Friday, November 13, 2020

the last dangerous visions?

When Harlan Ellison died two years ago, my first question was, "So now what happens to The Last Dangerous Visions?" And when his wife and executor Susan Ellison died three months ago, I asked the same question.

The Last Dangerous Visions, for anybody who doesn't know, was the cutting-edge state-of-the-art anthology of original science-fiction stories that Harlan Ellison originally promised to publish in 1973. But never did. Over the next decade or so, he would regularly announce that a new publisher was about to issue the book and it really truly was going to come out this time. But it never did. Eventually this subsided and Ellison got reluctant to talk about it.

Meanwhile, several dozen stories by the brightest, mostly then young, names in the field sat in Ellison's basement, unseen by anybody. Over the years, several authors got sufficiently fed up to withdraw their stories, to Ellison's fury, and publish them elsewhere. One of these authors, Christopher Priest, wrote a short treatise, The Book on the Edge of Forever, pointing out that the sheer size of the volume was rendering it effectively unpublishable.

Now the Ellison estate's executor is J. Michael Straczynski, best known as the creator of the SF tv series Babylon 5. And today he has announced that LDV will be completed and "ready to submit to publishers" next April.

Well. If that's true, that's a remarkable thing. But reading over the details of JMS's announcement, my heart slowly began to sink. Because he's bitten off a huge mouthful and he's only cramming more in. His announcement with all the bells and whistles attached to it reminds me too much of the impending-publication announcements that Harlan used to make. And they sounded awfully credible, on the surface more than this one does, because they usually actually did have publishers, major trade publishers who'd guaranteed to undertake the book. Even today, reading these things, you feel sure it was about to appear. But it didn't.

The only difference is, now it isn't Harlan making the announcement. It's JMS. JMS has done a lot of productive work over the years, I guess. But so did Harlan. Harlan did have a lifelong habit of announcing all sorts of projects as finished when they sometimes hadn't even been begun. JMS, perhaps not so much, though I note that there's a whole section of his Wikipedia bio labeled "Unrealized projects." And this is a big one.

Here's some of what concerns me:

1. How many stories will it have?

JMS says "over a hundred stories" were commissioned for LDV. This is true. A list published in 1979 had 113 stories. That didn't include an additional 8 which had already been withdrawn or otherwise disappeared from earlier lists by that point. JMS says he won't include anything that's been withdrawn. (How generous of him. He doesn't have the rights.) According to LDV's Wikipedia page, that's 32 of the 121 listed stories, leaving 89. (Others add 5, leaving 84. Whatever.) Then there are "some" or a "few" - he doesn't say how many - that are now obsolete and whose rusted carcasses will be returned to the authors. Or their estates.

But that still leaves, what, 80? 70? 60? stories. That's a huge anthology. And then to that, he's going to update it. He's going to add stories by "today's heavy hitters" and "new voices" into the mix, "interweaving" them all "into a narrative flow." Even more stuff, none of it having anything to do with the book Harlan was editing.

And if JMS is going to get this done by April, even if he started as soon as Susan died - unlikely since as executor he'd have had a ton of other work to do - that's only ten months to commission these stories, wait for the authors to write them, edit them, and then figure out how to interweave them. That's a big job. The more so if the result is going to be "organized by topic," which I guess means all the near-future disaster stories in a row, all the alternate-history stories in a row, etc. I can't wait.

Then there's some mysterious project by Harlan, so big that JMS claims it's largely responsible for keeping Harlan from finishing up LDV, that's also going to be in the book. Yikes.

2. What about the introductions?

What I always thought prevented Harlan from finishing up LDV was the story introductions. When Harlan would announce the imminent publication of the book, he'd usually say something like, "Now I just have to go home and finish off the introductions ..." but Christopher Priest points out that, if they were to be anything like the introductions in his previous anthologies, with the number of stories in LDV the introductions would be the size of a monumental volume by themselves.

Did he ever get them done? What kind of shape are they in? Will they have to be updated? Will JMS write intros on that scale for the ones Harlan didn't do, and for the new additions?

3. How will it get published, and in what form?

At least Harlan always had a publisher lined up. JMS is waiting to do that until he's finished, but "several major publishers have already expressed significant interest in picking up the book upon completion." He's a veteran of Hollywood; he knows how much that kind of statement is worth. Even if they do, it could take another year or more for the book to appear.

And ... book? More likely several volumes, considering its size. Or we have other options these days: online? a download?

And who will have both the time and energy to read it all? Even the previous DV anthologies had less of an impact than they could have because they were so big, they were hard to absorb. And LDV, especially with the new additions, will be much, much bigger. And that which isn't new will be half a century old. The field has changed a lot since then. Even a story that's not obsolete will have a big hurdle to overcome with today's readers. If publication happens - and I still call that a big if - it's as if a huge boulder is hurtling through the air at a lake. It will make a huge splash ... and then it will sink to the bottom of the pond and never be thought of again. That I fear is what will happen.

If it appears at all, that is. I'm definitely curious, but I'm not joining the Patreon. We've been burned too often, even if not by JMS. He sounds too much like Harlan in his announcement. LDV was already a joke when I entered the field 45 years ago, and if it's actually going to appear I can wait a little longer. I'll believe it when I see it, and I always have.


  1. Yeah, this definitely jibes with my gut reaction to the JMS post (which I have only just now seen). I was unaware of the whole mess, and knew Ellison mostly as a brazen sexist with a bit of unexamined racism and transmisogyny and etc, until I read Deadloss last night and today. And yeah. There are just so many themes shared between JMS' post and Ellison's (and his erstwhile editors') letters. People have said that it's easier to believe since JMS has a reputation for working diligently and honestly and submitting things on time, but so did some of the previous editors working with Ellison. I don't want to be cynical but I can't say I believe it yet either.

    1. The one thing one can say about those previous editors is that it's pretty clear in retrospect that Ellison was hijacking their good names to shore up the dubious qualities of his own. Notice how he got them to swear up and down that the book was ready to appear, when it's not their veracity which was in question, but his.
      JMS, again, is not known for that kind of trick. Yet in addition to 1) editing LDV; 2) masterminding all these superfluous additions to LDV; 3) executing the Ellison estate, he has also recently announced that 4) he's embarking on recording commentary tracks on all the Babylon-5 episodes, something he could have (and should have) done years ago. My faith that he'll get all this done is, um, minuscule.