Dangerous Visions - edited by Harlan Ellison

"What you hold in your hands is more than a book. If we are lucky, it is a revolution. It was conceived out of a need for new horizons, new styles, new challenges in the literature of our times. If it was done properly, it will provide these new horizons and styles and forms and challenges. If not, it is still one helluva good book full of entertaining stories." 
- Harlan Ellison, 1967 

Nothing dates so fast as something proclaiming itself a vision of the future, except when it's absolutely true. Dangerous Visions was arguably the American New Wave of Science Fiction's high water mark.

I'm no expert on the subject, but that's what they tell me. (That link has some reviews of stories from the sequel Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) as well. I thought about covering both books in tandem here, but I want to be as breezy as possible with these short story collections posts. Plus, while I did read A,DV, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much, and the prospect of reading it again to rank favorites/ pull quotes is too daunting. The Vonnegut story is fantastic, though.)  

I watched Erik Nelson's documentary on Ellison Dreams with Sharp Teeth again in prep for this blog and found myself really touched by his recollections and foibles. If you haven't seen it, make a point to. He's proud of the impact Dangerous Visions had and isn't afraid to tell you. And why not? Harlan's a real character. 

The world (and especially the sci-fi and TV world) is immeasurably better for his having trekked it.
Here's a recent piece by NPR.

Dangerous Visions is very much like a couple seasons of a great sci-fi anthology show, hosted and introduced by Harlan. Had it been an actual TV show, it would undoubtedly be mentioned in the same breath as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but given the production and censorship standards of its era, maybe not. (Plus, how do you film something like Philip José Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage"? (My least favorite of the collection, incidentally).

The idea was to get some of the biggest names in sci-fi ("from Asimov to Zelazny") and commission them to write whatever they wanted, so long as it was of sufficient quality and of sufficient boldness. Almost everyone he contacted rose the occasion admirably. Even my least favorites - Farmer's "Riders" and "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One of Them Marry Your Sister?" by Theodore Sturgeon - are of sufficient quality and boldness. Structurally - and forgive me, elders - they just don't work for me.

A notable feature of the anthology are all the introductions and afterwords. These pad the page count considerably, but they greatly contributed to my enjoyment of everything therein. It got a little out of control in Again, Dangerous Visions, and I wouldn't be surprised if the reason we've still never seen Last Dangerous Visions is because Harlan's still working on the intros. (I kid. The full story can be had here.)  

The woodcuts throughout by Leo and Diane Dillon are fantastic. An online archive of their work can be found here.

The book is dedicated to Kingsley Amis, among others. Thought that was interesting. Harlan knew everybody. Knows, I guess, present tense - though many of the authors in Dangerous Visions have died since this book first appeared, that doesn't cancel out his knowing them, does it? (He reflects on this in the intro he wrote for the 2002 edition.)

There are thirty-three stories in the first DV; here are - 


Honorable mentions: "Aye and Gomorrah" by Samuel Delany and "Test for Destruction" by Keith Laumer. Delany's story is about a group of spacemen ("spacers") whose genitalia have been warped into asexual blobs by their work in outer space and are subsequently fetishized for this by a subculture of "frelks" (those who suffer from free-fall-sexual-displacement complex) across the globe. Laumer's is about a political dissident being tortured while his mental acumen is exploited simultaneously by an alien race seeking to conquer the earth. 

I thought both were fantastic, but I wanted to stick to just ten.

10. "Ersatz" 
by Henry Slesar

Plot: Sergeant Tod Halstead, Rocket Carrier Third Class, wanders the apocalyptic wastelands of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. He discovers a still-functioning Peace Station, where he collapses in exhaustion. When he wakes up he is freshly shaven, and a beautiful woman serves him food and drink. "Ersatz, I'm afraid." i.e. re-purposed wood pulp and seawood. When she follows him into his room, Tod is horrified to discover the beef, bread, and cigarettes aren't the only things ersatz

"The sergeant didn't pause to retrieve his armor or his weapons; he went out of the Peace Station into the smoky wasteland, where death awaited the unarmed and despairing." 

The simplicity of this one works to its strength. Sgt. Tod's gay panic, more or less, though it's more complicated than that - it's true he flees what is essentially a dude in drag, but there are radioactive mutations involved - earns him almost certain death. Interesting resonance, reading it in 2016.

And an interesting character, this Slesar, at one time called (by TV Guide) "the writer with the largest audience in America."

