In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
The title of this article is Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, but the book is actually the work of 32 different authors. Harlan Ellison serves as both contributor and editor. At the time, and in many ways still now, this was a New and Important book. Ellison put out a call for new, experimental, push-the-boundaries-of-the-genre type fiction, fiction that, due either to editorial opinion or censorship, could not get published in the contemporary market. What he collected is 33 stories, most of which are very good, a third of which are truly impressive, and a handful of which are kinda crappy. It is the distillation of a lot of ideas floating about in the heads of new SF writers at the time. In the 60s environment of general rebellion, experimentation, and radicalization, many SF writers wanted to push the limits of the form, aspire to the quality of general literature, and break with the aliens-and-robots standards of the past. While the ideas behind the movement had been circulating for a few years, Harlan Ellison gave them all a place to roost.
Harlan himself is a very interesting character. He is an important, genre-influencing author, with short stories like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which you can read here, and which is one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever found. He also spent a lot of time writing SF for television, and his “City on the Edge of Forever” is one of the most highly acclaimed Star Trek: TOS episodes ever. His accomplishments as an author have been slightly overshadowed by his accomplishments as an editor and SF personality, but that is only because he edited such an important anthology and he has such a unique personality. One word to describe that personality would be abrasive, and I probably don’t have to tell you any more than that he has a section in his Wikipedia article entitled “Controversies and disputes,” and that it takes up nearly half his entry, for you to get an idea of just how abrasive. This is the man behind one of the most important science fiction books ever written.
Harlan Ellison in the 80s. Possibly my favorite picture on Wikipedia. Why is there a pipe?
So what’s so great about this book he put together? It largely lives up to its ambitions, presenting stories that are highly experimental, that break social taboos, and that aspire to literary quality. “Evensong” explores a future where God is on the run from his chosen people, who have transcended his guidance, which would be controversial if published today, 47 years on. Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man” is a horrifying portrait of a time when the incarcerated are cut into bits for their organs and body parts, thus conferring immortality on the unimprisoned. Philip K. Dick’s “Faith of our Fathers” explores a totalitarian world where the protagonist is dosed with anti-hallucinogens, and when he looks at the benevolent leader when sober, it isn’t human. In “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” God shows up with his angels, all raring to blow their horns and start the Apocalypse, but all they see is dust and ashes. The angel responsible for turning the seas to blood can’t find the seas. Eventually, they find inscribed on the wall of a bunker, “We were here. Where were You?” In the amazingly named “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” the happiest and most productive planet in the galaxy is so healthy because it actively practices incest, which, even as a thought experiment, is highly uncomfortable to read. I could keep on listing and describing the great stories in this book. I made a list of about twelve of them, but it would be better for you to just read it for yourself.
As groundbreaking as this book is, it is not without problems. It is open-minded about sex, taboo, and stylistic experimentation, but it strongly maintains some taboos while transgressing others. One example of this is when, in a story about gambling, the protagonist Joe finds himself playing craps with someone sinister. Fine, games of chance against the devil that don’t go so well for the other player are ingrained in our storytelling tradition. The problem is, when Joe starts getting worried about it, he “[finds] himself wondering if he’d got into a game with a [racial slur], maybe a witchcraft-drenched Voodoo man whose white make-up was wearing off.” What? In addition to the slur being a problem, the author decided to use blackness as shorthand for the hidden, threatening Other. Before, it was a game between compatriots, and as it turns sinister, the main character wonders if maybe he’s not playing against someone of his own race. That’s fucked up. Another example of backwards thinking is in a story called “Ersatz,” which is a pretty standard future-war post-atomic apocalypse story. A soldier finds his way to a care station and starts eating and drinking a bunch of ersatz stuff, because with the world basically over, they can’t get the real thing. He eats a steak made of bark, smokes tobacco made of not tobacco. The post-apocalyptic world is not a nice place, and so far this story is pretty standard. The ending of the story is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read. It turns out that, in addition to the other ersatz comforts, the woman that works at the care station and who had attracted the attention of the soldier (there were descriptions of curves) turns out to be wearing a wig and a stuffed bra, and surprise, she wasn’t born a woman. The reason this is the stupidest ending I’ve ever read is that the soldier’s response to this is hitting Eleanora (that’s her name) and running back out into the wasteland, without armor or weapons, to certain death. First off, really? A hardened soldier is so terrified of a penis that he runs in terror to certain death? Secondly, this is a really disgusting portrayal of trans women. This is a story about how everything humanity used to enjoy is fake. The big reveal was supposed to be, oh no! even sexytimes with women are now fake! What it really communicates is the author’s ignorance, and what it states is that trans women are fake women, which is actively reactionary, not ground-breaking. Let me quote part of the ending for you: “He struck the creature with all the strength in his fist, and it fell to the floor, weeping bitterly, its skirt hoisted high on the muscular, hairy legs.” So if you are surprised by a trans woman, who is a fake woman, the correct response is physical violence towards “the creature.” That is the moral of this disgusting little polyp of a story.
