The History of The Last Dangerous Visions: 4. Some Questions

Why Does LAST Remain Unpublished?

Why Have So Many Promises Been Broken?

Will LAST Ever be Published?

How Will It End?

Over the next few pages these questions will be addressed directly, and some answers will be proposed.

Why Does LAST Remain Unpublished?

Anthologies have failed before. They have been started and not completed. They have been published late. They have been unsatisfactory to the publisher when delivered: over-long, or unsuitable in some other way. They have not lived up to expectations.

In the generality of things no blame attaches, only disappointment, and then only from a few in the know. One book that does not after all get published is neither here nor there; no one loses face, no one is too surprised or alarmed. The publishing of books is an uncertain business, and many projects fail.

‘The Last Dangerous Visions’ appears to be different, though, because of the interest that has been aroused in it. That interest has been created by Mr Ellison himself.

From the outset he has boasted about the brilliance of the stories, has made exaggerated claims about the importance of the project, has pointed to the reputation of his first anthology, has periodically raised hopes and expectations of seeing the book in print.

Interestingly, none of this has come from the writers themselves: certainly, the ones I have spoken to have been extremely modest about their work, and in many cases have been noticeably defensive about it, because they feel that what they sold to Mr Ellison no longer represents their best work.

Unlike other books in progress, insider knowledge of LAST is not confined to a few writers, a handful of people in the publisher’s office, the editor. LAST is known around the world. There can hardly be a science fiction fan anywhere in the world who not only does not know about it, but who has not got an opinion about it. In this wider circle of insider expectation the book has become something of a sick joke, synonymous with a project that has never been completed and likely never will be.

All this cynicism, this defensiveness, all these anticipations, arise from one source alone.

Only Harlan Ellison still seems to believe that the book is viable, only he keeps bringing up the subject. He single-handedly stokes the fires of expectation.

Why can he not let the book go?

The problem seems, quite simply, to be one of fears about credibility.

So much has been put at stake: personal integrity, professional reliability, the regard of peers, the importance of not seeming to be a quitter … all these have become part of the book’s rationale. Too much boasting has been done in public, too many grand statements have been made, too many promises about annuities.

Behind this facade of bluster and strutting must lie a deep sense of insecurity.

Mr Ellison is the author of his own problems. We expect of him only what he has made us expect, and if he thinks the non-appearance of the book will represent indignity and failure, then so will we.

Any hint of disbelief in the project (e.g., when a writer tries to withdraw his story) is greeted with such a display of bad temper, wheedling, renewed promises, emotional blackmail, accusations, threats, and so on, that few will challenge him. Writers living both in the UK and in the USA have been on the receiving end of this kind of thing, but few will talk about it. (See Pre-Publication Letters.)

One of the immediate consequences of crossing Mr Ellison is a broad and enduring distaste for the whole subject, part of which is clearly the wish not to renew the trouble. Fear of reprisal: this has been mentioned before, but it is surprisingly common. What should be a matter for free comment is rarely discussed, because people don’t like being vilified.

The forcefulness of Mr Ellison’s personality is obviously not in doubt, and there is no question but that should he channel his energies he probably could make the anthology succeed.

Then why has he not? Why has ‘The Last Dangerous Visions’ not so far been published?

#

At a very basic level, the problem of LAST is a classic example of someone biting off more than he can chew.

