All Tomorrows: Where now, Dangerous Visions?

What you hold in your hands is more than a book. If we are lucky, it is a revolution.

It is “steam engine time” for the writers of speculative fiction. The millennium is at hand. We are what’s happening.

-Harlan Ellison, from the Introduction to Dangerous Visions

They are two volumes: old by now and a little yellow around the edges, imposing both in size and scope. Seventy-nine stories by as many authors. The overloaded dynamite clump of an era.

The world had never seen anything like 1967’s Dangerous Visions or its 1972 follow-up, Again, Dangerous Visions. Enfant terrible Harlan Ellison bought together sci-fi’s old masters and a grand array of new talent to unleash a wave of stories sexy, violent and far enough out there that they’ll still shock the living hell out of you today. Attacking “the constricting narrowness of mind” that ran sci-fi, Ellison urged the authors: “Pull out all the stops, no holds barred, get it said!” They did.

If “All Tomorrows” is your informal classroom on the glories of the Deviant Age, consider these the fucking primers. They personify everything great and terrible about this time. Here, in paper form, are seventy-nine utterly genius minds cutting loose.

Here too, is the trilogy that was never finished. It is thirty-six years later, and The Last Dangerous Visions, the long-touted finale, is lost as the holy grail. Like its era, the Dangerous Visions series broke the old into tiny pieces and screamed towards the future — only to fall sickeningly short in a mix of bile-ridden hubris.

More on one of the greatest triumphs and tragedies science fiction has ever seen, after the jump.

Science fiction began in short stories and, hard as it may be to believe in this “every bastard and their mother has a nine-part trilogy” era, they remained one of the primary ways writers made their livings for a long, long time. Leaf through a batch of old issues of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from the early ’80s, for example and you’ll still see names like Orson Scott Card (pre-crazy) or Bruce Sterling, getting their start.

Ellison’s intro — and just about any of the other commentary he writes in the series — are unbelievably pompous, but he was right. Dangerous Visions was a revolution, both the beginning of a new age and one of the last times people could point back to sci-fi short stories and say “see, that changed everything.”

How did they do it? They bought new faces forward and revitalized old hands, raking in an unprecedented degree of awards and acclaim. I cannot possibly do justice to all of the good tales in these volumes in this space. What follows is a rundown of some of the (often award-winning) highlights.

Samuel Delany’s classic Aye, and Gomorrah… (Nebula award) is in the first volume, as are Fritz Leiber’s horrifying rat-a-tat Gonna Roll the Bones (Nebula and Hugo awards), Philip K. Dick’s “Lovecraft ain’t got shit — I’ve got LSD!” tale Faith of Our Fathers (nominated for Hugo) and Philip José Farmer’s still outright bizarre Riders of the Purple Wage (tied for Hugo).

Robert Silverberg’s sadistic Flies and Miriam Allen deFord’s The Malley System are also overlooked gems.

The second volume was even larger, similarly acclaimed and very much out of print. Opinion’s still divided on exactly how ground-breaking it was after the first. But here’s Joanna Russ’ When it Changed (Nebula award) a compelling gut-kick of a story that’s getting its own All Tomorrows treatment in the not too distant future. It’s squeezed right in with Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Big Space Fuck,” a strange pairing that works wonderfully, oddly enough. Here’s Ursula LeGuin’s resplendent The Word for World is Forest. Here’s James Tiptree, Jr’s (Alice Sheldon’s) alien encounter mind (and a few other orifices) fuck The Milk of Paradise, coming shortly after Richard Lupoff’s sadly under-read and goddamned hilarious “With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little New Old Alabama.”

And, dear reader, if you’re still with me after that exhausting list, know that there’s even more in store. If you can — and there’s some really cheap used editions out there — get both of the Dangerous Visions volumes. The amount of shocking material can be a little much all at once, but the varying length of the stories and novellas means that many of the visions are best digested in small, luscious bites. Ideally, read them just before going to sleep. You’ll thank me and, no, I’m not responsible for the ensuing therapy costs.

