Dangerous Visions is a classic, groundbreaking, “really important” speculative fiction anthology. You know all of that, even if you haven't read it. Everybody says so, after all. But what makes something a classic? More to the point, what makes DV a classic? Inquiring minds want to know that sort of thing, and nobody has a more inquiring mind than the not-so-average spec fic fan—right?
Besides, “classic” is a pretty slippery word in the first place, of the type that always welcomes clarification. It has so many wildly different connotations (and denotations, even!). For example, the anthology could be irrefutably considered a “classic” if it was written in ancient Greece, then discovered by Harlan Ellison in the 20th century and translated by him into English. But according to the title page on my copy, that's just not the case.
To use another sense of the word, the anthology could be classic because the stories within it are timeless. But are they above reproach—biting, insightful and not aged at all in spite of the thirty years that has passed since their crafting? Not really.
To be perfectly honest, some of the stories found within are stinkers (Don't tell anyone I said so!).
So what's the deal? Why do editors and authors and fans keep referring back to it as though it is something special? It’s not like DV completely redefined genre fiction anthologies for all time or anything1; it is not at all “classic” in the sense of being “approved as a model; standard, leading.”2 While it made a big splash at the time, its format is, on the whole, still almost completely unheard of both inside the speculative fiction world, and out.
And that’s a shame. As I pick up my copy of The Best American Short Stories 2004, I feel this lack of influence most keenly.
By “unheard of format” I mean that every story in DV is preceded by an introduction written by Ellison, and followed with an afterword written by the author. It seems a simple thing, and perhaps it is, but Ellison doesn't ever leave well enough alone. In the end he and the authors he chose are splattered all over the pages of DV in all their glory, much like windshields sometimes do to bugs (only much more interesting, and not nearly so tragic).
In Best the format is much simpler. Only two introductions, one by the series editor and one by the guest editor. Neither are related to each other, and one assumes they are skipped by most readers. Rightfully so, of course. They have little, if anything, to add to the experience. In The Best American Short Stories series of anthologies, as in most others, the stories stand amazingly alone.
This is the one meaningful difference between the two books.
Note that the difference is not that which exists between the '60's and the 00's (or the 2k's or whatever the hell it is we're calling “the new millennium” now that it's old hat). It is also not the difference between speculative fiction and “literature.” The difference lies not in the quality of the stories, either (give them thirty years, and many of “the best” stories of 2004 will become quite ripe, too—in fact, some of them are kind of fishy right now).
Another way to put that singular difference, the difference that makes a difference, is this: ten, twenty, thirty years from now, the Best American series will be a wonderful reference for researchers and historians, and several of its stories might pop up now and again in other anthologies. Dangerous Visions on the other hand, even now, can change your life if you let it. Here's how:
It gives your heroes feet of clay.
Don't mourn the loss of their perfection. Heroes always have feet of clay, if you just take the time to notice. That only makes them even more important, because you can't stand on the shoulders of God. Giants only need apply.
In The Best American Short Stories, the monolithic authority of the Editor is in full force. Intimate yet reserved, the two introductions to the tome serve as small—and carefully crafted, carefully modulated—glimpses into two humble servants of Literature with a capital L. And that's okay. I read those introductions, and both of the editors seemed like nice people. I wouldn't mind taking them to coffee and explaining why I thought “Tooth and Claw” by T. C. Boyle was wretched, and seeing if they could maybe convince me to change my mind.
In DV, the monolithic authority of the Editor is also in full force. And Ellison has to admit that although “a writer like all the other writers here,” he “is delighted to be able to play god just this once” (24). But Ellison as “An Editor” (24), capital letters and all, isn't about to let the stories speak for themselves. Oh no. He lets the authors have their say—and leaves space for himself, as well.
And those stories about the stories are the real stories. Dangerous Visions is as much about real people as it is about fiction.
The first foreword, by Isaac Asimov, is pretty standard. It would and does sit in fine company, such as the two introductions of Best. But the second foreword in DV is where the fun really starts. It is Asimov, commenting on Harlan Ellison. And right in the middle of it (okay, at the end), Ellison feels like he has to insert an “IMPERTINENT EDITORIAL FOOTNOTE” (17).
See, Asimov remembered Ellison calling him “a nothing” (16) the first time they met. Ellison, however, remembers quite clearly that what he truly said was, “You aren't so much” (17).
Throughout for the rest of the book, filled with many Giants of the Field, the reader will go through many journeys, many surprises. Many expectations will be met, and others defied. Many readers today may even find themselves slightly disappointed. Others will find themselves pleasantly surprised. But almost every reader, I am sure, will have a moment in which they stop reading, stare in amazement down at the page instead, and suddenly realize the terrible truth: “You (whichever particular author it happens to be at the time) aren't so much, now are you?”
And the reader will be correct. The authors in DV are not superhuman, mystical, or divine—they are just people, albeit often people capable of crafting a really great story.
It begins with Lester del Rey—who almost did not appear in the anthology. It seems that his story never got sent to Ellison in the first place, and was the last piece to arrive. Although in his defense del Ray still insists that “...I did so have a carbon from which to send this copy of the story I already sent, I did, Idid, idid, ididid...” (34).
His afterword, however, is a sterling example of a glimpse into the mind of a humble servant of Literature, with a capital Spec Fic.
Ellison takes special care to point out in his next introduction that Robert Silverberg, the next author in the volume, is not a magic cache of stories. Instead, Silverberg is a writer that approaches the craft with daily discipline. Ipso facto, he produces daily and has a career to show for it. Funny, I thought writers became writers so they could sleep in late, not so they could work just as hard as everyone else.