Yet it’s easy to see how it happened:

A few stories held over from ‘Again, Dangerous Visions’, a perfectionist desire to crown a project with something even bigger and better. Past efforts have been successful, feedback is coming in from readers. The idea of the book is sound: a publisher leaps at it and puts up some money. Writers are approached, stories are written. The book gets bigger, the stories look good, but time is starting to pass. The publisher calls up to see how it’s coming along. Meanwhile, five of the stories are being rewritten, three young and hitherto unknown writers are nominated for prizes (and the book won’t be complete without stories from them), and there is the small matter of all those stories that were promised last year and haven’t been delivered yet …

The first publisher gets tired of waiting, but a second is only too eager to step in. More money is paid. The book goes on getting bigger, and time is still passing. A visit to France introduces a welcome touch of the exotic to the contents page, but raises an unwelcome thought: what about German writers, Swedish writers, Australian writers …? Meanwhile, in the time it takes to go to France and back, five more young American writers have emerged who should be included. Letters go off. Then…the inspiration! The book must contain every writer of note who wasn’t in either of the first two anthologies. After a hurried search through the SFWA Directory, more sycophantic letters are sent, more stories are promised, more stories are delivered. The book is getting bigger and bigger, and now represents a major investment of time and energy. Meanwhile, there are television scripts to write and lawsuits to pursue. The publisher changes again, writers begin to get restless. The fans are gossiping, speculating … some coveted writers refuse to take part, others try to withdraw their stories, hassles are developing all around. Afterwords need to be rewritten, and introductory articles already written have drifted out of date. Contributors start to die; things don’t look so good.

The larger the book grows the more unmanageable it becomes, not only physically but also creatively.

All books represent an idea, but now the idea of LAST extends over a huge period of time, with dozens of different writers working at different stages of their careers; young writers whose work was snapped up at workshops, old writers teased out of retirement. Even to try to think about it gives you a headache. And what about all those sui generis writers who won’t have anything to do with the book? Doesn’t their very absence imply something might be wrong?

Then another attempt to impose order: reassuring letters go out, but a large number of the contributors respond by asking if they can change the ending of their story, or suggesting that they send in something more recent instead, something a bit longer but more up to date. Meanwhile, word comes in that two more contributors have inconsiderately died.

The book is out of control.

Like a man who has to keep running to save himself from falling, Mr Ellison moves the book on and on, shouting to keep his spirits high.

This is undoubtedly what has happened, and what is still going on. It does not necessarily indicate what will happen in the future, but it does explain what went on in the past.

It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for the problem.

No one, not even Mr Ellison’s worst detractor, has ever suggested that his motives were not the highest. He undoubtedly intended to produce a worthwhile book, and probably still believes that that is possible. But Mr Ellison has become the victim of scale and the scale of his own ambition. It was too much. It is a book that is no longer possible.

Why Have So Many Promises Been Broken?

The record is plain: one promise after another has been broken.

LAST has been falsely announced more often than any other book in history. Many of these false predictions have been highly specific, almost incontestably so. The claims are so specific, so exact, so apparently binding, that people have been gulled by them again and again.

If Mr Ellison were ever confronted with this record, he would doubtless have a string of excuses to hand, most of them entirely plausible. Each promise would be documented with a note of its breach, a deft explanation of someone else’s failure or betrayal, his own human error, an unwelcome attack of one of his famous incapacitating chronic ailments. Individually, each excuse might well be valid.

But taken as a whole, he has been crying wolf about this book since 1971.

Why? What is the real reason?

Theories are easy; the previous section contained one that was not hard to envisage. But the phenomenon of the multiple false claims about this unfinished book is extremely interesting. Clearly, things are more complicated than they seem, and any attempt to explain them must be equally as complex. The problem has to be approached indirectly.

#

Harlan Ellison is famous. It’s likely that he is not as famous as he thinks, but for a writer whose work consists almost entirely of short stories he has done remarkably well. He has won awards, he has been anthologized all over the world, he goes on TV chat shows, he has been guest of honour at numerous science fiction conventions, he has fans and allies and friends. His writing is taken seriously in American universities, he has done unpublicized work to encourage young writers, his views and his presence are widely respected.

But all writers, famous or otherwise, have one thing in common. They see themselves as individuals, and that only by individual qualities will they prevail. The two qualities most prized by writers are ability and integrity. They stand or fall by these.

Mr Ellison’s past ability with his anthologies has been demonstrated, and is not in doubt. He has nothing to prove.

