Reviews

Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Utopia

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Ellison, Harlan. Dangerous Visions (1967).

This is, of course, the classic science fiction anthology. And I've gotta say, that it is quite good. The quality of the writers & the stories is generally pretty high. But, but. Okay, it was done in 1967, but Ellison's many, many cracks about faggots (all implicitly pointing out that he, of course, is NOT, repeat NOT, a faggot himself) get a little ... old. He must make these comments in every other introduction, just about. Humorously enough, he even made one in his introduction to Samuel Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah ... " Ellison is trying to be ironic, by pointing out the ironies of writers not living up to their writings: "The writer of swashbuckling adventures is a pathetic little homosexual who still lives with his invalid mother." Alas, poor Harlan. Delany himself came out -- when? not too long after this anthology. In fact, come to think of it, the very story is sympathetic to queers, with an outright gay man and a lesbian in the first couple of pages, and of course the plot revolves around "frelks", people attracted to surgically androgynized astronauts. One might have thought that Ellison could have been a little less macho-defensive given that he was introducing a story about future queers. Oh well.

Other stories of interest in the anthology include: Poul Anderson's "Eutopia" in which the shocker is -- oh my -- an alternative world that dares to think of itself as perfect or nearly so actually has a homosexual as its protagonist !!! I suppose in 1967 to some people it was indeed a dangerous vision, that someone from a world where homosexuality was accepted or even approved of, might dare to think of their world as approaching perfection. Anderson himself in his afterword had the less than glorious observation to make: "Readers ought to know that writers are not responsible for the opinions and behavior of their characters. But many people don't. In consequence, I, for instance, have been called a fascist to my face. Doubtless the present story will get me accused of worse." Ouch. It's hard to imagine how someone who surely was at least close to adulthood during WWII could have thought that mere boy-buggery was worse than fascism, but oh well.

On to Ted Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Want Your Sister to Marry One?" Ellison managed to annoy me again by dissing one of his ex-wives in the introduction. Tacky, tacky. This isn't about feminism, just a certain sense of ... propriety. Sturgeon is trying to be radical by positing a radically free society in which women are free to fuck the alpha males in their family. Okay, he talks about incest a little more broadly -- but not much. Anyway I'm all for sexual freedom but this story -- written, I'll grant you, before the feminist movement took up the cause of incest survivors -- demonstrates some serious blinders to power differentials & risks involved in incest.

"Ersatz" by Henry Slesar -- what can I say? I guess the motive was ostensibly anti-war, on some level -- or at least that's what I was picking up from it, the futility & horror of a war to which we're committing so many resources, that there's basically nothing (real) left ... Even women, apparently, and screwing a faggot dressed as a woman is just a horror worse than death. Ick, homophobia.
Ellison's introduction to "Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird" by Sonya Dorman was really annoying: "You can read Leigh Brackett or Vin Packer or C. L. Moore and think jeezus, the muscularity of the writing, and when you find out they are women, you say, jeezus, they write like men, with strength. Or you can read Zenna Henderson and think, jeezus, she writes just like a woman, all pastels. Or you can read Ayn Rand and think jeezus! ... But when you read Sonya Dorman you don't think of the muscularity of male writing. ... " Blah blah blah. Is this a minor save for the passage?: "[Dorman's writing] deals with reality in the unflinching way women will deal with it, when they are no longer shucking themselves or those watching." Don't know. I thought by "shucking" perhaps he meant a sort of "aww shucks" shuffling but maybe he means being deceitful. The story, by the way, is pretty icky -- a woman on the run from grasping -- literally -- cannibals every which way finally arrives "home" to her ... hungry ... family.

Carol Emshwiller first published "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison" here, a rather bizarre little story. Miriam Allen deFord (may as well mention the only other woman) included "The Malley System" (about new methods of punishment for crimes).

Lots of stories about religion, including "Evensong" by Lester del Rey, "Faith of Our Fathers" by Philip K. Dick, "Lord Randy, My Son" by Joe L. Hensley, "Shall the Dust Praise Thee?" by Damon Knight, "Encounter With a Hick" by Jonathan Brand, and "Judas" by John Brunner.
Several about war: "Incident in Moderan" by David R. Bunch, "Ersatz" Henry Slesar -- or a post-holocaust scenario, implicitly or explicitly a nuclear holocaust: "Shall the Dust Praise Thee?" and others.

In addition to Delany, Sturgeon, & Emshwiller, I really liked "The Man Who Went to the Moon -- Twice" by Howard Rodman (a charming little story about, maybe, joy, and wonder), "Lord Randy, My Son" by Joe L. Hensley (a new incarnation of a "special one" (a la Jesus, Buddha, etc.), Philip Dick's "Faith of Our Fathers" (although I have no idea what he was trying to say with it); and "The Day After the Day the Martians Came" by Frederick Pohl (hey, it's maybe a little unsubtle, maybe sorta depressing, if you think this is the only way we can eradicate racism/-isms, but at least it was an attempt).

I feel a little bad. Gee, is it so awful to criticize people for being of their time? I mean, this was the late 60s -- 2d wave feminism was just getting rolling, the gay rights movement was 2 years from its kick-off -- maybe I should just cut the boys some slack.

Nah. Ellison was hyping this book as the new thing, the latest thing, "dangerous" visions. Yeah, there were some scary stories & some sexually frank stories. And this wasn't the gee-whiz school of techno-geek sf, so it was new in that sense. (Well: in the sense that the writers sometimes demonstrated fear or caution regarding the techno-marvels.) But I think it's fair to critique it for its flaws, and to critique the writers for their blinders, and to critique the editor for -- at least -- his extreme heterosexual defensiveness. Let us praise Ellison & his work for where it went right: many very good & very interesting stories, including 3 (out of 33) by women, that tried -- and sometimes, often, succeeded -- in breaking new ground. But let us not be blind to those areas where the anthology comes out short on vision or execution.
-- lq, 6/8/00

 


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updated 06/13/07 .