James Blish Brian M. Stableford - Essay

Brian M. Stableford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 4193 words.)