Nor is his integrity in doubt … yet here we approach the answer.

The appeal Mr Ellison makes is to his integrity. By his public announcements, his lurid claims on convention platforms, his answers to interviewers, his specific naming of dates and details, he is throwing down a challenge.

He is saying, in effect, “I, Harlan Ellison, say this is so. If you question what I say, you are not questioning the fact but casting suspicion on my integrity and professional reputation.”

It is a curiously effective way of suppressing criticism, because his integrity is not an issue with anyone else.

His fame, his record, his word … all these are accepted. It is Mr Ellison himself who makes integrity an issue; if he did not, no one else would be bothered about it.

The position of any anthology editor is one of trust: he is first trusted by the publisher, then by the writers who send him stories, and finally by the readers who buy the book. Trust is implicit in this kind of work, and anthologies would not be possible without it.

Why then does Mr Ellison bring it in as an issue?

Why are doubters given such short shrift? Why are writers who withdraw their work treated as if they have betrayed a cause? Why are the periodic promises to his surviving contributors couched so emotionally? (In his circular letters Mr Ellison uses phrases like “your trust may be better placed this time”, “appeal for solidarity”, “imploring”, “I’ve always tried to be candid with you”, “hang in there for one more month”, “I’ve run out of ways to beg you to stay with me”, and so on.)

These appeals are obviously sincere, but they are equally obviously calculated … and the effect is manipulative.

Mr Ellison sincerely believes in what he is doing, sincerely believes that he is worthy of trust … but at the same time he does not shrink from using that trust as a weapon of challenge. Few will take up the challenge, because it is not at issue.

Only the reckless respond, try to get their stories back or point out that this is the umpteenth time the anthology has been promised … and the fury of a man who feels his integrity impugned is turned full upon their hapless heads.

Will LAST Ever be Published?

It is always possible that everything will happen just as Mr Ellison has always claimed.

The Herculean labours will come to an end, the manuscript will be delivered, the publisher will accept it, the book will come out. It will be a two- or three-volume boxed set of handsome hardcovers in a fine edition, superbly designed and illustrated. It will of course be expensive (obviously much more than the $26 mooted several years ago), but a reasonably priced paperback will follow. The book will be an instant collector’s item, it will stay in print for years, universities will compete to be the first to put it on the syllabus … and a group of slightly elderly writers will at last start receiving their annuities.

Can it happen?

When I first drafted this long essay in 1984 I found it difficult to suppress the nervy feeling that everything I was writing would be rendered invalid in an instant, if LAST suddenly appeared in the shops. It turns out I need not have worried: the intervening years have seen, if anything, a decline in the likelihood.

Even so, again, now in 1993, I cannot easily suppress the same feeling. So plausible is Mr Ellison’s vehement belief in himself that even an unbeliever like myself is periodically beguiled.

Only when I think about the numbers do I feel certain.

#

The last published list of contents that I have been able to trace was in 1979, when there were 113 stories with a total length of 645,000 words. But that was nearly a decade and a half ago. How many stories have been added or withdrawn since, and what is the word count now?

On past performance it seems unlikely that the list has remained unchanged.

Between 1974 and 1979 (a period when the book was “closed”) the number of stories increased from 78 to 113. Those 35 new stories represented a percentage increase of about 45%, or a straight-line increase of about 9% a year.

Have more been added since? If so, how many? In 1982 I was told by one of the contributors that the number had risen to 180, but this is of course hearsay. Discounting this and being conservative: let’s assume that in the last fourteen years Mr Ellison has not actively sought new stories.

Even so, irresistible new writers must have come to his attention. A glance at any Hugo or Nebula nomination list from the last ten years will reveal there are dozens of top-class writers not on his 1979 list.

If we assume that Mr Ellison’s rate of acquisition has slowed in recent years, but that he has even so gone on buying stories, what would be a realistic estimate? That he has acquired, say, just four new stories a year?