The books are thus a testament to the power of an art-form sadly far too neglected these days — think about the last time you heard a writer get famous off of short stories — and reminder of why that’s a giant blind spot. The current utterly clueless, anemic state of the old venerable mags has been discussed at more length elsewhere (take a shot), but only the most delusional old guard type would deny it now. In many ways Dangerous Visions marked the last, unfinished monument to the glory of the short story, the high crest of a wave that began in the distant days of the pulps.

Somewhere, on some other world, the kids huddle around the racks waiting for the latest groundbreaking story. But, dear reader, it ain’t here. Not anymore. Not yet.

Amazing as these two books were, The Last Dangerous Visions was supposed to be bigger, bolder and even more badass. The projected size of the books ballooned to the point where this last volume would be a trilogy in its own right: 150 stories/writers, over 700,000 words.

It has never come out.

What happened?

Of course, you’ve heard of Dangerous Visions. Of course, you remember the writers who won all those awards for Dangerous Visions. Of course, you remember what a mind-blower, in this respect, was Dangerous Visions Of course, you remember the wealth of addenda that made such a milestone out of Dangerous Visions. It took over three years to compile this book. It has been edited by Harlan Ellison, who put together Dangerous Visions, which you will surely recall. And … THIS IS A MORE STARTLING BOOK THAN Dangerous Visions. THIS BOOKS TAKES OFF WHERE Dangerous Visions STOPPED AND IT IS A BETTER BOOK THAN Dangerous Visions.

– Excerpts from the book jacket to Again, Dangerous Visions. The photo on the other flap features Ellison in front of a bookshelf filled entirely with copies of Dangerous Visions. To his left is the plaque for the special award he won in 1967. For Dangerous Visions. (Perhaps you’d heard?)

“This book is Harlan Ellison. It is Ellison-drenched and Ellison-permeated. I admit that thirty-two other authors (including myself in a way) have contributed, but Harlan’s introduction and his thirty-two prefaces surround the stories and embrace them and soak them through with the rich flavor of his personality.”
– Isaac Asimov, from his second forward to the first Dangerous Visions, one focused entirely on Harlan Ellison.

What the rich flavor was, the late good doctor didn’t venture to say.

Before we go any further, it should be made crystal clear that Ellison’s unique talents — his own mastery of the short story and his multitude of connections throughout the sci-fi world — did, in fact, make the Dangerous Visions series a milestone. Editing is an oft-underrated but extremely important job. Good editors push your limits and get the best out of you, bad ones can screw over your writing — and you — in a way that few other anguishes rival.

With both volumes Ellison did a bravura job for the ages. Reading through them now, yes, the boasts and examples of outsized ego mentioned above do result in eye-rolling amusement. Then you begin a story and are forced to admit, “well, shit. He earned his bragging rights.” Success forgives many sins.

But, for all his brilliance, Ellison’s also “possibly the most contentious person on earth” (by his own admission) or, to his legion of detractors, a fucking asshole. The man’s been involved in many, many controversies.

The Last Dangerous Visions is one of those. It was supposed to be out in 1973. Obviously, that was a long, long time ago. Over the years, the stories have dribbled out here and there, but many remain unpublished.

The feelings over the never-produced final volume became so acrimonious, in fact, that in 1994 The Prestige author Christopher Priest released The Book on the Edge of Forever, a 58-page screed (now nearly unobtainable) with chapter titles like “a Decade of Broken Promises.” His attack was derided, naturally, as a self-pitying rant, but he has a point and he’s far from the only writer angry at Ellison over the mess. Ellison doesn’t exactly come off as a saint by suing widows over stories bought for a volume that will probably never see the light of day.

I hope against hope that I’m wrong about those last words.

When it comes down to it, no one seems to know exactly why The Last Dangerous Visions has never been finished, though it’s clear Ellison hasn’t been honest about its fate. The most likely explanation is the most poignant: Ellison met his match, bit off more than he could chew and now, an old man, he can’t finish it. But his gargantuan pride won’t let him publicly let it go. After all, this is the man behind Dangerous Visions.

