Dangerous Visions

by Various Authors, Harlan Ellison (Ed.)

Riots are the opium of the people.

Some say it’s past its time, that when it was first published it may have been ‘dangerous,’ but today much of the book is downright tame with many of the ideas presented in the 1960’s blunted with time. Dangerous Visions has most certainly lost some of its shock value—and that’s about it. Modern readers may have grown up with some of the themes examined, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

God is a big target, which is evident quickly. But while religion bears the brunt of the assault, the book is also filled with aggressive commentary on sex, sexism, racism, war, greed, politics, the nature of power…many of the touchy subjects it’s often best to avoid if you like getting along with people. Ellison not only doesn’t shy from these ideas, he demands them—that’s the reason this book exists.

It has extensive introductions at the onset and another by Mr. Ellison in front of every story, as well as an afterward from each author. Read ‘em all; they spoil nothing and enhance the experience.

Below is a link to a full list with synopsis for each of the thirty-three stories. Here are some of the standouts, but every story here is required reading—this is a no exceptions, cover-to-cover collection:

“Evensong” – Lester Del Rey – An unidentified person is fleeing his captors and escapes to a planet where perhaps creation itself began. But the pursuers are powerful, seem to know everything, and his time feels short.

This story shares thematic elements with one of the outstanding tales in Del Rey’s retrospective collection, War and Space, flowing with a sense of pride of what Man just might be able to accomplish here in our universe. There’s a fantastic quote at the end…

“The Day After the Day the Martians Came” – Frederik Pohl – Martians have landed and news reporters have gathered in the area in a local hotel to prepare for tomorrow’s conference. They spend the night telling Martian jokes while the proprietor of the hotel looks on, and when they leave the next morning the point of the story couldn’t be more apparent.

This kind of story is obviously still important today, though probably not as much as when it was written. But we’ve made a lot of progress, no matter what the peanut gallery says.

“The Man Who Went to the Moon—Twice” – Howard Rodman – A nine-year-old boy rides a balloon to the moon and returns twelve hours later, where his family’s house is soon filled with onlookers congratulating him. His life goes on, and one day everyone who’d ever known him has passed on. When he tells a tale of a second trip to the moon, almost no one believes him.

This one runs deep. Filled with wonder and imagination and tragedy and truth, this isn’t a gem, it’s a ponderous monolith carved by a wish. It’s a reason to read.

“Gonna Roll the Bones” – Fritz Leiber – Joe takes leave of his wife and mother to go out gambling after a hard day’s work. His exceptional skill at dice rolling generates a massive pile of chips, but the ominous gambler sitting across from hit at the craps table gives him a run for his money.

This, the second time reading “Gonna Roll the Bones,” brought with it a different, far more overpowering reaction. Its odd mix of dark fantasy, horror and folk storytelling manages to pull the reader down to the depths of the bottomless black felt of the table. A story that’s more than a story…

“Lord Randy, My Son” – Joe L. Hensley – A lawyer is dying of cancer while he tries to figure out what to do with his apparently slow-witted son while the boy slowly learns of the world and takes his revenge on the evils that attempt to hurt him.

Yup, this one’s got it. There’s something special in those stories where fundamental misunderstandings of someone or something by the characters, while the reader has a great deal more of the truth, that imparts an additional layer of learning.

“Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” – Damon Knight  – God walks upon a desolate Earth with seven of his angels, and on the appointed day asks the dead to rise.

As the author’s afterward states, the end of this story asks an important question. Sometimes it’s satisfactory, but other times “we tried” just doesn’t seem a good enough epitaph.

“If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” – Theodore Sturgeon – A man involved in space trading realizes one particular planet that’s largely ignored/unknown is able to provide goods at significantly lower prices than any competitor, so much so that it defies logic. He works tirelessly to uncover the facts of the planet and eventually uncovers a utopia with a drastically different way of looking at sex.

This is a masterpiece of a story, an almost alarmingly deep look, especially for a short, at sex in society. It features a taboo subject, but it’s the repression of the taboo that causes so much damage, not the subject itself. A great deal of thought obviously went into the story, but the presentation seems effortless.

“The Happy Breed” – John T. Sladek – A utopia has been created and is being managed by machines whose purpose is to extend mankind’s lives and keep them happy, removing obstacles from their paths and chemically modifying their behavior.

Okay, this one poses an interesting problem and wields a massive hammer. What actually happens if, as a species, utopia is attained?

“Judas” – John Brunner – The Second Coming has occurred, and God now sits on a throne in the world by way of a steel robot/android that man created decades before. One man knows the truth of ‘God’s’ origin and confronts the machine.

This one works well not just on its surface, but as an angular look at deeply entrenched Christianity. Parallels between the God that man made and the God that’s man-made are fascinating, as is the speed with which mankind rationalizes situations to force them to fit expected narratives.

“Test to Destruction” – Keith Laumer – A political revolutionary is captured by his victorious rival and interrogated through a brute-force mental invasion, but at the same time the man is being mentally evaluated by an alien species. The two opposing forces in the man’s mind lead to feedback on both ends, and both interrogators keep increasing the power to their respective probes.

Fairly complex for a short story, this is not only a brilliant examination of the temerity and stubborn will to survive of man, it’s a test of the age-old, remarkably true ’power corrupts’ theme.

“Carcinoma Angels” – Norman Spinrad – Harrison Wintergreen goes through his first forty years of life conquering everything about him with accelerated drive and an unstoppable personality. Rich beyond imagination he contracts terminable cancer and sets his talents on finding an impossible cure within his own body.

An inventive, ingenious story that promises some kind of tangible revelation, this one gathers incredible momentum till it peters out slightly at the end. But that doesn’t prevent the body of the tale from occupying its role of expert, engaging storytelling.

full story breakdown

Dangerous Visions isn’t a book that’s aged badly and needs a refresh, it’s the Bible of speculative fiction. These things don’t go away, they aren’t blunted over time, these stories are more important today than they’ve ever been, even considering the climate during the original release. Read it. Weep. Wail. Rage. Posit otherwise. But don’t marginalize this work, don’t say that it had its day but its day has passed—it has not.

The book is a mountain of mankind’s peaks and valleys. The scenery is lush, but the foliage is on fire, and the pages are poised on the edge of sheer cliffs that can draw you off the path and send you plummeting. The book hasn’t lost it’s edge, it’s gained new generations of admirers for whom the ideas aren’t new, but they’re no less critical for our survival. They’re important philosophical studies, and if you think speculative fiction isn’t modern philosophy, carry on. Just don’t forget to revisit the subject after you’ve read a few more books. Start with this one.

We fumble our way toward knowledge, but reality will always surprise us.

5 stars


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