That would produce a further 56 stories, bringing the total to 169. (Using the same basis, this means a percentage increase of about 50%, or a straight-line increase of about 3.5%. Both these figures are drastically lower than before.)

The average length of each individual story in 1979 was about 5,700 words, but we know that several of these are very long indeed–Richard Wilson’s is 47,000 words–and that even Mr Ellison must by now be trimming his sail to suit the wind.

To stay on the conservative side, let’s assume the average length of the new stories is 4,000 words.

The total length of the book then increases to 869,000 words. (That’s the known 645,000 plus 56 stories x 4,000.) I suspect that this huge amount of wordage is none the less an underestimate.

#

The one thing we know for sure about the Dangerous Visions books is that they do not confine themselves to short stories.

There are the introductions to each story (written by Mr Ellison), the afterwords (written by the authors), and an overall introduction (Ellison).

On past form the introductions run to at least 2,000 words each, and the afterwords average out at about 1,000 words, and these have to be added to the overall total.

If we assume (against all likelihood) that the overall introduction is a minimalist 5,000 words, and that there is only one (and not one each for the separate volumes in the boxed set), we arrive at a grand total:

Introduction 5,000
Stories 869,000
Author introductions 338,000
Afterwords 169,000
_________
Total 1,381,000
=========

The closest estimate to this Mr Ellison has ever made is the one he gave to Christopher Fowler in 1976.

(If you prefer to believe that the 1979 contents list remains the final one, the same basis of calculation produces a total of 989,000 words.)

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget Tim Kirk’s 75 full-page illustrations. Assuming there is one for each story, more must have been executed since: presumably there are now 169 of these, also to be included. 169 pages of a book take up roughly the same amount of space as 45,000 words of text, so these too should be added to the nominal total.

It seems likely that Mr Ellison, a writer who normally only produces short stories, cannot properly conceive what a book of this length actually means in physical terms.

If the publishers chose the normal large format of a hardcover, and used 8pt or 9pt type, they would still have to produce a total volume at least 4,000 pages long, perhaps closer to 5,000 pages.

(My small-type, war-economy 1941 edition of ‘War and Peace’, with which Mr Ellison compares his own book, has a mere 1,352 pages.)

#

Physically producing a book of this length would be a nightmare.

Length aside, remember that the text will consist of 169 (or 113) different manuscripts, each produced on a different typewriter or word processor, and each having its own ideas about spelling, punctuation, paragraph layout. The first thing any publisher would have to do is send the book away to be copy-edited; one publisher’s editor I spoke to estimated that copy-editing alone could take up to four months, all of which will obviously have to be paid for.

Typesetting would take at least as long again … and never mind the overheads which are accruing while all this is going on. Then there are the costs of purchasing the paper, making the plates, binding, warehousing, distribution …

Is such a book practicable these days? How much would the book cost to print? How many copies would have to be printed to get the cover-price down to $26? (Actually, millions and millions, which happens to be the numbers Mr Ellison unconvincingly claims the earlier books have sold.) Would the market exist to support such a print run?

Being sensible, and assuming a print-run of the same sort of size as a bestselling novel, the book would still have to be noticeably more expensive than the average hardcover. To pluck a figure out of the air: say $75.00 for the 3-volume set.

The book would obviously sell well, even at that sort of price. But well enough?

Rich collectors would snap it up, of course, and those 200 universities would scramble for copies. Perhaps 1,000 copies could be counted on as certain sales … maybe twice that if you feel generous.

But Mr Ellison’s sights are clearly set higher than this: he imagines it will become a bestseller.

The book, in fact, must become a bestseller. There is no other way it could conceivably be published.

You start to sense the divine lunacy of the project at this point. Science fiction has become a bestselling category in recent years; surely LAST, one of the most heralded, talked-about books in years, surely this would slide into the bestsellers list with regal assurance?

Maybe it will.

#

The publisher does have other ways of saving money.

