An Education in Science Fiction: Dangerous Visions

I’ve been reading a lot of SF lately. I’ve always had a degree of interest in it, but it’s only recently that I’ve started thinking of myself as someone who has an active interest in SF. The first SF novel I remember reading is Dune, which I read when I was about 13, I think? I don’t even know where I got my copy of it from, probably from a charity shop. I might have been induced to buy it because 1) it had a cool cover and 2) I knew that Iron Maiden had wanted to write a song about it and been denied by Frank Herbert. If Iron Maiden liked it, then it must be worth my time, right? I wonder where that version of myself went, the boy who happily read a novel just because Iron Maiden liked it. That was the same version of me that started reading Ballard because of Joy Division.

I liked Dune a lot, but it didn’t exactly spark a love of SF off the bat. I read Naked Lunch a couple of years later, which is certainly part of the cultural context of SF, even if it isn’t a hard SF novel itself. I liked Naked Lunch a lot, and it is responsible for most of my juvenilia, and a lot of the first novel I wrote, being incomprehensible gibberish. I knew I liked fiction like that, fiction that was transgressive and weird and didn’t hold your hand. But I still didn’t know I liked SF until I took a class on it at university, a lot of the material for which was taken from The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories (an excellent starting place if you’re interested in SF but don’t know what to read). Around this time I also read every Philip K. Dick novel I could get my hands on. I became very conscious that I liked SF, and that class is where I learned about the history of the form.

That class is also where I learned about the new wave SF of the ‘60s. I was already familiar with Ballard, Burroughs, and Dick, and now I could place them within a context and appreciate more fully just what it was they were trying to do. I really did learn a lot in that class. I probably learned more in that class than any other, bar the one I took on medievalism, which was a deluge of things I had never encountered in any way before, Monty Python excepted.

I learned about the collection Harlan Ellison edited, Dangerous Visions, which was something like the high water mark of the new wave of SF. Many of the writers featured in Dangerous Visions went on to win Hugos and Nebulas, among other forms of fame and acclaim. The collection includes the first story that Samuel R. Delany sold, Aye, and Gomorrah, which is a masterpiece, by the way.

So I knew that Dangerous Visions was this touchstone for a lot of writers that I admired, and had introduced the public to the kind of weird, transgressive fiction that I knew I liked but didn’t know was SF, or new wave, or any of those things. I found a copy of it in my local library and decided to continue my education.

It still holds up. It’s not quite as dangerous as Ellison assures us it was when it came out, but you can definitely see how it widened the field. The broad variety of stories present such topics as incest, voyeurism, automation, transhumanism, gambling, murder, racism, and drugs. These stories are not space westerns filled with bug eyed monsters. I quickly realised that this was responsible for a lot of what I enjoy about SF, namely that it can take on themes and issues in ways that literary fiction can’t.

Contributing to the air of deliberation is the fact that each story is pre- and post-scripted. Ellison contributed a foreword to each story, often detailing how he personally knows the author of the work, always describing just why it is that he’s decided to include the story and how it furthers the stated aim of shaking up established SF publishing and tastes. Each afterword is contributed by the author of the story; some describe exactly what convention or taboo they were trying to break, others explain their stylistic experiments, a few are cryptic as to their intentions. I know I said that I’d gotten to like fiction that doesn’t expect you to understand, but all the explanatory extra remarks are of much use to the student or interested reader, and were probably included originally as a kind of hedge. If it’d just been a broadside of far-out stories with no rhyme or reason, the accusations of cultural vandalism would’ve been easier to make. Ellison was trying to help build something, not just destroy what had come before.

The explanatory notes also help add focus to what is a very diverse (not many stories by women though) anthology. All the stories were intended to be “dangerous” in one way or another but they vary wildly in their approach; the broadness in itself becomes the theme. It would be impossible to talk about all the stories, but considering an anthology of this size (33 stories), it would be a useful exercise to talk about the stories that still stick out to me, a few weeks after having read it.

The one that stands out the most is Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip José Farmer, really a novella more than a short story, but a novella of such high quality that Ellison could not refuse Farmer his extra wordcount. What a good decision by Ellison. It is a psychedelic tale of a young artist living in a decadent future society where automation has caused untold plenty and turned many people into Huxley style hedonists. Farmer’s writing is constantly inventive, always punning and playing, a decadence of writing that perfectly reflects the society he imagines (and its capacity for onanism). It is an excellent little bit of world building, and I admit it also stood out to me because Farmer is very fond of Joyce, and references him a lot in this novella. Finnegans Wake as style guide for SF novella; it’s not exactly dangerous, but it certainly pushes boundaries. Stories like this are why I read SF.

One of the truly dangerous stories in the anthology is Theodor Sturgeon’s If All Men were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?, which takes on a theme no less hefty than the incest taboo. It is almost an exercise in taking perceived wisdom and arguing against it using logical extremes, and Sturgeon admits as much in his afterword. It begins as a tale of paranoia and intergalactic politics: a man discovers a planet that isn’t on any of the charts, and no one who knows anything will talk to him about it. They (big T) do their best to stop him finding out more. The frame of the story is that of the man who knows too much laying out his case. This hides the revelation from us the same way it was hidden from the protagonist and enables a play on the sympathies of the reader. We learn Vexvelt is a utopia long before learning it is a planet on which incest is actively encouraged, a literary shell game. We empathise with a man trying to speak truth to power, a power whose disgust and narrow mindedness we don’t understand, and as the story ends this is quickly inverted, because of course, the executive knew all about it and had good reasons for being disgusted. This story is a masterly example of building up and managing a reader’s expectations, and demonstrates just how effective an SF story can be in probing an idea and examining the the so-called self-evident in a way that compels and engages the reader.

Carol Emshwiller’s Sex and/or Mr. Morrison, one of the few stories by a woman in Dangerous Visions, is dangerous because of its frank portrayal of voyeurism from a female perspective. This story isn’t SF per se, but does what a really, really good SF story can do; make the everyday seem utterly alien. I’d explain further, but someone else already has, and far better than I could.

This is getting too long, so I’ll just quickly mention a couple other stories I really liked. Fritz Leiber’s story Gonna Roll the Bones is a glittering, gorgeously written story about a man playing craps with the devil. It is full of gem-like, hallucinatory descriptions of the paranormal and the legendary, contrasted with grotty regularity. The kind of dream you’ll remember just because you didn’t think your brain capable of it.

The closing story, Samuel R. Delany’s Aye, and Gomorrah, is really a horror story, and horrifies so effectively that I can’t help but recall it. In this story, humanity has begun to explore and colonise space. The humans who do this, do so at the price of their genitalia. These spacers go on shore leave, and come across frelks, people that find spacers attractive and fetishize their lack of genitalia. Delany’s descriptions of being denied a sexuality, and of having a sexuality that cannot be fulfilled, are devastating. Good SF can make the normal strange, but it can also take the strange and make it awfully, terribly human.

One last honourable mention: the anthology also includes one of my favourite Philip K. Dick stories, Faith of Our Fathers.

Not every story is as dangerous as it would like to be, and some are less transgressive than they once were, but there isn’t a single story in Dangerous Visions that I feel like I wasted my time reading, something that is remarkable both because of its size and because of its experimental nature. Even the failed experiments are of interest, and Dangerous Visions is worth your time if you have even the vaguest interest in SF or weird, transgressive fiction. Dangerous Visions stands out as one of the points where SF started to really deliver on some of the wider promise of the genre.

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