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Blish, James

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1921-1975) US author whose early career in sf followed a pattern typical of the generation whose early careers coincided with World War Two. He became involved in sf Fandom during the 1930s, and was an early member of the well-known New York fan group the Futurians, where he became friendly with such writers as Damon Knight and C M Kornbluth. His first short story, "Emergency Refueling", was published in Super Science Stories for March 1940. He studied microbiology at Rutgers, graduating in 1942, and was then drafted, serving as a medical laboratory technician in the US Army. In 1945-1946 he carried out postgraduate work in zoology at Columbia University, abandoning this to become a writer. He was married to Virginia Kidd 1947-1963 and then, from 1964 until his death, to Judith Ann Lawrence. Three of his early short stories, two of them collaborations, were written under the pseudonyms Donald Laverty, John MacDougal and Arthur Merlyn.

Blish worked hard to develop his craft, but not until 1950, when the first of his Okie stories appeared in Astounding Science-Fiction, did it became clear that he could become an sf writer of unusual depth. The Okie stories featured flying Cities, the most Iconic of these being Manhattan (see New York) under the leadership of Mayor John Amalfi. Powered by Antigravity devices called Spindizzies, these populous compact Keeps travel through the Galaxy looking for work, much as the Okies did in America in the 1930s when they escaped from the dustbowl. The first Okie book, a coherent if episodic novel, was Earthman, Come Home (April 1950-November 1953 var mags; fixup 1955; cut 1958). Three more followed: They Shall Have Stars (February 1952 and May 1954 Astounding; fixup 1956; rev vt Year 2018! 1957), The Triumph of Time (1958; vt A Clash of Cymbals 1959) and A Life for the Stars (September-October 1962 Analog; 1962), written more as a juvenile or Young Adult adventure than the others. These four books were finally brought together in a single volume, Cities in Flight (omni 1970), where they appeared in the order of their internal chronology: They Shall Have Stars, A Life for the Stars, Earthman, Come Home and The Triumph of Time. Underpinning the Pulp-style plotting of much of this series is a serious and pessimistic interest in the cyclic nature of History, partly derived from Blish's reading of Oswald Spengler, especially The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918-1922; trans 1926-1928). At the end of The Triumph of Time, the cycle moves through the death of our Universe into the birth of the next, in a memorable passage where Amalfi – the main protagonist of the series – becomes, literally, the deep structure of the new Universe.

The years 1950-1958 were extraordinarily productive for Blish, and many of his best short stories were published in this period, including the Werewolf tale "There Shall Be No Darkness" (April 1950 Thrilling Wonder Stories), filmed as The Beast Must Die (1974; vt Black Werewolf); "Beanstalk" (in Future Tense, anth 1952, ed Kendell Foster Crossen) with its giant humans (see Great and Small); "Surface Tension" (August 1952 Galaxy), exploring the consequences of Pantropy; "Common Time" (August 1953 Science Fiction Quarterly; also in Shadow of Tomorrow, anth 1953, ed Frederik Pohl), which deal inter alia with Time Distortion and is probably his most praised story; "Beep" (February 1954 Galaxy), introducing the Dirac Communicator (see also Information Theory); and "A Work of Art" (July 1956 Science Fiction Stories; vt "Art-Work" in Science Fiction Showcase, anth 1959, ed Mary Kornbluth), a memorable and subtly tragic study of synthetic Identity, though its blanking out of Richard Strauss's fecund last decade allows him to treat the composer as a burned-out note spinner. Several appear in his first collection, Galactic Cluster (coll 1959; with three stories cut and "Beanstalk" added, rev 1960). Blish's own choice was published as Best Science Fiction Stories of James Blish (coll 1965; with one story cut and two added, rev 1973; rev vt The Testament of Andros 1977). Six of the eight stories in this collection, along with an introduction by Robert A W Lowndes, appear with six new stories in the posthumous The Best of James Blish (coll 1979).

These years also saw the publication of his first novel in book form, Jack of Eagles (December 1949 Thrilling Wonder as "Let the Finder Beware!"; rev 1952; cut 1953; full text vt ESP-er 1958). It was followed by The Warriors of Day (Summer 1951 Two Complete Science-Adventure Books as "Sword of Xota"; 1953), The Seedling Stars (1952-1956 var mags; coll of linked stories 1957), The Frozen Year (1957; vt Fallen Star 1957), A Case of Conscience (part 1 September 1953 If; 1958) and VOR (February 1949 Thrilling Wonder as "The Weakness of RVOG" with Damon Knight; exp 1958). Jack of Eagles contains one of the few attempts in sf to give a scientific rationale for Telepathy. A Case of Conscience, which won the 1959 Hugo for Best Novel, was one of the first serious attempts to deal with Religion in sf, and remains one of the most sophisticated in its tale of a priest faced with a planet, Lithia, whose inhabitants seem free of the concept of Original Sin, but who turn out (as he believes) to constitute a kind of honey-trap, constructed by the Adversary with all the rigour of a fine Thought Experiment, to estrange humanity from God: because the Lithians seem to have achieved moral perfection without divine guidance. It is clear that Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (1996) is dialectically related to this earlier work. In The Seedling Stars and other stories of the period, Blish introduced biological themes (see Biology). This area of science had previously been rather neglected in sf in favour of the "harder" sciences – physics, astronomy, science-based Technologies, etc. The Seedling Stars is an important roadmarker in the early development of sf about Genetic Engineering.

