Sunday, September 7, 2014

No Vision So Dangerous...

The other day I was trying to figure out the best way, should I ever meet him, to piss off Harlan Ellison™. I mentioned this to the ever-helpful Shaun Duke, who advised me that both of the strategies I offered would likely result in (a) a chewing out--which, honestly, Harlan Ellison™ rarely needs much justification for anyway--and (b) assault, which wouldn't surprise me much either but is really far more trouble than it's worth.

You may be wondering why I would want to antagonize a figure like Ellison™. The answer is bound up in four charged words that have hummed with golden anticipation for more than forty years, even if more than a few bulbs have burned out: The Last Dangerous Visions. Never heard of it? If you're not one of the ones plugged into the history of science fiction or the fannish grapevine, there's no reason you should have. That's not how it was meant to be, though.

Let's go back briefly to 1967, when Harlan Ellison™ put out one of the most influential anthologies of the 1960s, Dangerous Visions. The thirty-three stories it contained were groundbreaking in their time, helping to define what the New Wave of science fiction literature was, and of a sort that were too "dangerous" to be published.

Today, of course, they're innocuous. Well-written, of course, but with the possible exception of one story, there's nothing that wouldn't make it into Clarkesworld or Lightspeed or even Analog today--back in 1967, they would have earned furious ten-page rejection letters from John W. Campbell--but that's the way history unfolds. Ellison™ followed up with the sequel volume Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972, which is definitely a reflection of its time; witness, for example, Kurt Vonnegut's "The Big Space Fuck," set in a world where giant mutated lampreys live in a polluted Lake Erie and the government is launching a rocket full of freeze-dried jizm to the Andromeda Galaxy. Envelope-pushing in its day, perhaps, but in a time where stories like Kij Johnson's "Spar" win Nebulas and make the Hugo shortlist, there's almost a quaintness to it.

The Last Dangerous Visions was to be the capstone of this project, a deep and towering work that would put everything that had come before to shame. Ellison™ talked the project to rarefied heights as he lined up a phalanx of everyone who was anyone in early 1970s science fiction, from old hands like Algis Budrys and George Alec Effinger to brash, young newcomers like Anne McCaffrey and Orson Scott Card. Science fiction fandom waited in anticipation...

...and waited, and waited. You may note, from your privileged viewpoint here in the 21st century, that of all the ways you might describe writers like McCaffrey and Card, "newcomer" is not one of them. You may also note that with the exception of Card, all those writers have died. In fact, I've gone through the list of contributors that's up on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, and of the one hundred and two names, forty-six are definitely dead as of 2014. Many more authors are flagged as having been born in the 1920s and 1930s--Harlan Ellison™ himself turned 80 earlier this year--and it won't take much longer for The Last Dangerous Visions to be a book of ghosts. If you're interested in all the sordid details of its stubborn non-existence, check out Christopher Priest's The Last Deadloss Visions.

"So what?" you might say. Vaporware isn't anything new; look at Duke Nukem Forever, for example. No, really, look at Duke Nukem Forever. It was to be the pinnacle of a well-liked, boundary-pushing game series, intended to reach new heights of popularity and so on... and look what happened. After fifteen years of being a punchline, it actually came out--something that still surprises me from time to time, honestly--but it couldn't live up to itself. What's more, it had been left behind.

The Dangerous Visions series was intended to be the vanguard of a new way of looking at things, an ambassador to show the world that science fiction didn't have to be just about rockets and rayguns and square-jawed white male engineers solving technical problems. But if The Last Dangerous Visions came out tomorrow, it would be a wet firecracker. Sure, the individual stories still have relevance and quality--but not in the context that the book was meant to provide. If anything, the book as a whole would be a time capsule of 1970s science fiction; of interest to a particular subset of fans, sure, but not much more than that.

It's possible to judge the quality of The Last Dangerous Visions to a degree; a handful of authors did recall their stories from Ellison™ and actually allowed the world to see them, but not many; by my search, there are fifteen ex-TLDV stories out there whose authors lived to see their publication in other places. But only to a degree. The kicker of it is that all these stories exist, sure--in a box in Harlan Ellison™'s house somewhere, for only Harlan Ellison™'s eyes. For any stories, this would be bad enough--but remember that Ellison™ was looking for the best of the best, the state of the art as it was in 1973.

There's a hole in science fiction that can be felt only by its absence. A hole that Harlan Ellison™ has refused to sew shut for forty fucking years. He had the capstone of his drive in hand, but for whatever reasons, he fumbled. He fucked it up. Today, The Last Dangerous Visions is irrelevant as anything but a historical curiosity. Given the degree of cultural shift, I'm confident that there is nothing in its evanescent pages that would not pass muster in a magazine today.

Beyond that, The Last Dangerous Visions was meant to be a showcase of up-and-coming authors with new perspectives... and that's another thing that hurts. Going through the ISFDB list, I found five authors whose only credit was the story that never appeared in TLDV, and many more whose careers seemed to hit a brick wall in the 1970s. TLDV, had it come out in 1973, would have been groundbreaking, a landmark, something to propel its writers to greater heights. How many stories could have been written, but now never will, because it never materialized?

Again, TLDV would be a forty-year-old snapshot. Writers like Ann Leckie and Seth J. Dickinson, N.K. Jemisin and Benjanun Sriduangkaew--they are some of the people on the genre's forefront today, they are the sort of authors that TLDV was made to showcase. But it didn't, and it never will. At this point I am confident that Harlan Ellison™ will die without completing The Last Dangerous Visions.

It's ridiculous. Let me put it into a bit of perspective here: had The Last Dangerous Visions come out when it meant to, all the way back in 1973, this year's Campbell Award winner, Sofia Samatar, would have been two years old. Ann Leckie, who swept every major award for Ancillary Justice this year, was seven. For many other people who are making their mark on the genre today, they wouldn't even be born for years to come.

That's why I want to piss him off. Because it would move the equation ever-so-slightly back into balance, after what he's done to science fiction.

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