"To me, the most dangerous vision of all is the one that's rose-colored."
(from Slesar's afterward)

by Robert Bloch

Plot: A sadist of the future uses a time machine to procure "toys" - men and women from the past - for his equally sadistic granddaughter to use and abuse. When he inadvertently transports Jack the Ripper to her bedchambers, she gets more than she bargained for. 

"The Past was teeming with strange micro-organisms." 

Like many of the authors in DV, Robert Bloch was one of the seminal voices of twentieth century pulp--horror-and-science-fiction, with hundreds of short stories and over thirty novels to his credit. He was the youngest member of the Lovecraft circle and is known to Star Trek fans as the screenwriter for "What Are Little Girls Made Of?", "Catspaw", and "Wolf in the Fold," which, of course, is also a story about a spacetime-traveling Jack the Ripper.

That Star Trek story and "A Toyfor Juliette" have as their antecedent an earlier and widely adapted and anthologized of Bloch's, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper." Ellison had the idea of Bloch continuing the story for DV, and while he liked Bloch's idea enough to include it, he wrote his own, "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World." Which I liked but not as much as "A Toy for Juliette."

Also a fan? Patton Oswalt, apparently. Random. 

8. "Incident in Moderan"
   and "The Escaping" 
by David R. Bunch

Plot: A cyborg military commander is impatient to start firing his rockets and bombs in all directions but must wait until two of the Strongholds in his sector reboot. A man who has mistaken the pause in fighting as a humane gesture for him to bury his head is quickly - and violently - disabused of this notion.

"I could not help but rejoice that the war was certainly again GO. For the flesh-bum I didn't even try for tears, and nothing in my mind could bring my heart rain as I raced on to the War Room to punch my launch knobs down."

When I first read "Incident at Moderan," I was blown away. The lunatic enthusiasm and efficiency with which our cyborg protagonist goes about his business leaves quite an impression. "The Escaping" is very experimental and not 100% successful, but both left me wanting to learn more about the author. There's not much information out there, though, and his stuff seems to be out of print.

"He is mainly known for a series of violent, bleak stories set in the cyborg dystopia of Moderan, which collectively form a satire on humanity’s obsession with violence and control." 
(from Ellison's intro.)

Moderan the book is hard to find. Fortunately, it is available to read (legally) online, alas unformatted. 

A good tribute can be found here.

by Larry Niven

Plot: From its wiki: "In the future, criminals convicted of capital offenses are forced to donate all of their organs to medicine, so that their body parts can be used to save lives and thus repay society for their crimes. However, high demand for organs has inspired lawmakers to lower the bar for execution further and further over time." 

Warren Lewis Knowles ("Lew") has been arrested for an undisclosed crime. When an old man occupying the cell next to his explodes a bomb that he's hidden in his thigh bone, Lew seizes the opportunity to escape. But there's nowhere to run but the organ harvesting facility attached to the prison. Trapped and besieged by sonic stunners, he attempts to destroy as much equipment as possible before his inevitable recapture. The story ends at Lew's trial, where we learn his crime: running 6 red lights

"What happens when the death of one genuine criminal can save the lives of twenty taxpayers?"

Larry Niven is kind of a big deal. His website is a singularity of fine reading and contemplation. 

Although the nightmare world of organ trafficking as conducted through the criminal justice system he writes about here has yet to specifically come true, last week's congressional hearing on the trade in aborted fetus parts skirted uncomfortably close to the line of this story. Interestingly, had this story been about aborted fetus parts it would likely have been too dangerous a vision for even for an anthology such as this; harvesting the organs of full-grown men, frivolously incarcerated, is an easier sell.

Anyway, Lew's escape from his cell and subsequent landing in the organ harvesting facility is some fine suspenseful writing.

by Sonya Dorman

Plot: A woman flees in terror from unknown assailants. As she does, we see snapshots of the life she's lived in a brutal world gone over to cannibalism. Finally, overcome, we learn two of the mob chasing her are her son and his new wife. 

"The ax fell, breaking her pictures into pieces, and they fell like snowflakes to the ground, where a little dust rose up and began to slowly settle. The small children began to squabble over the thumb bones."

Like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," an incisive slice of literary horror that unsettles on levels just peripheral to our consciousness, an allegory a little too close for comfort.

The title is from TS Eliot's Four Quartets: "Go go, said the bird / human kind / cannot bear very much reality." I leave it to you to determine how such sentiments relate to the plot described.

by John Sladek

Plot: In the distant future of 1987, a supercomputer attends to everyone's needs. The story chronicles the last days - and gradual lobotomization - of the world's last 'Abnormals.' 