When I got to the bit on Larry Niven later on, I learned that some do.
Here, now, though, Silverberg has this to say about his story: “No apologies offered. No excuses. Just a story, a made-up fiction, about future times and other worlds. Nothing more than that” (52).
Quite different from del Rey just before, who has become, like all authors, “more and more engaged with the ancient problems of philosophy—good and evil, and causality—since these lie deep within every plot and character” (38). He's a serious guy, you see, that does indeed “take it very seriously. And because I do, “Evensong” is not fiction, but allegory” (39).
After Silverberg, we learn from Frederik Pohl that his story speaks for himself. On the other hand, just in case it didn't sink in, here's the deal: “...all men are brothers... at least in the face of a very large universe which is very likely to contain creatures who are not men at all.”
And if people still don't get the point after all of that? Well, “...God help all of us.”
The fun really kicks into high gear with Philip José Farmer, because in his afterword he goes for it with gusto—he really talks about his story. He tells you where he got the idea, and the form, his thought processes, and even a bit about his life.
But who cares. There's a helluva lot more where that came from. You can't stop just there.
Every introduction is filled with tons of interesting, occasionally clearly fictionalized biographical material. Every afterword, in the author's own words, is distinct from all the others. Many are short. Some are long. All reveal something about the author, though, and how he or she thinks. And upon occasion how their house looks like it once grew from the ground, and is now trying to return to it.
Rodman speaks eloquently about how his story, “The Man Who Went to the Moon—Twice” is an exploration of an epiphany—the realization of how his father lived long enough to see many of his miracles die, and turned into less than the everyday. Ellison, in the afterward for his own story, takes the time to beat it into your head that yes, you—and you, and you, and even you—are, in fact, the monsters. Thanks Harlan. I don't think I would've gotten it, if you hadn't taken a page or two to explain it.
In Dangerous Visions there are as many approaches as there are authors. Some afterwards are opaque, minimalistic. Many contain carefully calculated poses, designed to wow you with The Voice of Authority. Many more contain anecdotes that bring home, in case you didn't know, that the author is just like you. Several contain anecdotes that bring home, in case you didn't know, that the author is not like you at all. Some attempt to explain their story, others to defend it. And the best stories do not always have the best afterwards, and vice versa, too.
Read DV. Like all memorable tales, its primary focus is on characterization. It does an enviable job in that department. Whether the authors make asses out of themselves, or whether they take yet another opportunity to stand up and display their towering height, the result is always worth the price of admission. And if the introduction and afterward to Sturgeon's story don't make you want to weep an odd mixture of grief and joy and melancholy and ecstasy, well... that's okay.
It takes all kinds. Maybe even someone like you.
That’s my theory, anyway. That, to me, must be the reason that so many movers and shakers in the publishing world still mention Dangerous Visions when asked about works that have influenced them, or are that are important, or that they recommend others read.. The book is not remembered today because it has good stories to tell—hundreds of great stories, novellas, and novels get published every year, most of them forgotten by the next. What DV does that seems so rare and dificult and wonderful, particularly for its time, is connect the reader to the writers that are producing the fiction. It shows the reader that real people are behind their hobby, pasttime, or passion. It is visceral, undeniable proof that maybe, just maybe, you can do this too.
Short of walking up to your favorite author in a bar and telling him—or her—that he or she is a nothing, DV was, back in the day, one of the best ways I know of to give your heroes feet of clay, and possibly even strap some wings—or a jetpack—on your own back in the process.
There are more options now, of course. DV is not the only door into the world of speculative fiction, not the only rabbit hole one can slip down. Aside from newsletters and fanzines which have been around the speculative fiction field since the beginning, conventions are a great place to meet and interact with people in the business in real life, relatively accessible to all with some gas money and some free time. The internet has also opened up new doors too, and to a wider range of people (lets face it, if you subscribe to a sci-fi or fantasy news letter and visit cons in your spare time, you’ve probably long since embraced the label “geek.”). Aside from publishers and booksellers organizing online chats with famous authors, personal web sites are great for the more casual fan.
Perhaps the proof is in the pudding. Many of my friends wouldn’t think Terry Goodkind was a genuine jerk, for example, if it hadn’t been for his web site, Prophets, Inc. Holly Lisle has an excellent web site of her own that reveals a lot about her, and her writing, in a blunt, honest kind of way that rings wonderfully true whether or not you happen to disagree with any of it. China Miéville takes a lot of time to state his opinions on things (often Tolkein) in interviews and his own web site. The list goes even further, but I wouldn’t consider even a cursory list complete without a link to Nick Mamatas’s always-entertaining LiveJournal and and the bulletin boards that Ellen Datlow posts in surprisingly regularly, one at Scifiction and one at the Nightshade Discussion area.
The point of all this is that there are many ways now for people to get a sense of efficacy about the speculative fiction world, and some understanding of the men and women behind the books they love. Dangerous Visions did the same thing thirty years ago, back before it got so simple.
- I hate sounding like such a negative Nancy, especially because there is indeed a lot to like about DV. For example, how the work stands as a historical marker. It will forever be emblematic of the times which created it (New Wave, remember?). Beyond that, DV has gone on to influence countless numbers of today's authors and editors. As such, Dangerous Visions has earned a place in the speculative fiction cannon—even if some of its stories have not escaped the ravages of time. In all of these wonderful ways, DV is pretty damn classic. [Back]
- From the Oxford English Dictionary defintion. [Back]