James Blish

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Brian M. Stableford

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4193

When a number of writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, expressed resentment at the fact that their work was thought of as "science fiction," and did everything in their power to avoid the label, Blish campaigned for all "loyal" science fiction writers to insist that their works should be clearly labelled, and for they themselves to wear the title of "SF writer" with pride. He was always an earnest advocate of … [specifying] that known scientific facts should never be violated by science fiction, which must work only within the realms of the possible. He also wanted science fiction to be good—to be literate as well as logically competent. As a critic he was merciless when attacking on either front. (p. 4)

There is a great deal of labelled science fiction [in which] … the establishment of the basic hypothesis [is] little more than a ritual process involving the deployment of conventional key phrases ("mutation," "space warp," "hyperspace," etc.) rather than the extension of connecting threads to real scientific knowledge and theory. The priority in such fiction is on reasoning forward from the idea to its possible consequences. In Blish's fiction a much heavier emphasis is placed on reasoning backward in search of firmer foundations for ideas, and it is in the corollaries generated by the formation of elaborate supportive structures that he characteristically finds the impetus to go forward again. It is to a very large extent this essential thoughtfulness, and the more analytical approach to science fiction that it generates, which gives the work of James Blish its unique qualities. All of his major endeavors follow the pattern of first going back in search of a historical and rational background to set his ideas in perspective, then going on ahead to take them to their logical conclusion.

Other hallmarks of Blish's work can be seen in embryonic form in "There Shall Be No Darkness." One is the ability of the characters to adapt to the situation in which they unexpectedly find themselves. There is an orderliness in their reactions which reveals them to be sensible, open-minded, and capable people. Sometimes this revelation is unconvincing, in that we know that most people are not like that…. Readers have occasionally taken this to be evidence of a lack of emotion [on] the part of the characters concerned—they often seem callous and calculating despite the author's careful reference to their emotional states. This commitment to the scientific method, apparently strong enough to make it difficult for Blish to model characters not similarly possessed of it, is one of the principal shaping forces in the author's literary philosophy. (pp. 9-10)

Blish's concentration on the method of science rather than its apparatus results in the fact that in many of his stories resolution is sought by analysis and redeployment of the material of the hypotheses rather than by further innovation. A great deal of science fiction takes advantage of the genre's tremendous potential for deus ex machina resolutions. The world is menaced by aliens or mad scientists whose threat is embodied in their miraculous gizmos. The hero is harried and persecuted for the requisite number of chapters, then disappears into his laboratory to emerge with an equally miraculous anti-gizmo which saves the status quo. One imaginary invention is cancelled by another, conveniently and economically. It is possible to read science fiction for many years without noticing this pattern or realizing how easy it is to manipulate. Over the last ten or twenty years such formularistic solutions have declined largely because conscientious writers have rejected them as unsatisfactory, but they were a godsend to...

(This entire section contains 4193 words.)

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pulp hacks. Blish became conscious of the essential falsity of the device early in his career, and none of his good work makes use of it. (p. 10)

[Blish] is committed to the point of view which insists that if the phenomena are real then the scientific method must be adequate to the problem of systematizing them and revealing the techniques of their manipulation. It is always possible, in the literary cosmos to which Blish's fiction belongs, to gain knowledge and to apply it. (p. 12)

Blish's works give the impression that he never found writing easy, and that even his poorer stories were far from effortless. His prose is always constructed—often carefully so, sometimes with a high degree of artistry, but nevertheless artificial. His writing was not blessed with any innate elegance, and such grace as is manifest in his stories had to be incorporated by design and hard work. He was primarily a skillful writer rather than a naturally talented one, but there are advantages in having to work hard at the business of prose construction, and one is a heightened awareness of literary architecture. This is what equipped him to be a good critic, for he had more insight into the methodology of writing than any of his contemporaries. The points made in the essay "Some Propositions", which opens The Issue at Hand … demonstrate this preoccupation with methodology, as does his famous crusade against "said book-isms." His best fiction, too, is exceedingly well-planned, carefully balanced, and scrupulously precise in its prose and narrative structure.