"When Lloyd awoke, the television came to life, showing an amiable-looking man with white hair.

'You have my sympathy,' the man said. 'You have just survived what we call a 'Number One Killer Accident,' a bad fall in your home. Our Machines were in part responsible for this, in the course of saving your life from -" The man hesitated, while a sign flashed behind him: 'BACTERIAL POISONING.' Then he went on, '- by physically removing you from the danger. Since this was the only course open to us, your injury could not have been avoided.

'Except by you. Only you can save your life, finally.' The man pointed at Lloyd. 'Only you can make all of modern science worthwhile. And only you can help lower our shocking death toll. You will cooperate, won't you? Thank you.' The screen went dark, and the set dispensed a pamphlet.

It was a complete account of his accident, and a warning about unpasteurized milk. He would be in bed for a week, it said, and urged him to make use of his telephone and FRIENDS."

This one nails the future in a way not everything from the speculative fiction field does. Not that it's a requirement, but a pleasure when it does. It's essentially a what-if-we-just-ceded-control-of-the-world-to-Facebook horror story. Obviously no one knew what Facebook was at the time, but Sladek extrapolated from conditions of the 1960s to imagine how it might look. 

From where I'm sitting, he nailed it.

"If we elect to build machines to heal us, we must be certain we know what power we are giving them and what it is we ask in return. (...) As Freud pointed out in Civilization and Its Discontents, when man started using a hand ax, he lost the freedom not to use the hand ax. We have now lost the freedom to do without computers, and it is no longer a question of giving them power over us, but of how much power, of what kind, and of how fast we turn it over to them."

4. "Lord Randy, My Son" 
by Joe L. Hensey

Plot: Sam Moore is a widower with terminal cancer. He is also the father of Randy, developmentally delayed boy with mysterious powers. While he can (and does) heal Sam of his cancer, he is also quick to take violent revenge on any who cross him. 

"The books were puzzling. There was so much in them that was so clearly wrong, but they were not cruel of themselves, only stupid and careless.

The books were no help.

Alone, unaided by what the world had become and what it meant to him, he made his decision."

The title refers to an Anglo-Scottish border ballad, apparently fairly well-referenced but not knowing the antecedent, I was confused by it at first. There are several cross-references to the founders of the major religions (including a "dangerous" reference to (sic) Ubu'l Kassim. So I thought the "Lord" in "Lord Randy" referred to that. I suppose it still does. 

Anyway, this is a gospel of the anti-Christ sort of story, or as its author says in the afterword: "a deeply religious story, combining that part of me which is best with that part of the world I recognize as worst, but then it's always been a bad but interesting world." 

War films and civil unrest and racism and arbitrary violence are juxtaposed well against the familial drama with all its discomfort and undigested loss. From such an environment, a new messiah rises. 

"But the new One, the One born for our times, would see man's consuming hate of all others, so consuming that the hate extends even to himself. See it in Alabama and Vietnam and even in the close world around Him. See it on television and read of it in the newspapers and then grow unsheltered in this world of mass and hysterical communication. Then plan. Then decide. This one would come to maturity and ripen angry."

3. "Flies" 
by Robert Silverberg. 

Plot: Cassiday, a fuel technician, is nearly killed when his ship explodes near the Saturn moon of Iapetus. He is rescued and put back together by "the Golden Ones" with some modifications. "When they were finished with him, he was much more sensitive. He had several new hungers. They had granted him certain abilities." In theory, they've given him empathy where he had little before. In practice,the extra sensitivity is like a narcotic to his sadism; he visits his ex-wives and tortures them with expert precision. At the end the Golden Ones recall him to Iapetus and fix his conscience, over his objections.

"They turned his perceptions inward, so that he might feed on his own misery like a vulture tearing at its entrails. That would be informative. Cassiday objected until he no longer had the power to object, and when his awareness returned it was too late to object.

They sent him away, back to Earth. They returned him to the travertine towers and the rumbling slidewalks, to the house of pleasure on 485th Street, to the islands of light that blazed in the sky, to the eleven billion people. They turned him loose to go among them, and suffer, and report on his sufferings. And a time would come when they would release him, but not yet.

Here is Cassiday: nailed to his cross

I'm not wasn't a huge fan of that "nailed to his cross" line. I appreciate being pointed in the right direction (i.e. make sense of the Gospel allusion in context of Cassiday's story) but not being explicitly told where to go with it. Your taste may vary. Nevertheless, another anti-gospel sort of story, not as in opposing-the-intent-of-the-gospel but in subverting its structure for different ends: aliens send their rebuilt (and repurposed) "son" to Earth, for their own purposes.

