Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction 1950-1985. Edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre.

I’d only had the book in my hands for an hour before I threw it across the room. Metaphorically. I’d anticipated this book for too long to actually throw it across the room, but the final two paragraphs of Lucy Sussex’s article on James Tiptree Jr had me spinning in disbelief. I was loosely aware that Alice B Sheldon had passed herself off as Tiptree, writing science fiction under conditions of heightened security. And the facts are even more amazing – the article delivers a great deal of fascinating detail. But what happened to Tiptree/Sheldon 32 years after his/her death is unbelievable. Or rather, all too believable. Proof that however perceptive science fiction writers were, they still couldn’t foresee the absurdity of the future.

Dangerous Visions and New Worlds adopts the titles of the anthology, and magazine which provided a shop window for the “New Wave” science fiction of “the long Sixties,” when progressive authors moved the subject from space wars and technology to mass media, state control and sexual liberation. Now that the unacceptable has become accepted it’s sometimes hard to appreciate just what a risk the “new wave” took. In a section dealing with the first publication of Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, Nicolas Tredell quotes from Hansard as Arts Minister Jennie Lee is questioned by a fellow Labour MP over the arts council grant given to New Worlds . Specifically whether public money should be spent on a magazine that distributor W.H.Smith had refused to handle.

At over 200 pages, this anthology covers a lot of ground. The first thing I did was flick through the book. It’s eminently flickable. Almost every page has a luscious colour photo of at least one paperback. I felt a deep rush of nostalgia over the New English Library cover for Christopher Priest’s Doctrinaire, or the original Penguin edition of Quatermass and the Pit, or Theodore Sturgeon’s Nerves . But there was more I’d not seen before – like the Fawcett paperback of Day of the Triffids (retitled Revolt of the Triffids) or the two bleak covers for Mordecai Roshwald’s Level Seven or the early 1960’s Philip K. Dick paperbacks.

After I got tired of flicking, I checked out the index. Graham, David Down to a Sunless Sea, The Great 24 Hour THING (Offut), Greatorex, Wilfred, The Green Death (Hulke)! So Dr Who‘s in there? Yes, a big spread of Target Dr Who novelisations. Right next to an article on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who were writing science fiction in the era of Kruschev when “sticking it to the Man” could have serious consequences. One of their novels, The Snail on the Slope was suppressed for satirising Soviet society where people, “live in chaos and turmoil…engaged in aimless, unnecessary busywork…carry out stupid laws and directions.” Which, ironically, sounds like the 21st Century western society described by David Graeber in Bullshit Jobs.

This eclectic mix answers old questions and introduces us to treasures we might have missed. Back in 1974, Mayflower published the first in a series of books about QHE, written by the mysterious W.W. The covers were by Richard Clifton-Dey – who was also responsible for the powerful visualisations of Martin Caidin’s Cyborg novels and Philip Jose Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life – and the headline promised an explosive new superhero. QHE was tapping into the same vein as some of the more edgy Marvel Comics – a ruler of a hidden kingdom using occult powers to defeat the schemes of super-capitalists. But the series never quite took off. Perhaps because it seemed slightly inaccessible. Who was W:W for instance? The pseudonym always made me think of B.B., the author of Baldmoney, Sneezewort, Dodder and Cloudberry, but the truth – revealed here – is even more astounding!

The collection also introduces us (or introduced me) to Andra, the 1971 debut of Louise Lawrence (Elizabeth Holden) in which a teenage girl, two thousand years in the future, has a graft fromthe brain of a young radical male from the 1980’s. “her hair colour changes from fair to dark and her eyes from blue to brown. But more significant are the changes in her personality…her IQ is higher, she is questioning and rebellious and she shows no deference to her elders. She attracts a following of young people, much to the growing concern of Sub City One’s rulers.”

Andrew Nette relates that the British novel was adapted into a TV serial by Australia’s ABC in 1976. “It appears to have aired only once, in mid-1976, and while the ABC claims to have copies in its archives, there are counterclaims that the series was accidentally wiped.”

With 38 chapters, the collection has a vast range. I was fascinated by the article on Damnation Alley – a novel I was only familiar with as the inspiration for the Judge Dredd sequence The Cursed Earth. Like Logan’s Run, the Roger Zelazny novel was the subject of a film adaptation which seems to have spectacularly missed the point. There are also articles on J. G Ballard, Essex House (short-lived publishers of “erotic, speculative fiction”) and Ira Levin. There is also a comparison of The Moons of Le Guin and Heinlein (“so closely related, so superficially similar, and so different in thrust”) by Donna Glee Williams. And a career article on Octavia Butler by Michael A. Gonzales which delivers its own back-handed slap to the New Wave (“Butler’s work lacked the experimental styling and intellectual hijinks of her peers…Butler wrote in a way that was more wise than intellectual and could be grasped by a working class person on his/her lunch break at the factory.”)

An ideal Christmas present to yourself, something to soothe you through the delights of the season.

Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction 1950-1985. Edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre. 220 pages. PM Press 2021. ISBN: 9781629638836. $29.95 Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985 (pmpress.org)