Monday, 8 March 2010

I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday: The Book On The Edge of Forever by Christopher Priest

I'd been waiting to get hold of this one for years. I've had it on my Amazon Wishlist since I set it up way back in the mists of time. Might even be three years ago, which I believe counts as 'forever and a week or two' in internet time. Trouble is every copy of this was priced around £50. I'm not one who begrudges the slightness of a book when weighing up buying it, length is by no means a measure of quality (often quite the inverse). And then, out of nowhere, a copy came up for 45p plus p&p. Mispriced? Quick sale? Didn't care, thank you greatbuybooks_us and goodnight, done deal.

As the cover tells you, it's a book concerning Harlan Ellison so it can't fail to be fascinating. It's all about the proposed third and final voume in Ellison's Dangerous Visons series, a series that nobly aimed to anthologise the best SF writers tackling edgier subjects. The first two volumes were liberally festooned with awards from the SF community, and their line-ups still look impressive to anyone with a passing familiarity with the literary SF field - aside from Ellison himself there's Philip Jose Farmer, Robert Bloch, Brian Aldiss, Philip K Dick, Larry NIven, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, J G Ballard, Roger Zelazny and Samuel R Delany. And that's only in the first book. Start lisitng for Again, Dangerous Visions (or even the volume Priest's dealing with here) and I'll be here all day. You get the idea, it caught the SF zeitgeist and combined shock with substance. Which is very Harlan.

The first volume came out in 1967, the second in 1972. And The Last Dangerous Visions was announced for publication in 1973...

...we're still waiting a mere 37 years later.

I've no insight into the matter beyond this and the odd article I've seen elsewhere in the fan press. Priest's essay here actually originated in a fanzine, and became published in a professional medium due to one of Ellison's numerous ongoing spats with fans (this one with Fantagraphics' Gary Grohl). According to the famously reliable Wikipedia, the author's requested that the essay be withdrawn fomr the internet - I'm therefore not sure how much of the opinion within he stands by, if any. What this does - brilliantly and as forensically as possible - is trace the history of the delays in the book, how it's sprawled massively over the decades, at last count encompassing at least three volumes before Ellison's introductions were written, how Ellison was soliciting stories at least until the early 80s, and the promises he made to included authors. Promises, of course, as yet unfulfilled.

While the book has some malicious intent behind it (not necessarily on Priest's part, certainly on Grohl's) it's reasonably fair and the text itself largely sticks to chronicling and letting any damning words come from Ellison's own mouth (although there's a back cover quote which could easily be nastily out of context). And it reaches a very interesting conclusion, that the book is now more or less unpublishable for all sorts of reasons, even with length not really being a consideration in an age of ebooks. How dangerous are visions from 1973 and earlier really going to be 37 years on? Reality and time can defang even the most controversial material. Priest thinks only Ellison's pride means he can't admit we'll never see the book. And Ellison rarely backs down, so that admission may never be forthcoming.

You never know though, in fifty years time it might be The Last Dangerous Visions someone like me's got on whatever the futuristic equivalent of an Amazon wishlist is and sees going cheap. Nice thought, but from the looks of this, it's a reality beyone even the imagination of one of the world's greatest writers of the fantastic.

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