In his poorer work, therefore, Blish's presentation is often lifeless and mechanical. In many stories, as in The Warriors of Day, he failed to capture the essential esprit that was more necessary to their function than the elimination of bad writing-habits. The cause that underlies this failing, however, also underlies the values in his successful work: the elaborate supportive structures which add weight to his ideative adventures, and the meticulousness with which he develops the psychology of his characters and guides their intellectual pilgrimages. (pp. 14-15)

There is a certain irony in the fact that Blish—the most careful and self-conscious of science fiction writers—should accidentally incorporate into a story ["Surface Tension"] the qualities necessary to make it into a classic, and then find himself unable to figure out how he had worked the trick. His diagnosis—that he "touched a nerve more mythological than molecular"—is surely correct, and his failure to discover how is probably a case of being unable to see the wood for the trees. (pp. 16-17)

[In] "Surface Tension" we find a group of inquiring minds, opposed—inevitably—by the forces of cautionary conservatism. They are all set to challenge issues of dogmatic faith, and (though they cannot know it) are on the threshold of the discovery that there lies beyond the horizons of their perceived world a vastly greater and more wonderful cosmos…. [The story succeeds because it espouses] the world-view of [its] characters, which is intrinsically more limited than that possessed by the reader, so that the reader can anticipate their moment of revelation and know its "true" significance. (pp. 17-18)

The significance of this particular myth within science fiction is that it reflects the actual ambition of the medium itself, which is to demonstrate to the reader that he lives in a world pregnant with hitherto-unimagined possibilities, and to provide a new context for the events of the mundane present….

The crucial lines of "Surface Tension," however, are those which link the mythical quality of the story to the particular concerns of the author, presenting once again the insistence that the key to achievement is knowledge. (p. 18)

Blish's future history is more than "just" history. It is the working out of what we could only call a divine plan if we were not dealing with a godless universe. The apocalyptic conclusion of The Triumph of Time owes nothing in the literal sense to Spengler, but it is entirely in keeping with the nature of the exercise. It gives the whole tetralogy [Cities in Flight] an imaginative sweep which is quite unparallelled in science fiction. Nor does it do what Blish, in his "profoundly religious opinion," believed that the science fiction writer should not do—… it does not rest on assumptions generally believed to be false, but instead adds to its quasi-scientific hypotheses certain metaphysical hypotheses. (p. 26)

They Shall Have Stars is part political melodrama and part psychological melodrama. The Western world has entered the final phase of the decline specified by Spengler, which is called "Caesarism."… The novel is densely written, packed with long dialogues containing abstruse exchanges of social philosophy. It is very difficult for the reader who comes to it for the first time to identify with the world-view of the story and appreciate the significance which the author is attempting to attribute to its events. It is yet another story of conceptual breakthrough, but it is not easy for the reader to perceive the magnitude of the breakthrough. In many ways, though, this is the strongest element in the whole structure—it was in the assembly of supportive structures for his main premises that Blish was always at his best.

A Life for the Stars introduces a complete change of pace. It is an easy-going novel, and its commentary—as would be expected in a juvenile work—is much simpler. The hero begins the book by knowing nothing, and for the first few chapters his is a worm's-eye view of life in the flying city of Scranton. As he learns more about the historical context to which he belongs, so does the reader. The reader who comes to it as the second part of the tetralogy has the added advantage of having read They Shall Have Stars, and has the perspective inherited from that volume to balance against the hero's slow accumulation of wisdom.

