Sunday, March 20, 2005

Incomprehensible Visions: For about the fifth time, I'm attempting to read Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology. The anthology was put together in 1967 to showcase the new and exciting direction the field was headed in.

According to Asimov's introduction, all the "Golden Age" writers--who, under the guidance of Joseph W. Campbell, had learned to find harmony between the "science" and "fiction" halves of the genre--were now spending all their time writing non-fiction. This, combined with the emergence of the space program, which had taken many of their futuristic visions out of the pulps and into the headlines, created a big hole in the publishing world. What could stir wonder in the readers, when what they'd been wondering at was now mundane?

The answer, it seemed, was style. Rather than showing readers strange creatures or strange worlds, the strangest thing of all now was the story itself.

However, most of the print anthologies still consisted largely of stories from the 40's and 50's. Ellison wanted to do an anthology that would show where the field was at the moment. Even more importantly, he wanted to show where the field was going. He wanted the edgiest, most controversial stories he could find. He wanted stories the magazines wouldn't touch. He wanted readers' eyes to burn and minds to spin in wild new directions.

It was a landmark anthology. It is what every anthology since has aspired to be.

You can see why I think it's so important to read it. I found it and its sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions at a used bookstore years ago (there is a third anthology, The Last Dangerous Vision, that has not been published, although a book has been published about why the last book was never published).

So why haven't I read it?

I've tried. I really have. Some of the shorter stories in it I've read dozens of times.

But then I come across a story like Phillip Jose Farmer's "Riders of The Purple Wage," and rather than burning, my eyes just cross. I honestly have no idea what the man is talking about. The first page of the story remains incomprehensible to me.

And it's not just that the writing is describing such new concepts that I need to re-read it a few times. I've read stories like that--Felix Gotschalk's "Vestibular Man" comes to mind. This is different. It's just--incomprehensible.

I'm still pushing through it. Ellison swears this story is the best one in the book. It's got fascinating turns of phrase, and interesting metaphor, but I can't help but feel that all of that is just a lot of frosting to conceal that this story has no cake inside.

I hope I'm wrong. I think after I finish this story, I'm going to go back and re-read it to see what I'm missing. And I'm definitely going to finish the book this time.

It's certainly not the format that's inaccessible. The introductions and afterwards are delightful--Ellison's constant commentary is downright chatty, offering a clear snapshot of the Sci-Fi community in 1967, taken through his eyes. I'll often use it as a reference book, to read what he has to say about this writer or that.

I don't know whether this is a book review or a rant or a cry for help. Maybe I just need some sleep.

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