It is doubly tragic because a sci-fi all too often mired in technophilia and stagnant retreads could really use a hefty dose of dangerous visions now. But maybe they aren’t drenched in Ellison anymore. Read the old stories, read them all, but dangerous visions come from tomorrow: and that’s bigger than anyone.

Question: Let’s make a little mini-anthology here. What writers are crafting today’s dangerous visions? Bonus points if they’re relatively unrecognized. Double bonus points if a complete story (or more!) is available online.

20 Responses to “All Tomorrows: Where now, Dangerous Visions?”

  1. Pat Says:

    I’d be remiss to not say Charles Stross. He’s the first SF writer in a long time to give me the frission of reading HPL, PKD or WSB for the first time.

    Try out A Colder War:

    On the subject of Scientifiction, maybe a couple of words on Algis Budrys?
    He died a few months back, and deserves more than a link on the Cancer Deaths in Illinois page. (Or what do Wesley Willis and Jane Addams have in common?)

  2. fromtherivers Says:

    Ted Chiang is the only SF name that comes to mind, and he’s not particularly dangerous, to be honest, just a hell of a good writer with more than a dash of classicism to his style (despite his occassional experiments with form).

    I think today’s SF is more present in slipstream books like Pattern Recognition, Halting State or Little Brother than in “proper” SF. The last good SF book I read was Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”, which was nice but felt like a Heinlein pastiche with XXIst Century quirks (women and gays in the army, stress disorders). Is it possible today to write SF without making it seem like, ironically, a period piece? The last writer to pull that trick was Simmons with his Hyperion Cantos books, and that was in 1990.

    The future has catched up with us. All possibilities belong to the present, and the most dangerous visions will be written about the ifs and whys of how we live today, about the things we don’t dare look in the eye but have just around the corner, if not in full view.

  3. Warren Ellis Says:

    I dunno that Charlie Stross has a particularly “dangerous” vision. He has a gleefully nasty streak, the same sort of viciousness behind “Aye, And Gomorrah…” but he doesn’t really gutpunch you with it.

    I thought Simon Logan might have a shot, though I haven’t read anything by him in a while.

    Ted Chiang, while being a perfectly competent and entertaining writer, is a useful yardstick for the current state of sf in the magazines: he wrote a kind of okay story, a confection, for an sf magazine I was sent, and after reading the entire magazine I realised it stood out simply by dint of being about something and having properly formed sentences. And, sure enough, some months later I saw it up for some annual awards.

  4. chesh Says:

    All of Peter Watts’s novels and stories are available at his website, His first novel, Starfish, ends with most of humanity being wiped out; it’s the first in a trilogy. But if you want to get to the meat, skip the Rifter’s trilogy for now and jump straight into his latest, Blindsight. A man with half his brain lobotomized, a woman with four personalities, a cyborg, a soldier who’s career was defined by treason, and a vampire walk into an alien ship…

  5. Ben Morris Says:

    Coincidentally enough I bought a used copy of Again, Dangerous Visions about a month ago.

    The Question:
    After racking my brain for a ‘dangerous’ current author I remembered Roger Williams and his novel The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect. It depicts a post-singularity existence where you can have most anything you want…except death. The near-omnipotent artificial intelligence controlling everything will not permit anyone to die. Despite and because of this the experience of dying and the crafting of situations to die in have become a sport of thrill seekers, you don’t stay dead though. The novel has much larger scope than just this sport but it is a major part of the opening chapter and that chapter is one of the most viscerally disturbing things I’ve ever read in a science fiction novel. The author has made the entire book freely available online.

    Also worth reading (but maybe not as dangerous, certainly not as shocking) by Williams is a series of hard science fiction short works about unmanned slower than light space exploration over vast time-scales. Passages in the Void is the first of these.

  6. Chris Says:

    Been a while since I’ve read him, but Lucius Shepherd has published some really twisted stuff, seems like the last few of his I’ve read were from tiny non-mainstream publishing houses.

  7. Camilla Says:

    Definitely not unheard of, but I’d vouch for Bruce Sterling (City Come A Walking), William Gibson (Mona Lisa Overdrive), and Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination).