Earthman, Come Home remains slightly awkward against the setting of the tetralogy (despite the fact that the tetralogy is really a series of afterthoughts expanding out from it). The opening sections retain many of the trappings of traditional space opera, including the invocation of super-scientific devices more or less ad hoc…. The pieces, however, never quite fit together well enough to be an integrated novel in their own right, and there are aspects of them which seem to be at odds with the greater whole of the tetralogy. (pp. 26-8)

[The Triumph of Time] is basically a conversation-piece, most of its ideas remaining no more than ideas, confined in the heads of the characters. (p. 28)

The determination to probe a little more deeply into the implications of commonplace science-fictional notions is the seed of many Blish stories, and even when the stories were unsuccessful they could often strike a disturbing note in bringing to the surface something that lay concealed within common patterns of thought. Many of these moments of revelation are unpleasant or horrific, and there is a persistent bitterness in Blish's disenchantment with certain aspects of the real world …; sometimes there is a colder breath of hostility which amounts almost to disgust. This hostility is usually momentary, though there are one or two stories which are built around such moments, and is almost invariably the result of a penetrating insight into the implications of some of the darker possibilities opened up by the science-fictional imagination. (pp. 32-3)

It is a little strange … that Blish should be so widely considered to be an emotionless writer. The truth is that the intense emotional experiences which are suffered by the characters in these stories are of a kind which many readers simply do not recognize. The pain suffered by virtually all of Blish's characters who do suffer is a species of anguish characteristic of alienated intellectuals: it is an anguish which arises out of unusual insight and special intelligence….

Perhaps the boldest of all Blish's fictional experiments in thought is the novel which he wrote in collaboration with Norman L. Knight, A Torrent of Faces (1967). (p. 35)

The ambitiousness of A Torrent of Faces is made clear by the preface, in which its premises are stated. In the year 2794 the world's population is one thousand billion. In order to support such a population nothing less than a worldwide Utopian society can be envisaged. The economic system of this Utopia is fascism. The main theme of the book is the vulnerability of such a world to disaster, and its climax is a kind of apocalypse.

A Torrent of Faces never quite works…. [The] biological speculations in the story are entirely subverted by the convenient miracle which gives hybrid humans all kinds of wild talents—it is disappointing to find Blish accepting such a commonplace fantasy for the sake of convenience. The prospect of new evolutionary horizons for the human race allows a note of optimism to be introduced at the end of the book, but it is without sensible foundation and rings very hollow. Nevertheless, the book features some beautiful imagery and some fine ideative flourishes, and is one of the key works of the brief period of Malthusian panic which science fiction suffered at the end of the Sixties.

The same themes that are featured in A Torrent of Faces recur in the novella "We All Die Naked" (1969)…. (p. 36)

In "We All Die Naked" the bitterness of such stories as "Tomb Tapper" and "A Dusk of Idols" bursts its bounds, and the novella becomes a virtual tirade against human folly. Its moral is that we deserve what we will get for being what we are, and Blish seems to take a savage delight in making the point as brutally as possible. It is a story which contrasts sharply with his more sensitive and more carefully-considered pieces, and is perhaps the darkest of all of Blish's moments of dark vision: the moments when he perceives Hell on Earth. After "We All Die Naked," Blish wrote only two significant works of science fiction, the first being The Day After Judgment, in which the classical Hell of Medieval Christianity is literally raised on the surface of Earth; and that story not only concludes the series of investigations begun in "A Case of Conscience," but also shows something of the relationship between that series—which is predominantly an intellectual inquiry—and the particular kind of horror which haunts so many of the author's emotively powerful pieces.

While Blish was undoubtedly attracted to science fiction largely because of its potential as a medium for experiments in thought, this was not his sole reason for writing it. He was interested in writing as an art, as a craft, and as a business, and he was never ashamed of this triple priority. Many of his experiments were not experiments in thought but experiments in writing technique, and these experiments ran the entire gamut from avant garde surrealism to flamboyant space opera. He was invariably a calculating writer, and this is shown no less by The Warriors of Day than by "A Case of Conscience." Many of his literary experiments are pure adventure stories, some are rather bizarre curiosities. Barely a handful can be accounted genuinely successful, but many more of them have some features of interest. (p. 37)

