One thing that hasn’t been discussed yet on this blog is the major role that editors have historically played in the sci-fi scene. Since the genre was shaped by decades of magazine publishing, the editors of those magazines — rags like Amazing Stories, Galaxy, Analog Science Fiction, and New Worlds — have largely defined what we consider the “canon.” And, of course, each editor has their own peccadilloes and accompanying infamy. John W. Campbell, considered the most important editor in the history of science fiction, was a hawkish kook convinced that L. Ron Hubbard would win a Nobel Prize for Dianetics, but he also published the first Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon stories. Frederik Pohl’s “Pohl Selections” over at Bantam Books brought the world Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (I’m still reading it…) and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, arguably the two most genre-defying science fiction books of all time. And Damon Knight, when he was working as an editor for Chilton Books, tracked down Frank Herbert and convinced him to publish Dune after it had been refused by twenty other publishers. All of these people are as celebrated as the writers they edit, and are usually writers themselves.
Again, Dangerous Visions is book two in a series of essential anthologies edited by Harlan Ellison. Although not as influential as Campbell, Pohl, or Knight, Ellison is an important figure — he penned classic Star Trek episodes, won the Hugo Award eight and a half times, and wrote the original script to I, Robot. He was (and is) something of a pompous dilettante, a Mr. Hollywood type, and a young mover in the scene when the first Dangerous Visions tome was released in 1967. Although Ellison’s sexual politics were murky — he famously grabbed writer Connie Wilson’s breast at a Hugo Awards ceremony and said that feminist writer Joanna Russ looked “infinitely better in a bikini than any of the editors who rejected her novel” — he was nevertheless an early champion of women’s writing during science fiction’s New Wave in the late 60s. And he sealed his title as a legendary editor with the Dangerous Visions books.
Apart from essentially being a who’s who of 1960s science fiction (my copy of Again includes stories from James Tiptree Jr., Joanna Russ, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kurt Vonnegut, and Terry Carr, among a few dozen others), the Dangerous Visions books were unique in that almost every story came prefaced with a wordy introduction from Ellison — laying out the author’s biography, how they came to be in the anthology, their “deal,” essentially — and an afterword from the author. For a fan, this is VIP treatment, and with these kinds of contextualizing footnotes, mainstream readers could go straight from “who the hell is James Tiptree Jr.?” to having a solid sense of what they were dealing with. In this particular case, the first publication of “The Milk of Paradise,” a sensuous, boggy story about a man who wistfully half-remembers making love to a grey alien in the mud of a distant planet, one of Tiptree’s best.
Ellison solicited only unpublished works from writers he liked, ensuring that the anthology would never seem second-run, and would, rather, be the place to watch for work by interesting newcomers and old “masters” alike. To boot, he strong-armed them into pushing their boundaries, often sending stories back several times until they were perilous enough to be considered “dangerous.” The result is pretty explosive, even after almost 40 years. In Ellison’s own words, “Look: A,DV is something of a living entity. It is not merely a batch of stories cobbled up by a faceless dude trying to fill in the lag-time between his own books, with another group of faceless dudes submitting at random and hoping to make a buck. It is a great wild bunch of us sitting about and rapping till well into the wee hours.”
Ellison was a unique editor, by all accounts kind of an asshole, and a smashing example of the amazingly weird ghetto that is sci-fi. His breed of bellicose hands-on involvement would scarcely be tolerated in the straight literary establishment (although, to be fair, neither would stories about making love to grey aliens). His fierce muscling of pompous self-involvement — like a four-page introduction to a Kurt Vonnegut story that is essentially a long brag about how well Ellison knows him, or a preface to Ursula K. LeGuin that repeatedly mentions how Ellision and LeGuin won Nebula awards the same year — is anathema to the field of editorship, which is not usually reserved for strong personalities. A brief glance at these videos of Ellison on the interview couch will undoubtedly hammer in this point.
And yet, science fiction has always been a halfway home for unhinged people, and it’s personalities like Ellison that can compel a disparate community of intellectual misfits to band together. It may come as a shock to people who are accustomed to a soft editorial touch, but the Dangerous Visions books are important largely because Ellison annihilated the divisions between the professional and the personal, reaching into writers’ lives and slapping them on the ass.
NEXT BOOK: FREDERICK POHL AND JACK WILLIAMSON’S THE REEFS OF SPACE