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(Re)Discovering James Blish, The Great Science Fiction Critic

By / June 15, 2016 / no comments

When I was totting up the authors featured in a series of big, genre-defining anthologies recently, I was surprised to discover that James Blish was one of only three writers to appear in five of the seven books, and he appeared from the earliest to the latest of the books. Now I wasn’t surprised by the other two authors. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a whole string of novels and stories that really do stick in the memory as being what sf is all about; and if Frederik Pohl isn’t quite on the same level, he did at least write “Day Million”, which has to be one of the finest of all sf short stories, and that was picked by at least a couple of the editors. But James Blish? I’ve always enjoyed the things I’ve read, but with a couple of exceptions that I’ll come to shortly they haven’t stuck in the mind the way stuff by Clarke and Pohl has done. High in the second division, I’d have said, rather than at the top of the premier league.

issue at handThe thing about James Blish was that he was something of a contradiction. He was, along with Damon Knight and, a little later, Algis Budrys, one of the three great writer-critics of science fiction who first insisted that the genre should be taken seriously. His reviews, written under the name William Atheling, Jr. (a pseudonym that was not penetrated for many years so that Atheling could even freely review novels by Blish) appeared regularly from the early 1950s into the 1960s, a period when there was virtually no science fiction criticism. There are two collections of these reviews, The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand, and they are both well worth reading, Blish was a witty and perceptive critic. Also, at a time when what did pass for sf criticism tended to look only at how likely the science was, he was a very literary critic. He read widely outside the genre, and insisted that written science fiction should be held to the same standards as any other work of literature. Indeed, until the height of the New Wave in the late 1960s, he was the only critic to argue that: the ghetto mentality was well established, and die-hard fans and writers saw no reason why they should be bothered with what was done in the boring mainstream. In the end, of course, Blish’s view prevailed, and we’re all the better for it, but for many years he was a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

Unfortunately, his own fiction didn’t always live up to his literary aspirations. Actually, that’s not fair: he always wrote well. On a sentence by sentence level he may not exactly have been Henry James, and he never went in for literary experiment the way that his successors in the 1960s, the ones who had learned most from his criticism, did, but his prose was always well-wrought, clear and readable. It’s just that what he wrote didn’t always live up to the quality of the prose: his stories all too often tended towards the pulpy end of the spectrum.

Actually, thinking about it, that may be what lies behind his appearance in those anthologies: he was a writer’s writer, someone able to turn out the crudest pulp-era blood and thunder and make it seem at least half-way literate and serious.

cities in flightPart of this, of course, is due to the period when he first came to prominence. Science fiction was dominated by the magazines, so stories had to be both clever and startling to attract attention. Novels were short (this was a time when 190 pages was the norm, when John Brunner’s 400-page Stand on Zanzibar appeared in the mid-60s it was notoriously the longest sf novel, a title it held for an unconscionably long time), which meant there wasn’t much space for subtlety. And the whole atmosphere of science fiction was still informed by pulp sensibilities. And as a jobbing writer, Blish wrote for the markets, something he continued to do throughout his career. In the late-60s and on into the 90s he wrote more than a dozen Star Trek novelisations, including Spock Must Die! which is widely reckoned to be the best of the breed; Spock Must Die! may well be a very good Star Trek novel, but it still conforms to the limitations of the form. Which pretty much sums up Blish’s career: he wrote within the limitations of the form rather than writing to expand or escape those limitations, despite the fact that that’s precisely what his criticism encouraged his successors to do. No surprise, therefore, that probably his most enduring and popular work is the four-volume Cities in Flight sequence (They Shall Have Stars; A Life for the Stars; Earthman, Come Home and A Clash of Cymbals, aka The Triumph of Time). An anti-gravity device, the spindizzy, allows entire cities to break away from Earth and go into space, which they do originally to escape the erosion of civil liberties, eventually wandering from solar system to solar system looking for work. It’s a neat idea, and it’s pretty well written (one of the reason the books are still readable today), but it is still on the whole a fairly crude, garish and conventional bit of pulp sf.

case of conscienceBut, as I said, Blish was a man of contradictions, and there were just a few occasions when the ideas and the execution combined to produce something really special. There are four instances of this that I particularly want to mention, two short stories and two novels. The two novels are both part of the thematic sequence known as “After Such Knowledge” which examines the clash between science and religion. The first of these, and to my mind perhaps the best thing he ever wrote, is A Case of Conscience (which deservedly won a Hugo Award). It is the story of a Jesuit priest and scientist who is part of an expedition to an alien planet. There they find an advanced race who seem to have a perfect moral system (there is no crime or conflict or want) but no religion. The priest admires the Lithians, and likes those he meets personally, but concludes that the whole planet must be the work of Satan (though this idea is itself heretical, since it assumes that Satan has the ability to create). It is a wonderfully complex working out of ideas (the conflict between Catholic doctrine and science was not something that had received much attention in sf before this point), yet it is presented in beautifully clear direct prose that makes it a joy to read. (as an aside, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow explores a very similar idea, though she apparently had not read A Case of Conscience before writing the novel.)

doctor mirabilisThe second novel in the “After Such Knowledge” sequence is not science fiction, but it is still relevant and of interest to science fiction readers. Doctor Mirabilis is an account of the life and work of the medieval religious scholar and philosopher, Roger Bacon. Blish’s contention is that Bacon was the first scientist, as we might understand the word today, and that his ideas, which constantly brought him into conflict with the Church, actually prefigured the later work of Newton and Einstein. It’s a work that Blish researched intensely, and it’s full of convincing details not only about Bacon’s life and times but about his theories and his way of thinking about fundamental realities. The third part of the sequence is a pair of linked novellas, Black Easter and The Day After Judgement; after works of science fiction and historical fiction, this approaches horror with the notion that ritual magics actually worked.

surface tensionThe first of the two short works I want to pick out is “Surface Tension”. When a spaceship crashes on an alien world the human crew know there is no chance of rescue, so to ensure future survival they produce genetically modified humans on a microscopic scale to live in the ponds on the planet. Over generations these tiny beings explore their small world, develop technology, and learn to decipher the messages left behind by the spaceship crew. Eventually, they build a “spaceship” of their own to pierce the surface tension of their little pond world and set out to find another world in a neighbouring pond. It is one of the classic stories of genetic engineering, and still has the power to startle and surprise. The novella was included with three other stories of what Blish called “Pantropy” in his collection The Seedling Stars.

quincunx of timeThe other story, “Beep”, is, to be honest, not well-liked by everyone, and it does have problems (let’s just say it is of its time), but it is still one of those stories that tends to lodge in the mind, perhaps more for the ideas it raises than for any it settles. It’s a story about a device for instantaneous communication across interstellar distances, but even before the first device can reach its destination a journalist starts receiving messages from that other planet. A security agent is convinced that there must be a leak, but eventually discovers that all messages sent via the device, past present and future, can all be accessed at the same time. It raises issues about whether we are living in a deterministic universe that aren’t fully explored but that are still fascinating. The story was later expanded into a novel, The Quincunx of Time, but all this really does is make it excessively wordy.

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