A nice picture of a sea polyp, as you probably don’t want to see a picture of the type of polyp I have in mind.
The editor of this anthology also has problematic attitudes towards homosexuality. In one introduction to a story, he communicates that families with weak fathers often end up raising homosexual children. In another intro, he discusses the old aphorism that you should never meet the person behind the art you love, which, yes, but one of the examples he uses is “the writer of swashbuckling adventures [turns out to be] a pathetic little homosexual who still lives with his invalid mother.” What? Is Ellison implying that he is pathetic because he is gay? Is there something wrong with living with and caring for your sick mom? It’s just weird, and it’s an indication that, however progressive they were then (Ellison participated in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery), you knock one piece of backwards, reactionary thought garbage down, and there’s more bullshit to take its place. There’s also a story, “Riders of the Purple Wage,” wherein a man’s girlfriend says yes, let’s have unprotected sex to have a baby. She changes her mind afterwards and goes to her bathroom to use spermicide. This future contraceptive method is a bottle of some sort that you can insert into the relevant orifice, push the relevant button, and spray the relevant area with spermicide. Since this is the future, one bottle is good for 40,000 sprays. The boyfriend (the fucking protagonist) becomes so enraged at this that he superglues the contraceptive bottle inside of his girlfriend and makes the button stuck, thus continuously and painfully injecting spermicide into her. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be comical or what, but it comes off as horrifying. Hi, you don’t want to do with your body what I want you to do with your body, I will therefore practice violence upon you and cause you great and humiliating physical harm.
Aside from the repugnant stance on some social issues, some of the stories are just not that great. There’s one that is told from the POV of a three-year-old as he thinks about how square his parents are. There’s another, “The Man Who Went to the Moon Twice,” wherein a kid in a small town lies about going to the moon and becomes a local sensation because everyone is too bored to check facts, and then he does it again as an old man because he is sad that no one cares about him (big twist: it’s noteworthy that he’s been to the moon as an old man because at that time, Mars is the main colony). The whole story is just really boring and saccharine. Also, one of the most celebrated stories in the anthology, “Riders of the Purple Wage,” of violence-against-women fame, gets credit all the time for being “Joycean.” Man, there are about two pages at the beginning of this story that are lyrically inventive and that require some exertion to figure out, and then it falls back into pretty standard narrative technique. Ulysses is “Joycean” because it is inexhaustibly inventive, and nearly every single chapter showcases a new, different, and innovative style. This guy writes confusingly for two pages and gets credited as “Joycean?” No.
This man’s work was Joycean. Not sure anyone else’s ever was.
This book is rife with problems. Let me restate that. This book is not rife with problems, but whenever a problem rears its head, it’s a huge one. As a book that purports to be on the cutting-edge of social advancement and fearless in its striking down of taboos, the reactionary attitudes of some of these authors towards many aspects of social justice are highly incongruous. It might have been impressively open-minded for 1967, but not so much for 2014. You should still read it, though. One reason is that it is a monolith in the field of SF’s past and helped set the stylistic tone for a generation of writers. Another is that, as truly repugnant as some of these stories are, the grand majority of them are not, and the anthologized nature of it means that even if Henry Slesar writes like an asshole, you can still enjoy the weird, mind-bending visions of Lester del Rey or Philip K. Dick contained in the same book. In addition, it is important to read and understand even the repugnant stories, as their presence in a book lauded as taboo-breaking in the 1960s underline the nature of social progress – there is no finish line, and we must always move forward.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at email@example.com.
What did you think of the David Bunch and Spinrad stories? I’m a huge fan of both. It’s a shame that Bunch hasn’t gotten more exposure — his 70s collection Moderan (1972) is worth reading but so hard to find!
The Bunch stories didn’t get me quite like some of the others did – the first one was short and sweet, which is fine, it just didn’t appeal to me, and the second one went over (or under, or to the left or right of) my head – it did not click for me. I understand the Moderan universe is worth looking into, but these shorts didn’t do it for me. I thought the Spinrad story was ridiculous and enjoyable. What would you say Spinrad’s best novel is?
The Iron Dream is darn good — not sure it’s Spinrad’s best, need to read Bug Jack Barron first. The Iron Dream is a metafictional alt-history where Hitler comes to the US before WWII and tries to write SF. The novel you read is his posthumous Hugo winning pulp adventure story (which reproduces his own rise to power — well, in this case because WWII never happened a sort of fever vision). It’s a critique of pulp SF and all its rather racist inclinations.