangerous parts of
Dangerous Visions have not
aged especially well. It's hard to find anything shocking nowadays, not
just in fiction but in any other form of narrative. And the few taboos that
survived into the modern age are just as predictable as moral injunctions
—no surprise there, since they are mirror image of each other—and
readers can easily guess which subjects will show up even before they
open this book. So we get a big dose of cannibalism, a smattering of
incest, lots of sexual experimentation and kinky fetishes, some serial
killers, etc. etc.. In other words, the usual suspects when people are
asked to violate the inviolable. Alas, if this were enough to create great
literature, Jerry Springer would be a Nobel judge.

That said, a few contributors stood out for the very vehemence with
which they pursued the transgressive.  Ellison’s single story in the
volume, a futuristic reworking of the Jack the Ripper meme, presents
more vivisection details than a coroner’s report. And Theodore Sturgeon
not only serves up a story about incest, but offers a spirited treatise
in defense of the same. Even Robert Heinlein, who
put his hero
Lazarus Long on a time machine so the character could have an affair
with his own mom, never went quite so far.  

Some of the finest stories in this book ignored Ellison's mandate
to embrace 'dangerous' visions, and succeed through plain old-
fashioned storytelling.
J.G. Ballard and  Fritz Leiber both contributed
atmospheric horror stories. Ballard's reticence is especially surprising,
given the
outrageous and repulsive subjects in his other works of this
period. Yet his tale of a traveling circus that arrives in town with cages
for the animals, but apparently no creatures inside them, is darkly poetic,
and saves a pleasing Kafkaesque twist for its conclusion.  Leiber's
contribution is a macabre fairy tale about a gambler getting into a
high stakes dice game with the grim reaper. The story is unsettling,
but more in the manner of Ambrose Bierce than New Wave sci-fi—
and with a pleasing dose of Leiber's trademark flippancy and
irreverence. I’m not surprised that it won the Hugo for best novelette.

Ellison makes a big deal about Philip K. Dick’s 'dangerous vision'
—and hints that the story was written under the influence of a
hallucinogenic drug. Frankly, I’m not sure I could tell the difference
between Dick’s output on drugs and the stories he wrote cold-sober.
They all are pleasingly weird. But "Faith of Our Fathers," his
contribution to Ellison's anthology, is one of his best—it also earned
a Hugo nomination (losing out to Leiber's story).  Narcotics do play
a prominent role in the plot, but with an ingenious twist: in Dick's
universe, the citizenry all experience the exact same hallucinations
when drugged, but while they are clear-headed, their perceptions of
reality vary in inexplicable ways. Dick takes this provocative concept
and incorporates it into a dystopian account of space aliens and
global conquest straight out of the Golden Age of sci-fi.  

Perhaps the most famous story in this book is also the longest. Philip
José Farmer's "The Riders of the Purple Wage" was initially a 15,000-
word tale, but after he had finished revisions, it had expanded into a
rambling 30,000 word short novel. Ellison lavishly praised the work
in his introduction, claiming that it was "easily the best" piece in the
anthology. Certainly, many others agreed. Farmer also got a Hugo
for his efforts—part of the
Dangerous Visions landslide victory at the
26th World Science Fiction Convention in Berkeley. This Joycean
pastiche is certainly one of the most audacious pieces in the collection,
both for its prose style and the copious amounts of sex and violence
in its plot. But the story constantly hints at more than it actually delivers.
Farmer lays out the foundations for a penetrating satire of politics, art
and culture, yet never pursues any of these promising paths with much
vigor. And instead of moving towards a resolution of the plot, he merely
builds up to a huge pun—one so over-the-top that even Joyce, that
master punster, would have groaned in dismay at it.

Now, I must turn to the biggest surprise of this book—namely that many
of the most impressive stories in
Dangerous Visions came from
little-known and mostly-forgotten authors. "The Doll-House" written
by James Cross—a  pseudonym for career academic and government
worker Hugh Parry (1916-1997)—presents a very appealing mixture
of ancient mythology and modern psychodrama.  But just try to find more
information about this author, even with the help of all-knowing Google!  
I also enjoyed stories by Larry Eisenberg and Jonathan Brand, stylish
authors who never achieved much fame but proved their mettle in this
anthology. But best of all is David R. Bunch, the only writer to contribute
two stories to
Dangerous Visions. These are, in my opinion, the most
ambitious and well-written stories in the whole book, drawing on a
poised but unconventional prose style that is not a pastiche, in the style
of Farmer’s piece, but a brilliant reconfiguration of language perfectly
suited to avant-garde science fiction. Bunch’s work is like a blend of
Flann O’Brien and Italo Calvino, leavened with the technology acumen
of Isaac Asimov. I was saddened to learn that this author’s writings
went out-of-print soon after they were published, and now command
outrageous prices for tattered old paperback copies. Some enterprising
publisher needs to rectify this situation!

But the star of
Dangerous Visions remains Harlan Ellison, and though
he contributed just a single story, his introductions to the book and each
of the tales are what set this work apart from the other anthologies in the
field. In a different time and place, Ellison might have written suppressed
political manifestos, screeds that would have set off rioting in the
streets and the toppling of regimes. Instead, he aimed at spurring a
revolution in fiction, with an inflammatory zeal that no one else of his
generation could match. He often took more risks in his intros to the
stories than the authors did in their narratives, and I can only imagine
how much behind-the-scenes prodding and nagging he devoted to
making this cantankerous book, and its sequel, a reality. Ellison clearly
possessed dangerous visions, and it is to his credit that he was able
to get a whole cadre of sci-fi legends, near-legends, and should-be-
legends to march to his beat.  A half-century later, when the forbidden
topics in this book are no longer prohibited and more than a few have
entered the mainstream, Ellison's strident stances and extravagant
expostulations can still captivate readers. So even if the dangers
embodied in
Dangerous Visions today seems less perilous, let's give
some of the credit for that sea change to the visionary behind the visions,
who helped tame them for posterity.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is currently
working on his ninth book,
Love Songs: The Hidden History, which will be
published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this article:  May 21, 2014
The Most Dangerous Sci-Fi Anthology
A Look Back at Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions (1967)

by Ted Gioia
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