Monday, March 24, 2014

My Dangerous Manifesto

Ansel giving a high five
Back in 1967, Harlan Ellison forever altered the face, the texture, the flavor—the very core of speculative fiction (SF). He managed this sea change not by writing a radically new type of SF story (he'd done that two years earlier with his publication of "'Repent, Harlequin!'Said the Ticktockman'" in Galaxy magazine). Nor did this change come with the coining or refinement of the term speculative fiction. Robert A. Heinlein likely invented speculative fiction as an alternative to the more limited-sounding science fiction (Heinlein insisted the term did not include fantasy, but words have a mind of their own). No, Harlan brought about his revolution by publishing an anthology of original SF stories, the first Dangerous Visions anthology.

I have, on occasion, heard arguments that Dangerous Visions initiated the so-called New Wave of SF (nope, the Brits already had that well underway by '67), or that it brought avant-garde and postmodernist sensibilities of the New Wave to American SF (no again, that distinction probably belongs to Damon Knight and his Orbit stable). Nor do I accept the claim that Dangerous Visions dragged SF up from the pulpy gutter genres and into the blinding light and rarefied atmosphere of Literature. See, that's really what the whole New Wave movement was all about, so—any such effects from DV would be little more than reinforcement.

No, Dangerous Visions really accomplished something more basic: DV was the Lolita of SF. Just as Lolita had done for mainstream literature—and as the anthology's title and introduction suggests, DV freed SF of many of the intractable taboos in the SF genre at the time. When Ellison put out his call for stories, he specified stories that the existing venues, magazines and anthologies, would not accept for publication. He wanted controversy, wanted mores twisted and taboos shattered. Critics in the intervening years have differed on how successful Ellison was in this regard. Quite a few editors then and since have claimed that nothing Ellison published in DV was really so beyond the pale as to be unpublishable in mainstream SF magazines. To be blunt: this is utter nonsense. Consider just four of the original 33 DV stories:
  • Samuel R. Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah" 
  • Harlan Ellison's "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World"
  • Theodore Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"
  • Philip Jose Farmer's Riders of the Purple Wage
The Delany and Farmer won awards, but the idea of finding either tale in a mainstream print SF magazine—today, let alone back in 1967—is laughable. Delany's short story examines humanity's seemingly inexhaustible ability to discover and exploit paraphilias. I can think of a few online zines that, today, might—but only just might—publish "Aye, and Gomorrah." But even for those, I wonder, would they publish such a story if it hadn't already won acclaim? How many SF stories have you seen in the past decade that described a new paraphilia? As for the Farmer novella—set in a future society that encourages parents to show affection for children by indulging them with oral sexual gratification—hah! No way. Likewise Sturgeon's tale of a world that builds its society upon a foundation of universal incest. Not a tale you're likely to see in any of the pulps or the online zines.

Okay, you might be thinking, but that's sex. Sex is a difficult sell for a lot of people. It can be difficult navigating the landmines pre-planted in any sexual landscape. What one writer sees as character essential sexual exposition, another sees as erotica, and still another wants to label pornography. Frankly, this kind of argument always sets off my bullshit detector. Sexuality is a major piece of the human experience. All great works of literature are about two things: living and dying. And without sex, nobody's doing much living. But to silence that prudery alarm for just a moment—well, that's why I included the Ellison in my list of four.

Ellison's story, a sequel to Robert Bloch's "A Toy for Juliette," about a future so starved for diversion as to bring Jack the Ripper into their midsts, breaks a lot of gore and violence taboos. Now, there have been a few zines—both print and online—that specialized in wetworks for the splatterpunk set, but Ellison's story doesn't belong in such fetishy company. "Prowler" is a deeply moralistic and philosophical story. The violence, labeled "gratuitous" by guardians of that particular taboo, is an essential component of the story. The depth of depravity of the violence is, in effect, part of the point. Still, this is not the kind of story I expect to see in print or in any of the current crop of online zines. Many of them say they'll accept violence "if the story justifies it," but I don't see much evidence of that claim in the stories they publish.