Though this period of Blish's career also produced the full-length version of A Case of Conscience and The Triumph of Time, it cannot really be said that Blish's attempt to establishlish himself as a novelist rather than a short story writer was immediately successful. It is arguable, in fact, that he only ever produced one novel of note that did not emerge from a substantial novelette or group of stories written previously, and that that was the only one of his novels where he forsook entirely the apparatus of science fiction. He did write three successful novels later in his career—Black Easter, The Day After Judgment, and Midsummer Century—but all were short and might better be regarded as novellas than as full-length works. All in all, with the one striking exception of Doctor Mirabilis, it must be said that all his experiments in novel-writing were failures, when measured against his own high standards of assessment. The determination to experiment, however, never left him, and it continued to produce some rather bizarre results. (p. 42)

Within the space of a decade Blish wrote six novels intended for juvenile readers: The Star Dwellers (1961), A Life for the Stars (1962), Mission to the Heart Stars (1965), Welcome to Mars … (1968), The Vanished Jet (1968), and Spock Must Die! (1970). Although these books belong to the later phase of his career they constitute the weakest section of his output. (p. 46)

[Spock Must Die!] represents Blish's original contribution to the mythology of the TV series Star Trek…. It is a combination of space opera and whimsy, quite typical of the Star Trek mythos, though much more lavish with the special effects than the limitations of TV (especially the budget) would have allowed in a script. It is a glib story, and even has sub-climaxes which one can easily imagine bracketing commercial breaks. Playful self-indulgence extends far enough to allow the introduction of Finnegans Wake and its syncretic language into the plot…. (p. 49)

The Star Trek books brought Blish a financial security which he had not previously enjoyed, and also a very considerable juvenile audience. The relaxed attitude which is evident in "Getting Along" and Midsummer Century is almost certainly the result of this change in his professional fortunes. The same relaxation is obvious in Spock Must Die!, and there is a certain propriety about its presence there. Its very existence is an ironic comment on the unpredictabilities of a career in postwar science fiction, and the compromises that were necessary in order to contend with the vagaries of the marketplace. It would be wrong to imply that it was a cynical book, any more than The Warriors of Day or The Night Shapes was a cynical book, but it is one that carries with it a consciousness of a special irony and an awareness of the disjunction between what Blish found in science fiction that made it into his vocation, and the kind of demand which sustained the genre in the marketplace of literary mass-production.

The juvenile novels, assessed as a group, show up rather starkly all of Blish's limitations as a writer, while only rarely allowing his virtues to show through. His own interests were intellectual; his best writing concerned itself with the development of sophisticated, many-faceted arguments giving elaborate treatment to abstruse questions of metaphysical and moral philosophy. When his imaginative explorations were held back—as they were by the demands of standardized pulp writing and the demands of the juvenile market—his artistry was lost, and he became a mediocre writer, at best no more than competent…. In order to assess in any meaningful way his contribution to twentieth-century science fiction, it is necessary to focus on that work which owed least to the pulp heritage of the genre. He was, above all else, a methodical and meticulous writer, and he showed up to best advantage in projects which could not have been undertaken by any other kind of approach. The questions to which he addressed himself in such projects are peculiar enough to warrant description as "esoteric," and perhaps the books which emerged from them are esoteric, too. Nevertheless, they can be read and appreciated by any reader who has a degree of interest in their subject matter, simply because he took such pains to lay out his work in a careful and orderly manner. (pp. 49-50)

The premise of ["Cathedrals in Space"] is deceptively simple. An expedition to an alien world includes a member of the Society of Jesus. In collaboration with his fellows he must decide whether Earth is to establish interplanetary relations with the inhabitants of this world with a view to exploiting its mineral wealth—specifically lithium, useful for making atomic weapons. His companions, of course, approach this issue in strictly secular terms—where they touch moral questions their attitude is utilitarian. Blish's interest, however, lies with the Jesuit, for he has a rather different attitude to Lithia and its inhabitants, determined by the context of the theological problem of the plurality of worlds. He has to decide where the Lithians stand not only relative to man but also relative to God, and in the story he is driven to the inescapable conclusion that the Lithians are creations of the devil, set as a snare for mankind. (pp. 52-3)

Blish ably preserves the ambiguous perspective necessary to the story by concentrating on the subjective meaning which the question has for his main character.

