In 1967, Harlan Ellison presented the world with a 32-story speculative fiction anthology called Dangerous Visions. This anthology went against the trend of collecting previously published short stories by featuring entirely original stories, most of them written to order.
And the order of the day was challenging ideas. In this anthology, and its follow-up Again, Dangerous Visions, each story was meant to be a specific provocation, contesting the established norms of society, literature, and specifically science fiction. At the time, the idea of a science fiction anthology having any sort of influence on literature at large was practically obscene. And yet, Ellison succeeded. Phenomenally.
It helps, certainly, that he was in a time and place which allowed him to bring together so many giants of the genre. Take a look, for a moment, at this list of contributors to the first volume: Lester Del Rey, Robert Silverberg, Frederick Pohl, Philip Jose Farmer, Brian Aldiss, Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, Damon Knight, Theodore Sturgeon, J.G. Ballard, Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delany. (And Again, Dangerous Visions brought on Ursula Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Piers Anthony, Dean Koontz, James Blish, and Ben Bova).
With forewords by Isaac Asimov.
It’s hard to imagine a more complete survey of everything that defined science fiction at the time. It’s a particularly miraculous confluence, especially when you consider that Sam Delaney was a newcomer of just 25 at the time.
The first volume was illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, who were among the most decorated illustrators of their time. And the second by Edward Emshwiller, who would go on to be a great innovator and influencer in both experimental film and computer graphics.
With each story individually introduced by Ellison and then played off with an afterword by their authors, the Dangerous Visions books stand as an incomparable monument in the history of science fiction. I am not the only one to lament the fact that the planned third volume The Last Dangerous Visions never saw the light of day.
They arguably represent the moment at which science fiction grew up and decided to take itself seriously. As Ellison says in his introduction, it is the dawn of the “radical concept that science fiction should be judged by the same high standards as all literary forms.”
And yet, science fiction continues to stand separate. Reading Ellison’s introductions, one gets the distinct impression this turn (or lack of turn) of events may have surprised him. So what is it that makes science fiction so resistant to assimilation?
Certainly the boundaries are blurry and growing moreso, but I think there remains a crucial difference. Science fiction remains the breeding ground of our most dangerous visions. And that is something to be both celebrated and cherished. If you can find a copy, I encourage you to read Dangerous Visions and reflect upon which of these stories contain ideas that have found their way into the mainstream, and which remain dangerous. And then I encourage you to brew up some dangerous visions of your own.
And send them to AE.