Science Fiction: James Blish, RIP
Ironically, it was only a short time after an editor of this journal had suggested a column on the Cities in Flight series that the science fiction world was saddened by news of the death of James Blish.
It is almost routine to speak of anyone's death as "untimely"; but Blish was only 54, and we cannot help but think that had he lived he would still have had major contributions to make to a literary genre his works had already enriched.
If the timing of this column is ironic, then so was the later course of Blish's career. An authority on James Joyce and Ezra Pound whose critical reviews and essays were aimed at raising science fiction to the status of "literature," he was best known in recent years for adaptations of Star Trek!
Blish was a man in the middle. Although his works began to appear in the 1940's, he was, like Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, one of the sf writers who came into full bloom during the 1950's—that decade that now seems a time of transition between the Golden Age of Astounding and the other pulp magazines on one hand and the self-consciously "literary" 1960's on the other.
He and Damon Knight were the first to try to apply strict critical standards to the field. Like most critics, his judgment was often sound, often otherwise. And, again ironically, standards that seemed too harsh and "destructive" to the generation of the 1940's that regarded sf primarily as entertainment seemed too tame and old-fashioned to literary crusaders of the 1960's and 70's.
But in the last analysis, neither the adulation of the Trekkies nor the changing reception to his criticism is as important as the mark Blish made with his own science fiction—of which Cities in Flight is but one example.
Here again, Blish was a man in the middle. Although in later years he gave his blessing to, and sought the approval of, the "experimental" writers of the New Wave, his own sf was never "experimental" in the avant-garde sense. His prose was a further development of the realistic style that appeared in the 1940's; but the underlying concepts were highly intellectual, ranging from Spenglerian historical theory to Catholic theology to Freudian psychology.
Cities in Flight, for example, was an attempt to apply Spengler's theory of cyclical history to the future. An omnibus edition first published by Avon in 1970 even includes an essay and chronological chart by Richard Dale Mullen showing the parallels between the stages of Blish's "Okie" culture and those of Greco-Roman, Arab and Western culture as interpreted by Spengler.
The "Okies" in this epic are not those of The Grapes of Wrath, but spacefaring cities that have escaped Earth through the invention of an anti-gravity device popularly known as the "spindizzy" following the triumph of Spengler's stage of "Caesarism" in the form of the Bureaucratic State that smothers what is left of Western civilization.
Like the future histories of Heinlein, Piper, Anderson, Niven and others, Cities in Flight was written over a period of many years, with two of the novels, They Shall Have Stars (1957) and Earthman, Come Home (1955) pieced together from shorter works, and the series in its final form combines the appeal of several varieties of science fiction while maintaining its overall thematic unity.
They Shall Have Stars is a near-future novel of scientific research and political intrigue. Blish maintains strong dramatic tension in shifting the scene between Jupiter, where a seemingly senseless project to construct a bridge from nowhere to nowhere masks a secret scientific effort to solve the secret of gravity; and Earth, where the hereditary director of the FBI, MacHinery, is working to consolidate his personal power even as Western civilization disintegrates around him.
But A Life for the Stars (1962) takes the form of a "juvenile," being the story of a youth who is kidnapped by a press-gang from Scranton just before it takes off from Pennsylvania, and must seek his fortune, however unwillingly, among the stars. Eventually, he ends up on board the greatest Okie city of them all—Manhattan. Here we make the first acquaintance of the immortal Mayor John Amalfi and the City Fathers (which are, of course, computers)—and learn the standards they set for admission to the immortal company of Citizens.
Already, the Okies have developed an economy based on contract labor. Space-faring cities need resources as much as underdeveloped worlds need expert help. So Manhattan and other cities earn their way by settling down on planets here and there to perform useful work in return for being allowed to mine the natural resources there—Manhattan's own official motto is "Mow Your Lawn, Lady?"
In Earthman, Come Home, longest novel of the series, we see Okie culture in its old age and disintegration—with anti-aging drugs a factor, it seems, cultures can become senile before individuals, for Amalfi is still hale and hearty. The first part of the novel resembles space opera—one of Manhattan's projects involves fitting out an entire planet with spindizzies and transporting it from one spiral arm of the Galaxy to another. But with the collapse of the "germanium standard," the economy of the Okie culture is undermined and a galactic depression sets in. Work is scarce for Okie cities, and some turn outlaw. Amalfi manages to engineer destruction of one of the most vicious cities, Interstellar Master Traders (Gravitogorsk, Mars) at the end of the novel—but the age of the Okies is finished, and Manhattan makes planetfall for the last time on a New Earth.
Substituting Wagner for Spengler, Blish winds up the series with a cosmic gotterdammerung in The Triumph of Time (1958). What is left of the human and nonhuman cultures in the Galaxy has been conquered by an alien civilization, the Web of Hercules—but its triumph is to be short-lived, for evidence is discovered that our entire universe is about to be annihilated in an encounter with an equivalent anti-matter universe.
But a dawn as well as a twilight of the gods is involved; for it appears that whoever is at the center of the encounter between the two universes will influence the creation of the next—and Amalfi's humans and the Web of Hercules become involved in a race to determine which will become gods. But one wonders what Blish had up his sleeve—for the events of this encounter are summarized in an imaginary book called The Milky Way: Five Cultural Portraits, by Acreff-Monales. If the universe is indeed destroyed, who the devil is Acreff-Monales, and how can he possibly know what happened?
The Triumph of Time has some strongly religious imagery in it, and Blish was strongly attracted to religious themes—some have speculated that he would have become a Catholic if he could have actually believed in the theology that provided the thematic material for works like A Case of Conscience (1958), his best single novel and one happily available again this year from Ballantine.
A Case of Conscience takes a party of Earthmen to a world that is, literally, too good to be true. It is inhabited by a reptilian species that appears to be without sin—despite the fact that inhabitants are scattered among numerous islands, they have never known war or cultural division. To most of the scientists of the party, this may be a wonder—but to Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez it is something frightening.
For the Lithians have no God, nor any religion—their society is atheistic and secular. If they are not, then, examples of God-created beings living in a state of grace, what can they be—save possibly creations of Satan brought into being to discredit the Faith and deceive mankind? Yet to believe Satan capable of creation is blasphemy. Ruiz-Sanchez' crisis of faith leads to a dramatic, but ambiguous conclusion that may or may not justify him—and will be fascinating to believers and nonbelievers alike.
Blish's obsession with a theological conception of Good and Evil led to even more explicitly religious works—Black Easter and The Day After Judgment, in which the forces of Darkness win at Armageddon. But these are more fantasy than science fiction.
Among his other works of sf, the most fascinating is The Seedling Stars (1957), a collection of related stories centering on the biological engineering of men into new forms to suit environments on new planets.
"Surface Tension" (1952), the most famous of these, is more an allegory than a realistic story, for its heroes are microscopic "humans" seeded on a world that is mostly ocean, and their theorizing about the nature of the universe, climaxed by an epic journey across what they think is "space" from one puddle to another, becomes a parable about the evolution of knowledge.
This series on the theme of adaptation to stranger environments ends with a brilliant twist. In the last story, set eons in the future, a breed of adapted men is prepared once more to embark on the settlement of a bleak and hostile planet—a planet once fertile and inhabited, but now gone entirely to desert. Its name…Earth.
John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.