  8. Ben Morris Says:

    chesh: Blindsight is indeed both excellent and dangerous. That book’s views on consciousness’s relation to evolution are quite terrifying, especially since they seem so plausible.

    Camilla: I’m not sure Bester qualifies as someone “crafting today’s dangerous visions” since he’s been dead for two decades.

  9. Nadya Says:

    Bester’s the shit… he was definitely ahead of his time. We gotta do a Bester tribute post one day.

  10. James Russell Says:

    I wouldn’t say Again DV is particularly groundbreaking, and that’s probably why I like it better than the original DV. The first volume always struck me as too self-conscious (not to mention self-congratulatory) in its attempts to be deliberately taboo-breaking and oh so hip; the second volume just gets on with the job, having assumed volume one has already fought and won the battle.

    As for the question of whether it’s possible to write a SF story these days that doesn’t feel like a period piece, I don’t think I’ve ever read any SF story ever written that wasn’t a period piece.

  11. John Says:

    I have four suggestions for a modern-day Dangerous Visions:

    Gene Wolfe’s short fiction is pretty dangerous, imho. I’m thinking mainly of stories like “Lord of the Land” from the Starwater Strains collection (probably the best SF Cthulu story I’ve read) and the novella “Zigurat” from the Strange Travellers collection. “The Tree is My Hat” from Innocents Aboard left its mark on me as well.

    M. John Harrison’s Light was a serious mindfuck of a space opera and a dark meditation on life (among many other things).

    Kelly Link writes some of the most gutpunching (to lift some vocab from Mr. Ellis) stories Ive read. In particular, “Zombie Contingency Plan” and “Stone Animals” from Magic for Beginners and “The Specialists Hat” from Stranger Things Happen still manage to disturb me mightily when I turn them over in my head.

    And, finally, Thomas Ligotti – though the stories of his that I’ve read (i.e. the three novellas in “My Work is Not Yet Done”) are not quite SFish, they are profoundly intense, disquieting fantasies.

  12. Ben Morris Says:

    John: Harlan Ellison seems to agree with you on the dangerousness of Gene Wolfe and M. John Harrison as each of them have a short story in Again, Dangerous Visions. Damn good ones too.

    Regarding Wolfe’s “The Tree is My Hat”, are you aware of the radio play made of it? Neil Gaiman did one of the voices. It used to be free online somewhere but a quick google hasn’t found it.

  13. m1k3y Says:

    While I try to think of the most dangerous SF I’ve read I’ll mention Richard Kadrey and his oft-overlooked cyberpunk classic Metrophage (available here

    And thanks, I’ll be tracking down both volumes A.S.A.P!

  14. Peter Tupper Says:

    I wonder if “dangerousness” lends itself to the short story better than the novel. Gutpunching can be fun in the short term, but it get wearying over the long term.

    In that case, the related question to this debate is, what killed the sf short story? And what, if anything, will revive it?

    I think it won’t be the print publishing industry. More likely some online ebook business model will come out of left field and completely change the game.

  15. Warren Ellis Says:

    “In that case, the related question to this debate is, what killed the sf short story?”

    Bad contracts, bad fees, bad publishing. In the 90s, writers assure me that sf magazines were asking for a ridiculous amount of rights over short stories while paying rates that hadn’t changed since the 1960s.

    Sooner or later, someone will notice that the manufacturing cost for a 90-page digest size publication at Lulu’s POD setup is $3.50 or thereabouts.

  16. David Forbes Says:

    My apologies all for the delay on the comments, the news hasn’t just not slept lately, it’s gone berserk, and that’s kept me extremely busy. Thank you very much for the author and story recommendations, they’re both a reminder of some old favorites and some new territory to start exploring.

    Pat: I had not heard Budrys’ passing. His old review columns were how I found out about Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and a number of other things that made me weird.

    fromtherivers: Nah, tomorrow ain’t done with us yet. Look what happens anytime humanity begins to think it’s living in the future, or that history is over.

    But it does show something about sci-fi today that too much of it reads like a period piece. To my mind that says more about the insular culture that’s sprang up around it: too many writers have their influences — and they’re sticking to them, afraid to stray out too far because the niche won’t be happy.

