This is the full text of THE LAST DEADLOSS VISIONS, an essay I wrote in 1987 and published at my own expense in a fanzine called Deadloss. It was an attempt to bring journalistic techniques to a subject that from the point of view of anyone outside the sf world might seem an odd one for enquiry: the non-publication of a book.
Of course, the book was Harlan Ellison’s anthology ‘The Last Dangerous Visions’, a title surrounded from the beginning by so much hype, exaggeration and persistent invisibility that it has been a subject of interest to a generation (literally) of sf writers and fans. I approached the subject as an investigative journalist might, the intention being to find out whatever truth there was, and then report it. However, THE LAST DEADLOSS VISIONS is not “objective” in the way that much excellent American journalism is objective, but is from a different tradition. It is a polemical pamphlet, written to express a point of view and to persuade others of that view.
A pamphlet is not “balanced”. For instance, the subject has no chance to defend himself, and indeed is quoted only so that he may condemn himself with his own words. Pamphlets are usually written by members of minorities who feel that there is a body of thought which has already had more than its share of air-time. In this case it can be easily shown that Harlan Ellison has had a great deal to say about ‘The Last Dangerous Visions’, and has said it publicly for almost a quarter of a century. By 1987 a pamphlet expressing the other view was long overdue.
However, with objectivity and balance out of the window, it might seem that the only thing left is personal attack. Mr Ellison and his followers are quick to point this out. In fact, calling it a feud is just about the only comfort Mr Ellison can take, because then he can try to ignore what people are saying about him.
This essay is not one side of a feud: my sole contact with Harlan Ellison is described later. I know few things about him (other than the fact that we are both professional writers working in or around the sf world) and I have read very little of his work. My interest in him was first aroused by his defensive braggadocio about ‘The Last Dangerous Visions’, which made me wonder what was going on and what he was trying to hide. After I had done some research I realized what a terrific story it was. In brief, I still feel uninterested in Mr Ellison himself, but the story is fascinating.
My general argument in the following essay is that Mr Ellison has spun a web of contradictions around the book. I argue that if he would face up to them, and not continually spin more, then there is a chance for him to escape. In other words, I depict him as a victim of his own actions, or inactions. This makes it sound as if I see what has happened as inadvertent. I’m sure there’s an element of this (Mr Ellison is the first to complain about the sheer hell he has been suffering), but much of it has arisen through inattention to the needs, opinions or feelings of others.
One critic of an early edition of ‘Deadloss’ said that I had set out to embarrass Mr Ellison, as if this was an unacceptable motive. I was glad of the insight: Mr Ellison has a lot to be embarrassed about, and it was high time someone told him so. But there’s a difference between pointing out unwelcome truths, and accusing him of wrongdoing.
With this essay written and published, I became identified as a leading Ellisonian antagonist. Those with an axe to grind would write and tell me their frightful anecdotes about the great man, or try to tip me off to some other perceived outrage, while Mr Ellison’s faithful fans either went to ground or bluntly accused me of jealousy. It would therefore be untrue to claim that I am now as impartial as I was when I wrote the main essay. In addition, it’s pretty difficult to remain impartial about someone who threatens, in a fit of pique or exhibitionism, to have you killed. Mr Ellison did this soon after I published the pamphlet. The fact that I didn’t take the threat too seriously, and also that Mr Ellison, when challenged on it by someone else, quibbled that he had intended it as a “joke”, doesn’t diminish the squalid reflex that the original threat revealed.
Finally, let me say that one of the main motives for writing a pamphlet is to try to influence events.
In the case of Harlan Ellison and ‘The Last Dangerous Visions’ it is perfectly clear how the events should be influenced, and as you read my essay you will see the process taking place: much of the idea is to spur Harlan Ellison into action. But not any old action.
By deliberately exposing his familiar gambits as muddle, boastfulness and procrastination, the idea is to encourage others to stand up to him. In the end he will be cornered by his own contradictions, and will finally have to do the right thing.
A word about the format of the present edition.
In this era of flexible media it is possible for a text to be revised and expanded at short notice. Even in its printed version Deadloss went through many different editions. The main sequence was as follows:
The first 1987 edition consisted of the essay plus letters from writers who had seen the first draft, and an appendix of notes.
The second edition, also published in 1987 (between September and December), contained everything from the first edition, with minute corrections, plus the text of a diary I started to keep when the responses started pouring in. As the diary was being constantly updated copies were issued serially. Many different versions are in circulation, bearing different finishing dates.
At the end of 1987 I became bored with the whole exercise, and stopped adding to the diary. With the help of Andy Richards at Cold Tonnage Books I printed a “complete” third edition (everything from the first two editions brought up to date). This was distributed steadily for five years; it was first released in January 1988, with the last copy mailed in 1992.
This electronic text is an advance release of the fourth edition, which will be published in 1994. It consists of the following:
This new Introduction.
The main essay. I have made a few textual corrections, brought some of it up to date, and generally tightened the criticism of Mr Ellison.
Notes. These are various lists of named writers, known to have been involved with The Last Dangerous Visions at one time or another.
Post-publication letters. These letters made up much of the bulk of the original diary section. (I have deleted the other diary entries, as they had mainly topical interest.)
The Summing Up. This includes a section called The Remedy, which is addressed to any writer whose work is still being held by Mr Ellison. It is a practical guide.