The Book on the Edge of Forever

What's the most famous science fiction title of all time? Everyone has an opinion: it's The Time Machine, it's the Foundation trilogy, it might be 2001 because of the movie, or Frankenstein if you reckon that's sf rather than horror ... and there's always some clever sod who argues for the Bible or the Conservative Party manifesto.

But how about the most famous unpublished sf work? The chorus from insiders is unanimous: there's nothing to challenge the supremacy of that non-existent blockbuster anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, edited (if that's the word) by Harlan Ellison.

This is a modern legend. Like the Flying Dutchman, the ghostly volume has sailed down the decades with dead men in its crew, its grisly fame increasing yearly. Will it ever reach a safe landfall? Of course, cries Captain Ellison. Never, suspects early contributor Charles Platt – who in 1994 celebrated the silver jubilee of his story sale to Ellison after waiting 25 years to see it published, but still in vain....

The tale opens with Ellison's taboo-breaking sf anthology Dangerous Visions, which appeared with much fanfare in 1967, was widely acclaimed, and gathered many awards for contributors. Hot with excitement, Ellison assembled a much bigger (and, carping critics complained, flabbier) follow-up: Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972. His third volume was planned to be huger still. The Last Dangerous Visions began with stories which like Platt's 1969 submission were squeezed out of ADV, and grew in the editor's imagination to become a definitive map of contemporary sf – featuring every significant writer who hadn't been in books one or two.

As it grew, it slithered out of control. TLDV was to be published six months after ADV in 1972. Ellison's first of many announcements of the book's completion came in September 1973, with the footnote 'AND I DAMMIT TO HELL DON'T WANT TO SEE SUBMISSIONS FROM ANYONE EVER AGAIN IN THIS LIFE!' (But there were still 60,000 words of story introductions for him to write.) In 1974 he was hunting again for new stories – because new and major sf writers had appeared. TLDV would be a million words long, maybe a million and a half!

Time passed. Interviewed in 1976, Ellison stated proudly that TLDV would appear in Spring 1977. Next year he assured contributors that it was on course for Christmas 1978. A 1978 letter promised that the book would appear from a different publisher by Christmas 1979. This slipped again, to 1980....

I was at the 1980 World SF Convention in Boston, where Ellison received a glad standing ovation for his announcement that the anthology, so long delayed, had been personally delivered by himself! General enthusiasm and relief were so infectious that wild applause came even from fellow-writers who, at a party mere days earlier, had heard the great man admit that he hadn't yet written all those introductions to the stories.

Further publication dates were announced: 1981 ... 1982 ... 1984 ... the Flying Dutchman sailed on. Members of its crew of writers were dying over the years: Alfred Bester, Frank Herbert, Clifford Simak, a whole crowd of lesser names. What had gone wrong? Ellison was ill, friends said: but he always seemed to rally when he needed to script movies or TV shows, make outspoken public appearances, and denounce his foes. He's so famous for vitriol and invective that few dared to tackle him head-on about the anthology from hell. Some who decided the venture was doomed and withdrew their stories were given a very bad time indeed.

Such is the fame of TLDV that a whole nonfiction chapbook has been written about it: The Book on the Edge of Forever (Fantagraphics Books, 1994) by Christopher Priest, whose title ironically echoes Ellison's Hugo-winning Star Trek script. Priest traces the story in merciless detail, with documentation and eye-witness accounts, and reckons that TLDV is too unwieldy to be published, too full of dated material from authors who have since learned to write far better: 'It is a book that is no longer possible.' When Priest first muttered this, Ellison issued a 1988 counterblast stating that the project was occupying most of his time ... but in 1995 it remains on the edge of forever.

I talked to Harlan Ellison myself last year, and he managed to sound genuinely hurt and surprised that, despite minor delays since 1972, anyone could doubt that TLDV would soon appear. We must have faith. Occasional rats may scuttle overboard, but the vessel from the 1960s ploughs onward with Captain Ellison still unbowed at its helm, his eyes on the horizon of the twenty-first century. As yet, it is a story with no end.