Book Talk: 'Dangerous Visions' edited by Harlan Ellison - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Dangerous Visions' edited by Harlan Ellison

Alexander Wallace explores a path-breaking collection of the New Wave science fiction movement.
In the minds of far too many people, the term ‘science fiction’ conjures images of tentacled aliens, scantily clad women, and literary merit that is charitably described as subpar. This image, as much as we may disdain it, was not without its precedent; a look at just about any science fiction pulp magazine cover between the 1920s and 1950s can show the origins of the stereotype. This is not to say the pulps were without their good parts; their tradition endures even today in authors like Timothy Zahn.

There was another strain in science fiction of the time: that of Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein, of sparse, technical language used to tell stories that were focused around ideas first and character later. It was the science fiction brought about by the likes of John W. Campbell and his aversion to flowery writing. This trend, likewise, brought about greats.

But there came a point in the 1960s, as the world began to swing (with the exception of dancers, for whom actual swing dance began its long and slow decline), the cultural forces that shocked the establishments of every Western country began to rock the world of science fiction. It was the coming of psychedelia and the sexual revolution and a bold willingness to question the established greats; it was loudly and proudly not your granddad’s science fiction.

Then, one man, a writer and an editor, put out the call for stories that had been published nowhere else, stories that, by the standards of the time, could be published nowhere else. The result was a book that codified an entire movement.

That book: Dangerous Visions, published to great acclaim in 1967.

That man: Harlan Ellison, author of such famed stories as I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and A Boy and His Dog.

That movement: New Wave science fiction, the movement that demolished a genre and rebuilt it from the ground up.
The experience of reading Dangerous Visions in 2021 can feel a bit strange, in no small part because so much of what was shocking in the late 1960s has become more common by the turn of the millennium. I was born in 1996, a world where the New Wave had already reshaped science fiction (I grew up reading some of its books) and where things like the sexual revolution were, for better or for worse, done deals.

The stories themselves are overall quite good, some of them quite odd, as those by Samuel Delany and Theodore Sturgeon would show. It’s a book that gives off the impression that the New Wave was less a distinct genre of science fiction and more a wholesale tectonic shift, as the actual subject matters are quite diverse. You have the Communist dystopia that Philip K. Dick provides, or the unnerving dollhouse of James Cross, or the parable of Lester del Rey, or the machine god of John Brunner, or the mechanized bullfight of Roger Zelazny, or many others.

Perhaps rivalling the stories in sheer entertainment value are Ellison’s introductions; they are filled with humor and anecdotes and sheer force of personality. Ellison was one of those people who is best described as a ‘character,’ the sort of fellow who’d be really obnoxious on Twitter had he been born a few decades later. The man was fiery, with strong opinions, and he marshals that well to create some quite fun introductory essays.

This is a collection that should be read by anyone who wants to understand science fiction as a genre. This is not the birth or the childhood of the genre, but rather its adolescence, when it discovered the sheer delight of making older people angry. This is not old and torpid; rather, the stories herein ar vibrant and fiery, and will linger in your memory for a good long while.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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