The print-run can be increased by doing a deal with a book club; this would bring down the unit cost of the book a little. Mr Ellison has always stoutly maintained that cheap editions will not be allowed; but suppose he were over-ruled … how many copies would a book-club want? How would they release it? As a “choice” or an “alternate” for that month? Surely it would make an ideal premium title, the sort that is offered for a few dollars as an inducement to new members …

Will it end up being practically given away?

Another option open to the publisher is to make co-production deals with other English language publishers. An American paperback house, say, or a British publisher.

Would the typography required for a massive hardcover be suitable for reproduction in paperback? Might it not have to be re-set?

And what about Britain? The only British deal Mr Ellison has ever mentioned was with Millington Books, back in 1976. But Millington went out of business years ago, and no other British publisher has announced it since.

Another possibility would be for someone to bring out the book using electronic media, such as CD-ROM. Even Mr Ellison’s vastly over-sized text would fit comfortably on a 650Mb compact disc. Indeed, this is so close to an answer that one can all too easily imagine hearing from him in the near future about the upcoming CD-ROM edition. (“I’ve pulled it back from those tardy book publishers. There’s this outfit in Santa Monica who can manufacture CDs for under $1 a disc. There’s room for hundreds more stories, and I’m reading manuscripts right now. I just have the introductions to write, and–“)

But before anyone succumbs to waves of relief, take a calm look at two significant facts:

Firstly, the current state of CD-ROM technology is not final. It is still in development. Although many great and wonderful things are promised for CD-ROM, the technology is expensive to buy, optimally requires a computer using at least a 486DX chip to drive it properly, and might yet turn out to be the Betamax format of the future. There is already a valid use for texts stored in CD-ROM, but the format is not yet a replacement for books. The CD-ROM revolution has begun, but people are advancing on the presidential palace slowly.

Secondly, where is the weak link in LAST? Where have we realized, time and time again, the delays are arising? The common link is Mr Ellison’s apparent inability to finish his editorial work.

#

The odds are stacked against the book.

After more than 20 years of promises, Mr Ellison still appears not to have finished the necessary work.

The idea has gone out of control: too many stories are too old, too many contributors have died, too many good or recent writers are missing.

The book is far too long, and virtually impossible to publish with any realistic hope of a financial return.

But none of this reckons with Mr Ellison himself. He continues to insist that the book will appear. He WILL finish the work, he WILL deliver it. Not only WILL it be published, it WILL be a major success. A “roadmarker”, a “milestone”, a “landmark”, an “annuity” for its writers.

This insistence is all that his writers have.

They have to set aside his quarter-century of non-completion. Set aside the string of broken promises. Set aside all their objective experience of practical publishing. Set aside the fact that they will be represented by work they wrote years ago. Set aside any fears they might have about the book’s market potential.

In short, they have to set aside every justifiable doubt and worry they have entertained for years.

Against all this, Mr Ellison offers only his unchallengeable integrity, and expects of others the same faith he has in himself.

How will it end?

How Will It End?

We have to imagine what seems to Mr Ellison to be the unimaginable.

The book is never actually completed. Alternatively, it is completed and delivered in a form that turns out to be unpublishable. What then?

Three possibilities present themselves.

#

The Steady State Theory

The book will never be finished, it will never be published. ‘The Last Dangerous Visions’ will continue forever, an institution, a legend in its own right. It has after all been running for at least 22 years, so what is there to stop it now? The promises of impending publication will be repeated from time to time, publication dates will be regularly announced, the publisher will be changed at regular intervals, the advances will go up to keep pace with inflation.

More and more stories will be purchased, and these will replace the trickle of withdrawals: stability will probably be attained somewhere around the 200 mark. Young writers will replace the older ones, as they die.

In the end, everyone will write for LAST, and everyone will die.

#

The White Dwarf Theory

Someone will present Mr Ellison with a face-saver.

