Black Easter/The Day After Judgment Analysis
by James Blish

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Black Easter/The Day After Judgment Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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Together with Doctor Mirabilis and A Case of Conscience, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment are often thought to be Blish’s best work. Written toward the end of his career, the books explore the dilemma of the existence of evil in a world created by a good God. The dilemma is usually stated in the form that if God is both all-powerful and all-good, how can God allow evil to exist? These novels answer the question by showing God deliberately restraining his power. By the covenant, Father Domenico, a representative of good, cannot do anything to hinder or stop Theron Ware’s summoning of demons. It is logical, then, that God is discovered to be dead at the end of Black Easter; death, after all, is the ultimate restraint. The self-restraint practiced by God allows the forces of evil nearly complete freedom of action. Ironically, when evil triumphs, Satan finds that he must unwillingly take the role of God. When Satan assumes the divine throne, he must give up the freedom he enjoyed as ruler of Hell and submit to the restraints imposed on good.

In a favorable review of Black Easter in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Joanna Russ describes Blish’s point of view as Manichean. In Manicheanism, good and evil are separate powers that have struggled with each other throughout history. In Black Easter and The Day After Judgment, however, good is absent or inactive, while evil is present and active. Thus, good and evil do not fight on equal terms. Instead of struggling with evil, good withdraws and leaves the field open for evil.

Black Easter is dedicated to the memory of C. S. Lewis. Black Easter and The Day After Judgment recall Lewis’ novel That Hideous Strength (1945), in which a limited Armageddon occurs. Lewis’ novel, however, expresses his Christian faith, with good triumphing, while Blish’s books reflect his agnosticism through the death of God and the enthronement of Satan. Lewis wrote to express a belief system, but Blish wrote to explore the possibilities of good and evil as they relate to the human search for knowledge. Blish’s books also have parallels to Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1942). An epistolary novel, this book deals with demoniac temptation of modern human beings.

Black Easter and The Day After Judgment also allow comparisons with other works. They have thematic similarities to Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960). Like Blish, Miller explores the uses of knowledge in the conflict between good and evil. Although Charles Williams’ novels differ greatly in style from Blish’s, Theron Ware would fit easily into Williams’ work, for example, in a novel such as War in Heaven (1930). The entire After Such Knowledge trilogy has many links to the Faust story, as Blish deals with the theme of knowledge and sin.

A secondary theme of Black Easter and The Day After Judgment is nuclear war and its aftermath. Baines considers destruction an art that he pursues. In pursuing this art, he has provoked wars, not to increase his profits as an arms manufacturer but for aesthetic pleasure. In developing this aspect of Baines’s character, Blish satirizes the arms industry and the Cold War mentality. To Baines, unleashing demons on the earth is his greatest work of art.

Baines orders a scientist in his employ, Adolph Hess, to observe the magician at work. In doing this, Baines plans to add the power of magical knowledge to the power he already has. Hess begins as a scientific skeptic, but when he sees that Ware really commands demons, he is drawn into the practice of magic. When Hess violates the rules of magic, he is eaten by a demon. Hess is a kind of cut-rate Faust, making compromises with evil for the sake of power, whereas his boss is a more successful Faust, gaining ultimate knowledge at the end of The Day After Judgment. The ultimate knowledge that Baines acquires comes in the face-to-face discussion with Satan in Death Valley. Satan begs “Man”—in the persons of Baines, Ginsberg, Ware, and Domenico—to take the suffering of being God away from him.

Although the plot of Black Easter and The Day After Judgment may appear shocking and even blasphemous, Blish does not romanticize or glorify evil. In the same way, he does not romanticize good. He explores the nature of human motivation by reducing it to primary forms. Baines wishes to use power for purely aesthetic motives; Ware shares the same motivation. He does not use his knowledge of magic for personal power or gain but to extend the knowledge he already has. Ware agrees to Baines’s plan to unleash demons because he hopes to learn something new from the experiment. In the end, all four major characters confront a mystery beyond their understanding. This confrontation changes them in unspecified but potentially positive ways.