Doctor Mirabilis (1964), which continued the line of inquiry, is also a story about a man and his subjective experience of the dilemma generated by a dual commitment to empirical inquiry and religious Authority. It is an intellectual biography of Roger Bacon, the thirteenth century friar who was the key character in an abortive Medieval movement to incorporate the methods of experimental science into contemporary philosophy. The book deals directly with the question which faced Bacon—the question of whether his search for truth by such means was justified, or whether it represented the snare of heresy. It is primarily a story of discovery, but it is about discovery in a context of thought very different from that which controls our attitude to discovery.

Only in the third part of the trilogy, made up of Black Easter (1968 …) and The Day After Judgment (… 1972) do we move away from subjective experience to the embodiment of the problem as a display of events, when the devils that may have set traps for Father Ruiz-Sanchez and Roger Bacon appear on the literary stage in person to claim their reward. Here—to begin with, at least—there is no manifest ambiguity, but simply a straightforward account of the consequence which might follow if the initial premise were true. Here, the quest for knowledge (pursued for the sake of curiosity) leads to the ultimate experiment: the release of the fallen angels from Hell. Once released they reveal that God is dead and that they are free forever. Lucifer is the new master of Creation, and the human race has been delivered into his hands.

Once again, this three-stage development follows Blish's customary pattern—the second novel goes back to establish the foundations of the whole project (and represents the work most competently, comprehensively, and artfully done), while the third part pushes on to the ultimate conclusion. (pp. 53-4)

Blish's meticulous attention to detail and his careful stylistic contrivance were ideally suited to the re-creation of a distant historical period—not only its environment and its social habits, but, crucially, its intellectual climate and ways of thought. The historical novel as a genre has mostly been concerned with mere costume drama (as, of course, has science fiction), but Blish was working well outside normal genre priorities, aiming for a special kind of realism. The context provided for the book by the line of thought extending out of A Case of Conscience was ideal for a life of Roger Bacon, whose actions did not divert the course of eventful history, and who was more-or-less forgotten by the intellectual tradition of Europe, but whose philosophy was a striking anticipation of the rebirth of empiricism in the seventeenth century.

[Doctor Mirabilis] is, of course, a tragedy, not of lost love but of lost intelligence. Not many writers would have been capable of appreciating or expressing that particular tragedy, but Blish was ideally fitted for the task, and he carried it off brilliantly. It is a work which deserves to be far better known than it is, and a work which invites wholehearted admiration from anyone interested in the history of ideas.

Given the status of the first two parts of the After Such Knowledge trilogy, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment are somewhat disappointing. They are outstanding if only for their basic hypothesis, which is startling in its boldness, and for their flamboyant development of it…. The parodic element of the novels occasionally expresses itself in terms of a whimsical levity which—to my mind—strikes a jarring note…. This is, however, only a minor cavil—the real failure of these works to live up to expectations is their rather stumbling progress from one stage-set to the next. They move gracelessly, in a series of fits and starts, knowing where they are going but never quite sure of the best route. (pp. 57-8)

All in all, the After Such Knowledge trilogy, taken as a whole, is an uneven work, but nevertheless a coherent one. It is unique in combining three different genres into one intellectual enterprise, and by doing so it helps to point out some of the utilitarian merits of all three as vehicles for experiments in thought. It is a fascinating endeavor, and there is nothing else like it in modern fiction. At least in part, it also represents a considerable literary achievement. (p. 58)

All of [Blish's] significant works are attempts to make readers emerge from the reader-experience with the feeling "'I never thought about it that way before.'" Blish was a pioneer within American genre SF in forsaking the almost-exhausted physical horizons for the infinite moral and philosophical horizons. He was not alone in this, nor was he the first such pioneer, but he made his own way, and broke new ground where others have followed. (p. 59)

Brian M. Stableford, in his A Clash of Symbols: The Triumph of James Blish (copyright © 1979 by Brian M. Stableford), The Borgo Press, 1979, 62 p.


Roger Baker