Above all he is in a dilemma: he has put his integrity at stake, but everything is tied up in a project which even he must acknowledge is hopeless.

But given that he at last delivers something to a publisher, control of the book’s destiny will pass out of his hands, at least temporarily. The publishers will do the sums, and after an appropriate pause could propose a solution to the dilemma.

They could offer to bring out a shortened version of the book. A “trial” first volume, say, to test the market … or perhaps even a ‘Best of Last Dangerous Visions’.

In spite of Mr Ellison’s assertion that the book must be published whole or not at all, this might be a way out for all concerned. The book could be published economically, several of the writers would see their work in print, the others would have their stories returned, the book would probably sell well, and so on.

And Mr Ellison would come out of it in fine style. In public he could protest his best endeavours, tell his funny stories about treacherous publishers and shifty fans and moving large boxes about the country, receive his standing ovation …

#

The Big Bang Theory

Finally, the book could be abandoned.

Harlan Ellison could abandon it at any time; his writers could make him abandon it if they really wanted him to.

Frankly, it seems improbable that Mr Ellison would ever abandon the book of his own free will. His dilemma is too entrenched, he has too often vested his integrity in completion. But he could do it easily, it’s an achievable end.

It would not take long to write and photocopy a polite note of apology, attach it to each story, slip it in an envelope and mail it back to each of the writers.

It would be done, finished forever.

No one would mind, no one would complain, no one would accuse him of failure. On the contrary, I suspect most people would admire his pragmatism, and support him publicly.

But there are problems, not the least of which, of course, is the outstanding advance paid by the most recent publisher. Something would have to be done about that. But Mr Ellison is a popular writer with a large following, and he could surely supply an acceptable replacement title for the publisher.

Another problem for Mr Ellison would be having to come to terms with the momentum of the past: the vehement claims, and so on. This is almost certainly the major impediment to voluntary abandonment. He would interpret it in terms of failure, a defeat for integrity. But the opposite is the case: a dignified withdrawal from this impossible muddle would redound to his favour. His stature would increase, and he would receive much sympathy and respect.

The other kind of abandonment is also a possibility: his writers could force his hand. If they can’t imagine how, the POSTSCRIPT to this provides an answer.

#

It seems a negative conclusion to reach, that the work of 22 years should now be set aside, but when all is said and done what’s the alternative?

By all objective criteria the project is out of control, and Harlan Ellison is in an untenable position. But any discussion of bringing LAST to an end inevitably has to take account of Mr Ellison himself: some writers have had unpleasant personal experiences (see Pre-Publication Letters).

Harlan Ellison is possibly unaware of the way his mercurial personality influences those around him, and how the darker side of that personality can intimidate and suppress comment. Knowing I have been intending to write this, and conceding that factual accuracy would be paramount throughout, colleagues have even so warned me against it. They speak of abuse, verbal violence, career threats … even litigation. Such is the fear of Mr Ellison when his temper is tested! Yet aside from detailed attention to the record, there is little in this that hasn’t been said by other people over the years.

Why does it matter?

A lot of creative energy has been expended, and a lot of time has been wasted. Much of that energy and time has been Mr Ellison’s, but by no means all. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written for him. Uncountable letters have gone to and fro. Hopes have been raised, dashed, raised again, dashed again. Writers have been cajoled, flattered, traduced, bullied and misled.

Writers have wanted to see their work in print; they have had to wait. They have wanted to use their work in their own story collections; they have had to wait. They have wanted to turn their stories into novels; they have had to wait. They have tried to withdraw their stories; they have had to wait.

It is an inexcusable mess, inflicted by one writer who should know better on more than a hundred other writers who feel themselves helpless to act.

It surely speaks for itself why it matters.

This entry was posted in Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The History of The Last Dangerous Visions: 4. Some Questions

  1. marnanel says:

    I don’t know of an existing Cam-picking service, but if you start one I’d love to help.

Comments are closed.