Silverberg, like many of the authors in this collection, is a giant in the field, with hundreds of credits to his name. 

As mentioned in that bio, "He's come a long way from the cocky kid from New York cranking out the wordage as fast as the magazines would buy it." I've read only this lone story - a drop in the proverbial bucket but an excellent drop nonetheless.

by James Cross.

Plot: Jim Eliot is a man with money troubles. In desperation he approaches his wife's uncle, a man who never liked him or approved of their marriage. Uncle John has no money to give - instead he gives him a "delayed wedding gift," a doll's house modeled on the House of the Vettii in Pompei, in perfect scale, with a genuine oracle inside. Not knowing what an oracle is, his uncle explains:

"The Cumaean Sibyl," Uncle John went on, "as you would know if you had been given a decent education, was believed to be immortal. Originally, she was a young priestess of Apollo, and the god spoke through her lips when she was in a trance and foretold the future to those who asked. There were half a dozen such priestesses operating, but the one at Cumae took the fancy of the god Apollo and he gave her two presents—the gift of prophecy and immortality. Like any other mortal suitor, he was fatuously in love—but not completely so: when he caught his girl friend out on the grass one night with a local fisherman, he couldn't take away the gifts he had granted her, but he had wisely held back on giving her eternal youth to go along with immortality. And just to make sure there would be no more young fishermen, he reduced her to the size of a large mouse, shut her up in a box and turned her over to the priests of the temple to use for all eternity.

Jim thinks the man has gone senile and doesn't understand, even when he demonstrates what to do ("Do you see that empty pool past the atrium? Well, write your question on a slip of paper, fold it up and put it in the pool. Get a tiny bowl and fill it with milk sweetened with honey and push it inside the gateway. Then go away and the next morning take the piece of paper from the pool. There will be an answer written on it.") Nevertheless, he takes the doll's house and begins to ask the oracle questions. It works well for awhile, but when he demands the oracle answer him in English and she refuses, he begins to threaten it with his cat.  

When she "tricks" him with an ambiguous answer and he loses more than he can replace at the track, he comes home to discover the cat has killed her. When his wife returns from the movies, she finds the cat dead, shot by Jim in anger, and her husband cradling what appears to be a tiny doll, "cooing to it in a language she did not know."

This could easily have been the best episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents ever. Great story. Like the best Greek tragedies upon which it's modeled, the main character's hubris seals his fate the moment he accepts the gift from the gods. "James Cross" is a pseudonym, apparently, for someone (a government employee) named Hugh Parry, about whom it is difficult to get any information at all. This story is so well-written, though, and such a seamless mix of ancient myth and contemporary psychodrama, that I'm anxious to read anything else by him - if I ever find anything.

From the author's afterward:  

"'It is the custom of the gods,' Caesar said to King Ariovistus, 'to raise men high, so that their fall will be all the greater.' Jim Eliot doesn't even get all that high, except for a matter of minutes; but his fall is just as great. He is extended; in debt; juggling creditors; stretched thin; on a tightrope; near a breakdown. This is why he is willing to believe the unbelievable. This is why he is avid to accept a dubious gift from a dying man who is obviously his enemy. And this is why even a setback or two—plain warnings—do not deter him: he still has that dangerous vision of the perfect gimmick that will open the doors to the U. S. Mint.
"Most of my novels and short stories, I find, revolve a great deal around money, sex and status. This particular one is about money and the various symbols that men exchange it for; about easy money and the eternally dangerous vision—that there is somewhere, just around the corner, in another country, another time, another dimension, a fool-proof way to get it."

And finally:

by Philip K. Dick

Plot: I've been writing my own summaries, above, but for this one, I'll just give you an edited version of the wiki plot summary:

"Tung Chien, a Party bureaucrat in Vietnam in a future where Chinese-style communism has triumphed over the entire world, is given an illegal drug by a street seller. The atheist Communist Party rules absolutely over a population that is kept docile by hallucinogenic drugs. Later that evening, he takes the drug - which he later learns is stelazine, an anti-hallucinogen - and when he watches the Party leader's appearance on television, briefly sees him in his true form - or at least one of them, because different people see any one of twelve different possible visions of the leader. Some (including Chien) see a machine ("the Clanker"), others see a biological monstrosity ("the Gulper"), yet others see a whirlwind, and so forth.

