The History of The Last Dangerous Visions: 3. The Next 13 Years

Thus the history of LAST to 1980. It has been going on like that ever since, and simply because in that time the book still has not been finished, delivered or published, to go on detailing the saga would be pointless.

From the above it is possible to discern a wave pattern with a period of about two or three years.

The first phase is a sudden burst of activity from Mr Ellison: tables of contents are released, a new publisher is named, a glitzy advance is paid, publication dates are announced, consultant editors are flown out to Los Angeles at Mr Ellison’s expense, Mr Ellison promises that writing the introductions will take no more than two or three weeks. Then there is a period of apparent retrenchment: more stories are acquired from new writers, old stories are rewritten, somewhere in the background another contributor or two drops dead. The third phase arrives insidiously: nothing much happens, Mr Ellison no longer tells everybody he is working on the introductions, the publisher waits, the contributors wait, the manuscripts sit in a box.

Then, out of the blue, another burst of activity …

The ten-year history detailed above was drawn from the public record, or from sources that were easy to find. It is therefore documented, and can be checked by anyone who cares to do so.

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The undocumented record is wider still; there can be few people who go to American conventions who have not heard Mr Ellison renew his claims and promises. For instance, three months after the worldcon in Boston, Mr Ellison took part in a three-way telephone link-up that was broadcast at another science fiction convention. In this conversation with Fritz Leiber and Arthur C. Clarke, Mr Ellison again repeated his claims:

“I’m getting ready for the final push [on LAST]. It’s going to press. Berkley/Putnam is doing it. They’re taking a year to publish it in three volumes. …That’s it then, that rock’s off my back forever.”

[Transcript in ‘Science Fiction Review’ 40, Fall 1981.]

Again the unambiguous assertions: the book is going to press, it’s off his back forever (and never mind what he had said in public only three months earlier).

Any professional writer will know that when a book is “going to press” it has already been in the publisher’s hands for some weeks or months. The implication is clear: the manuscript must have been delivered.

And that same writer will want to believe it, and will put aside the memory of the earlier qualification: “I’m getting ready for the final push.”

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Since 1980, of course, the book has still not been published, nor has it even been announced. As always, the exact situation is difficult to determine, but the book appears now to be under contract to Houghton Mifflin.

Mr Ellison has been widely criticized over his tardiness. Most of this is in private (he would probably be appalled to know what people say about LAST when they know he can’t hear them … fear of reprisal from Harlan Ellison is a very real phenomenon, as some of the following letters will confirm), but some, inevitably, gets into print.

One such was by the American writer and critic, Gregory Feeley [published in ‘Thrust’, Spring/Summer 1984].

This made a point I had not seen before: that many of the longer stories in the first two Ellison anthologies had been expanded into novels, and that LAST contained a large number of long stories, many of which would seem likely candidates for the same expansion. Feeley pointed out that the writers of these–with one or two exceptions–were effectively barred from developing their work so long as Mr Ellison was sitting on them.

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I realized while I was researching that to be one of Mr Ellison’s friends is something to be avoided. Mr Ellison does not hesitate to recruit his friends to mouth his words for him.

In October 1983 yet another letter went around to LAST contributors, this one purportedly written by the science fiction writer Ed Bryant.

Writing on Mr Ellison’s headed notepaper, Ed Bryant uses his first paragraph to go out of his way to establish his credentials as someone “not wont to hyperbole” or “unwarranted enthusiasm in regard to matters such as TLDV.”

From the first moments, then, the weary LAST contributor is presented with another hypocritical performance. Why on Earth should Ed Bryant begin a letter with such a disclaimer?

Could it be explained by the fact that he is using Mr Ellison’s headed notepaper paper in Mr Ellison’s typewriter on Mr Ellison’s desk in Mr Ellison’s office, no doubt with Mr Ellison standing right behind him? If he had been at his own typewriter, in his own office, would he have launched into this degrading “Honest Ed” routine? Whatever the truth, all the signs are instantly up: truth is going to be a rare commodity, yet again.

