Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews

Oct 24, 2010

Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison’s 1967 speculative fiction anthology was the most important book of my adolescence. Note that I use the term “speculative fiction,” as do most women who have ever dated an individual who attempts to write the stuff. I don’t recommend that, personally, but eventually you will enjoy the genre again.

I had been extremely close to my father, a homemaker, for most of my childhood, but our edges had done serious damage to our relationship through my teenage years. Personally, I think we as a species are too dismissive of the breach of common decency that marks adolescence. It serves a very serious purpose, in that we are supposed to look at each other upon reaching sexual maturity, and say, “my God, I must leave your home and build my own life, farewell.” Regrettably, the strange indoor-cat-like domestication of humans between 12 and 18 means that we must continue to live and friction with our parents for an interminable amount of time. Deeply unnatural, seemingly unavoidable.

But I was about 17, anyway, and had recently began sleeping with my boyfriend, who did, it must be said, write terrible speculative fiction, despite being excruciatingly nice and introducing me to the Replacements. (Peace be upon him.) My father and I had not spoken in approximately six months. This had nothing to do with sleeping with my boyfriend, as my parents had delightedly and Canadian-ly whisked me off to get oral contraceptives four seconds after the idea had been casually floated. It had to do with Stalin. I was con, my father pro. He has always romanticized the Soviet Union in a way which continues to puzzle me, but, then, I find books about the antebellum South rather fascinating, and it is surely a small leap to saying “gosh, wasn’t that sort of a nice pretty way to live?” So we had had a vigorous argument about Stalin, which I was on the side of the angels in, obviously, and then we just didn’t speak for six months. Drove my mother crazy.

My boyfriend, whose name was Jay, gave me “Dangerous Visions.” It’s completely transporting, and you should all immediately read it, and resulted in me tracking back the individual contributors and thus being introduced to Philip Jose Farmer, and Philip K. Dick, and Samuel Delany, and Roger Zelazny, and Poul Anderson. And some of the stories are dreck (naked women in space!), but most are phenomenal little nuggets. I was about halfway through “Dangerous Visions” when I ran into my dad in the hallway one morning during Month Six Point Five of not-talking, and heard myself say: “Hey, Dad, did you ever read ‘Dangerous Visions’?” At which point he almost fell over with readiness to end our detente, and informed me that it was the single most important book of his adolescence. And then he offered me a ride to school, and I pretty much remember being an adult after that.