An underground movement, fearing that the leader is not human, contrives to place Tung at a party where the leader will be present. Tung meets the leader, who is apparently an undistinguished elderly man, and takes the anti-hallucinogenic drug.

He learns that all the visions are true, and far more besides; the Party leader is not only alien, he is an almighty, godlike being — perhaps a demiurge, perhaps God himself — and one that preys on all living things. As the story comes to a close, the Leader tells the now mortally wounded Chien: "The dead shall live, the living die. I kill what lives; I save what has died. And I will tell you this: there are things worse than I. But you won't meet them because by then I will have killed you."

Chien, armed with this knowledge, reflects that "A hallucination is merciful. I wish I had it; I want mine back." The story ends with Chien mortally wounded, his life ebbing away, trying to regain his hallucinatory state through intimacy." 

What a story. How has a movie not been made of this yet? Inconceivable. It's amazing how modern this story seems. Not just its style or its concerns ("Mr. Pethel has had a rich and full lifetime supporting the people's struggle to unseat imperialist-bloc countries via pedagogic media.") but the anti-dualistic nature of its conclusions. It doesn't matter, in other words, what side wins any ideological cold war, not when we're slaved to the other-dimensional power and appetite of some other-dimensional Great Leader. 

I don't recall Stephen King's mentioning this being an influence for his novel Revival, but there's some thematic overlap, particularly how both stories end.  

"He could not believe it was speaking to him; he could not imagine - it was too terrible - that it had picked him out.

"I have picked everybody out," it said. "No one is too small, each falls and dies and I am there to watch. I don't need to do anything but watch; it is automatic; it was arranged that way." And then it ceased talking to him; it disjoined itself. But he still saw it; he felt its manifold presence. It was a globe which hung in the room, with fifty thousand eyes, a million eyes -- billions: an eye for each living thing as it waited for each thing to fall, and then stepped on the living thing as it lay in a broken state. Because of this it had created the things, and he knew; he understood."

I'm definitely a PKD fan, but I've only read a smattering of his output. When this came out, his reputation wasn't quite as stellar as it is today, but judging only from Harlan's introduction, (and Dick's bibliography prior to 1967) he was still a force to be reckoned with. It's difficult to overstate just how influential he was to a generation of writers and moviegoers

As mentioned here:

Someone once told me that this 1974 religious vision of the apocalypse coincided with the growth of a tumor in Dick's brain, but I keep googling "Philip K. Dick brain tumor" and only coming across other family members' brain tumors and the plots of the VALIS trilogy. As well as some forums where PKD fans call each other names. Not a lot of hard info on the topic, but perhaps you know the scoop, dear reader, and can illuminate in the comments.

Regardless of religious visions or tumors, his expansive and considerable body of work will no doubt continue to inspire future generations. 

The android bearing his likeness - seriously, what a trip - promises to keep you "warm and safe" in his "people zoo," so hey, be thou not afraid, Rocky.

"This was a book and a time unrepeatable. It is now a book that lives and breathes on its own, even though some of its parents have gone away. It isn't a snarling brat now, it's a stately, serious, academically-noted tome of significant writing that altered the world for a great many readers. 

Now it's your turn. 

Nice book. Please enjoy it."
 - Harlan Ellison, 2002. 


  1. "Be thous not afraid, Rocky," indeed; no harm will come unto thee.

    I've had a copy of this (and the sequel) for years and haven't read it, on account of how I'm a chump who never most of the stuff that's worth doing. It sounds, based on your picks, predictably awesome. It's got two of my new favorite titles, too: "Go, Go, Said the Bird" and "Lord Randy, My Son," both of which are just terrific. The stories might be shit (sounds like they aren't), but those titles are great for sure.

    Thanks for the link to the story about "Last Dangerous Visions." I had no idea it was that massive a collection. All I knew about it was that Stephen King had a story destined for it.

    Finally: boy, those vintage covers. If I had a house with wallpaper that consisted of vintage sci-fi magazine/book covers, I'd think I lived in the coolest house that ever existed.

    1. You ain't kidding. A museum-sized collection of vintage sci-fi magazine/ book covers, hanging all around me, would be the bomb-est.

      I imagine you'll enjoy Dangerous Visions (as well as Again, DV) very much when you get to reading them. I read most of these last spring/ summer and started this blog way back then and refined it, literally, like, a paragraph at a time every few days since. Slow Boat to Blog-China.

  2. End of an era. RIP Harlan! Another maestro joins the cosmos.