Inevitably, familiar matters are raised:

Yes, Mr Ellison paid Honest Ed’s air fare out to Los Angeles.

Yes, Mr Ellison is busy writing the introductions.

Yes, there’s a new publisher (this one Houghton Mifflin).

Yes, there’s a major promotional budget.

Yes, there’s a new publication date (Spring 1984).

Yes, Mr Ellison has been busy litigating “out of his own pocket” on the contributors’ behalf, this time against a bankrupt British publisher.

Yes, the previous publisher reneged on the deal, and the fact that Mr Ellison left them is nothing to do with the book not being delivered on time.

Yes, what Mr Ellison says about paying lots of money is EVER SO TRUE.

Yes, Mr Ellison has had health problems.

Yes, it is a letter disgracefully wont to hyperbole and unwarranted enthusiasm in regard to matters such as TLDV.

One cannot help feeling sorry for Ed Bryant, a pleasant man, and hope he was at least well paid.

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A poignant glimpse of what it’s like to be one of Mr Ellison’s long-suffering contributors appeared in ‘Science Fiction Review’ 46, Spring 1983. In an article called “How Not to Write Science Fiction”, Richard Wilson wrote:

“Another way not to write is to sell a story to Harlan Ellison and wait for it to be published in [LAST]. You sit and wait with visions of rave reviews, foreign and other subsidiary sales, a movie or television option, fame and money, money, money. You wait and wait. The story was at one time only a gleam in my eye, a fragment no one was interested in until Harlan saw 17,000 words of it. He liked it and demanded more. It grew and grew and in 1969 it was 40,000 or 47,000 words long, depending on who was counting, and Harlan bought it. I heard the book will be out real soon now. It’s only 13 years later, so I really shouldn’t complain. You don’t hear me complaining, do you?”

Mr Wilson died in 1987, without seeing his story published.

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As the years slip by the macabre roster of dying contributors gets ever longer, and seems to acquire a ghastly relevance. (See *Note 6*.) It is of course fortuitous, but only an inexcusably delayed book as this is prone to so many reminders of human mortality. A scurrilous but amusing article in ‘Patchin Review’, by the pseudonymous “Jane Doe”, did not shrink from the delicacy of this topic and made much wicked play with the mortality rate among LAST contributors.

She published a tabulated list of the contributors’ known ages, noting which ones had died since selling to Mr Ellison, and estimating how many (on past record) were likely to die in the coming years. According to Doe, more than 50,000 words of LAST were written by writers now deceased, and that by 1991 a total of 210,000 words will be by writers then aged 60 or over. (Several of the writers who were alive in 1981, when this article appeared, have in fact died since.) Beneath the dark mischief of this article lay the serious if obvious question: how much longer will this go on?

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It is now the winter of 1993/94.

Most of the books mentioned here as historical markers have come and gone; the films are now seen only on video, or as TV re-runs.

When LAST was announced Watergate and Irangate had not happened. The USA was still embroiled in the Vietnam war, and men were walking on the moon. Half the world was communist, or communist-dominated. The Berlin Wall stood, Yugoslavia was one country, the Ayatollah Khomeini was in obscure exile in Paris. No one would have credited that a second-rate Hollywood actor and a former research chemist would for a time become the two most powerful leaders in the West.

Satellite TV and home video recorders did not exist. CD records did not exist. Home computers were used only by enthusiasts. A pocket calculator or a digital watch cost several hundred dollars.

Kim Philby, Brook Benton, Raymond Carver, the Shah of Iran, Robert A. Heinlein, Art Blakey, Mao Zedung, Graham Greene, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Joel McCrea, Leonid Brezhnev and John Lennon were still alive.

Salman Rushdie had not yet published any novels.

No one had heard of Aids.

A baby born when Mr Ellison first started acquiring stories is now an adult.

Harlan Ellison, who was a young man when all this began, will be 60 in 1994.

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1 Response to The History of The Last Dangerous Visions: 3. The Next 13 Years

  1. nwhyte says:

    Today week! The 23rd.

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