Harlan Ellison, The Last Dangerous Visions, and a Usenet War

Karen Williams
Oct 12 · 3 min read

Long ago, in 1998, there was the Internet (capitalized) but no World Wide Web, no Facebook, no Twitter. So where could people go to post messages on various topics, then fight about it? Usenet, a distributed network of discussion groups that anyone with access to a news server could use. And we used them.

I’m a fan of science fiction, and one of my favorite writers was Harlan Ellison, a brilliant writer and editor who everyone either loved or hated. He could be…opinionated. One of the books he edited was a groundbreaking speculative fiction (Harlan’s term for science fiction and fantasy) anthology called Dangerous Visions. The stories in it had a profound effect on the sf world, and he edited a sequel: Again, Dangerous Visions. This also was groundbreaking, and the stories in it won numerous awards. So Harlan announced he was going to edit The Last Dangerous Visions, and started buying stories for it. Then the project stalled, and stopped.

Many fans were outraged, because they wanted to read the stories. The anthology became a frequent topic to argue about on Usenet, particularly in groups like rec.arts.sf. I happened on one of these, where several people were arguing about what Harlan should do. I came down on the side that the writers involved were professionals, this was a business arrangement, and if Harlan wasn’t going to print their stories they had professional recourse. I got arguments in reply.

It turns out that David Gerrold (a writer most widely known for the Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”, though he’s won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for other projects) had been following the arguments, and giving printouts to Harlan to read. Harlan then asked David Gerrold to find out and give him the names and addresses of everyone who supported him in the discussion (which included me), and in return for our support Harlan would send us each a signed copy of his latest short story. (I never got the short story, but didn’t expect it. Harlan did call me out of the blue one day to apologize for not sending it, though.)

I was annoyed enough at the fanboys who had been complaining about TLDV that I wrote a poem (because I did that sort of thing in those days), and I liked it enough to send it to Harlan (through HERC). Below is the poem, but first is Harlan’s postcard that he sent me in reply.

The postcard Harlan wrote to me after I sent him my poem

And the poem…

Reflections on a Usenet Discussion and The Last Dangerous Visions

He strides atop the stage
like an Edwardian dandy
strolling along the Embankment
of the Thames.

He gazes down
a snarl hellion
at the stormy turbulence below.

Ducks, maybe, or angry seagulls
squawk below him,
flutter their feathers.

His mouth opens
hale lion snarl
toothless beaks
snap up his words
like stale breadcrumbs.

Next seen, along a crowded corridor,
he marches.
Yapping puppies snap
and bite
and nibble at his shins.

He turns with a flourish
hello in a snarl
and the barking surge surrounds him.

Terriers, worriers at socks,
bare sharp baby teeth
and piss the ground beneath them.

His mouth opens
hail, lone snarl
sloppy tongues
catch bright red drops
falling like gumdrops
from his lips.

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Karen Williams

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Product manager for machine learning and data science, aikido nidan, published fiction writer, MS surviver

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Got a minute or three? Short reads for busy folks.

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