So, the good news, as Lolita did for mainstream publishing, DV opened the SF press to controversy by showing that you can discuss sex and violence and other taboo topics without producing smut. DV also demonstrated that you can discuss religion and bigotry and drugs and human trafficking, that you can include gay protagonists, and consider the possibility that the USA is not some kind of inevitable thought-leader in the world (and worlds) of tomorrow, all without the world coming to an end. In fact, DV showed that many readers want to see controversy, want to see taboos bent, want to see rules broken.

This was the seminal SF work of my youth. When I read DV in the 70s, the sequel—Again, Dangerous Visions—was already in print, and Ellison was already purchasing stories for the never-to-see-print Last Dangerous Visions. It's difficult to express exactly how important DV was for me. I was a weird kid (I know, not much has changed). I started reading when I was three. In kindergarten, while the teacher was trying to teach the rest of the class to recognize the difference between lower-case and upper-case letters, I was sneaking off to the school library to read science books. Until I was fifteen, I read mostly non-fiction. I didn't see the point of fiction. I figured, if it's fiction, it's not true, so what's the point. At fifteen, a teacher introduced me to Shakespeare and Dickens and science fiction. The science fiction was revelatory. In the next three years, I read everything I could find in the genre. Some I loved, some I disliked, some seemed downright silly.

Dangerous Visions opened new vistas for me. This kind of SF, writing to the controversies instead of around them, finding the taboos and bending, twisting, repurposing, or just flat breaking the damn things—nothing made a story more alive, more meaningful. Though DV had been in print for eight years when I discovered it, I believed that concept had to be the future of SF. This was what I wanted to read. This was what I wanted to write. This was all I ever wanted to write. Dangerous fiction. I read and found that, this was what all my favorite writers were doing. Harlan Ellison, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), Ursula K. LeGuin, J. G. Ballard, Norman Spinrad, Robert Silverberg, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ—all their best works were dangerous fiction, controversial, thought-provoking, at times down exasperating or even downright maddening.

That was forty years ago. Today, the pulps are fewer, but the online zines have expanded into new spaces, so at least the number of markets has expanded. SF is everywhere. And not just in the genre zines. These days blockbuster movies, more often than not, are SF. Sadly—in my opinion, anyway—science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been forced back into their genres. Most science fiction zines won't take fantasy or horror, and vice versa. Even though the ghettos have achieved a state of gentrification—a lot more great so-called literary writers today (Chabon, Lethem, Mitchell) spend time in those ghettos—they're still ghettos. Thanks to a number of movie and TV producers like Cameron and Abrams, science fiction has lost some of its stigma. It's not just "that escapist crap for teenagers" anymore. Sadly, gentrification has also taken a lot of bite out of science fiction—even more out of fantasy and horror. If you disagree, I have two words for you: sparkly vampires. Young Adult, Middle Grade, and New Adult are capturing the largest share of fantasy and horror, and it looks like they're snagging a huge chunk of SF readers (consider such recent box office fare as Ender's Game and After Earth, or just look at the submission guidelines for Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show). Sure, thirteen-year-olds need fun stuff to read, too, but I think they already have more than enough of the market. Besides, we all know the Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight readers aren't all tweens and teens. All that gentrified science fiction and fantasy could do with a serious dose of dangerous fiction.

I recently published an urban fantasy novel (Gifts) via the Amazon KDP. A friend of mine said, "But I thought you wanted to write science fiction?" I do. I also want to write fantasy and horror. I also enjoy dabbling in magic fiction and fairy tales, and I've considered possibly writing in the weird and slipstream genres. I want to write SF: speculative fiction. And I want to write for adults. I want to write dangerous fiction. I want to tell stories, but I also want to make people think. I've always felt the best stories are the ones that refuse to end when you put down the book.

But I didn't write this to talk about my own writing. I want to see someone take up the mantle Mr. Ellison dropped when Last Dangerous Visions fell through. I realize, considering Mr. Ellison's litigious history, only a masochist would try to publish a volume called Anything Dangerous Visions or Dangerous Visions Anything, but there must be a way to bring this rich conceptual field back to life without using those two words in the title. Come on, all you courageous editors, all you adventurous anthologists—I know you're out there somewhere. Let's start publishing some taboo-busting, envelope-pushing, mind-warping SF. Live dangerously.

And for Christ's sake, can someone please help Gordon Van Gelder set up a goddamned online submission system and drag the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction into the Twenty-first Century so we can stop killing so many trees?

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