    Nadya: Bester was awesome and yes, very groundbreaking. While All Tomorrows is mostly devoted to the Deviant Age, I will be doing “out/ahead of their time” pieces occasionally. Bester’s definitely getting his due and proper.

    Camille: Good ones both. Interestingly, my first experience with Sterling was through the aforementioned F&SF short stories towards the tail end of that time period (early 1980s). Sterling has since been fairly dismissive of the writing coming out then and he’s got a point: trying to be dangerous and oh-so-meaningful in every story led to some really bad crap.

    But reading over those same issues now, a thing or two could be learned from the overall storytelling quality and the lack of technophilia. I like technology. Its impacts are absolutely essential to consider and they can make for a great story. But a great strength of the Dangerous Visions era was the realization that the future’s stories were about a hell of a lot more than what devices we’ll be plugged into.

    James Russell: Yes, I found some of that tone in DV annoying, as noted above, but it was balanced out by the fact that so many of the stories actually lived up to their hype. More of the stories in DV won awards, but personally (and it’s close) I like more of the stories in A,DV.

    When I call A,DV groundbreaking it’s mostly because a lot of the stories remain extremely shocking and innovative today. Admittedly, it didn’t have quite the same impact on the sci-fi culture as DV because, well, it was a sequel.

    John: Yes, Gene Wolfe. Yes. The man is perhaps my all-around favorite author in print sci-fi. He’s still damned dangerous. Some writers (like Tanith Lee) did brilliantly weird work early in their career but settled down as time went on.

    Wolfe has not. Both his short stories and novels are just about perfect. In future days he will hopefully be regarded not just as a giant of sci-fi but as one of the most daring writers of the last 50 years, period.

    Peter Tupper: In general, it does. That’s one reason i think DV and A,DV were so effective. You could take an hour or less, absorb a unique, well-crafted shiv of a story. Scream Blink, let it sink in and ponder it for awhile. Few writers (Delany’s one of them) can keep up that impact at novel length: even most of the best gutpunch novels are relatively slim.

    Warren Ellis: The problem exactly. I’ll see authors in some of the mags today that will occasionally demonstrate flashes of the same insight, daring and yes, viciousness, but very rarely all of it together. They mostly stand out because of how badly things have fallen apart around them.

    As for the sci-fi mags, my own (admittedly brief) inquiries back that up: the starting rate for a freelance journalist at an average weekly paper is slightly better or about equal to what the “big name magazines” offer. That’s insane.

    It’s a wider issue than just sci-fi, however. Short stories in general seem dead or dying. Today, very few magazines publish them, very few writers get their start with that form and I can’t imagine anyone makes a living off them.

    Lastly: $3.50? Really? Well hell, that’s interesting.

  17. Dotc Says:

    China Meiville.

  18. Mer Says:

    It’s Miéville, and he’s anything but unrecognized, but yeah, agreed. There’s a great online seminar over at Crooked Timber that fans might enjoy (although I can’t recommend it to folks who haven’t read his work because it’s full of spoilers):

  19. DavidS Says:

    I got to go to Harlan Ellison’s house once. (Amazing place, by the way.) He gave me the tour and took me up to the mezzanine area where he liked to write. He pointed at a long row of manuscripts on the floor and said, “That’s the Last Dangerous Visions. It’ll never come out.” This was back in the mid-eighties. It was interesting to me that he had it out like it was still an open project, not put away in boxes or filed.

  20. David Says:

    “…derided, naturally, as a self-pitying rant…”

    Naturally? That’s a smear.

    I haven’t read the small-book form of Priest’s Book on the Edge of Forever. But I’ve read a very lengthy predecessor to it, which has all the same chapter headings and structure, and which is still available (although not easily) on the Internet. There’s nothing self-pitying about Priest’s reportage. It’s an honest and thorough job. If you read through the one-star reviews of Priest’s book at Amazon, you’ll find that the nay-sayers have few if any arrows in their quivers. No actual reporting and analysis from Priest’s book is even mentioned by most of them.