Blish was interested in Metaphysics, and some critics regard as his most important work the trilogy After Such Knowledge: A Case of Conscience, Doctor Mirabilis (1964; rev 1971), and the intimately linked Black Easter; Or, Faust Aleph-Null (August-October 1967 If as "Faust Aleph-Null"; 1968) and The Day After Judgment (August 1970 Galaxy; exp 1971); he regarded the last two volumes as one novel, and indeed they were so published in Black Easter and The Day After Judgement (omni 1980; vt The Devil's Day 1990) – hence his use of the term "trilogy". After Such Knowledge poses a question once expressed by Blish as: "Is the desire for secular knowledge, let alone the acquisition and use of it, a misuse of the mind, and perhaps even actively evil?" This is one of the fundamental themes of sf, and is painstakingly explored in Doctor Mirabilis, an historical novel which treats the life of the thirteenth-century scientist and theologian Roger Bacon. It deals with the archetypal sf theme of Conceptual Breakthrough from one intellectual model of the Universe to another, more sophisticated model. Black Easter, a better and more unified work than its sequel The Day After Judgment, is a strong fantasy in which black Magic – treated here as a science or, as Blish has it, a "scholium" – triggers the final battle of Armageddon (a mere subset of which is nuclear World War Three, bringing the destruction of Rome), which does not end in accordance with Biblical prophecy or propaganda; the weaker follow-up novel deals with the aftermath, in which Hell manifests on Earth and it is ultimately discovered that Satan now rules Heaven. All four books were collected in After Such Knowledge (omni 1991).

As a writer, Blish was thrifty – to the point of parsimony in his later years. He returned to many of his best stories to revise and expand them, sometimes into novel form. Apart from those already mentioned, he also used this treatment on an early short story, "Sunken Universe" (May 1942 Super Science Stories as by Arthur Merlyn), and built it into another story, "Surface Tension" (August 1952 Galaxy), which revised again became part of The Seedling Stars; "Surface Tension" was his most popular and most anthologized story. Other examples are Titan's Daughter (in Future Tense, anth 1952, ed Kendell Foster Crossen, as "Beanstalk"; vt "Giants in the Earth" 1956 The Science Fiction Stories; exp 1961; vt Titans' Daughter 1966) and The Quincunx of Time (February 1954 Galaxy as "Beep"; exp 1973). Blish also wrote two not very successful sf novels in collaboration: The Duplicated Man (August 1953 Dynamic SF as by James Blish and Michael Sherman; exp 1959) with Robert A W Lowndes and the rather better A Torrent of Faces (fixup 1967) with Norman L Knight. The latter is a tale of Earth suffering from, but to a degree coping with, Overpopulation.

Blish's later years were much preoccupied with the Star Trek books, beginning with Star Trek (coll 1967) and ending with Star Trek 11 (1975). They are based on the original television scripts, and hence are in fact collaborations, but Spock Must Die (1970) is an original work, the first original adult Star Trek novel (it was preceded by Mack Reynolds's Mission to Horatius [1968], a juvenile). The posthumous Star Trek 12 (coll 1977) contained two adaptations (out of five) completed by Judith Ann Lawrence, who also completed some of the work in Star Trek 11. Re-sorted in order of television appearance, they were reassembled as Star Trek: The Classic Episodes 1 (coll 1991) with J A Lawrence, 27 first-season episodes, Star Trek: The Classic Episodes 2 (coll 1991), 25 second-season episodes, and Star Trek: The Classic Episodes 3 (coll 1991) with J A Lawrence, 24 third-season episodes.

Aside from Spock Must Die and A Life for the Stars (September-October 1962 Analog; 1962), the fourth of the Okie books, Blish wrote four more juvenile novels, none very successful: a short and rather didactic series – The Star Dwellers (June-August 1961 Boys' Life; 1961) and Mission to the Heart Stars (1965) – along with Welcome to Mars! (July-September 1966 If as "The Hour Before Earthrise"; 1967) and, the weakest of them, The Vanished Jet (1968).

Blish's output remained fairly steady during the 1960s and 1970s, but the overall standard of his work had dropped, although his penultimate serious work was interesting. This was Midsummer Century (April 1972 F&SF; rev 1972; with two stories added, as coll 1974), in which the disembodied consciousness of a scientist is cast forward into a Far Future where it meets different forms of AI and intervenes in an evolutionary struggle. It is hard to read this story of active mental life cut off from the physical world without thinking of the frail Blish's last years. He had a successful operation for throat cancer in the 1960s but died from lung cancer in 1975, characteristically turning out an essay on Spengler and sf on his deathbed – its Definition of SF is "the internal (intracultural) form taken by syncretism in the West". Blish had in fact been for decades recognized, along with Damon Knight, as one of the first and most influential of sf critics. He wrote his criticism as by William Atheling Jr, a pseudonym recognizing the fatherly influence of Ezra Pound, who sometimes wrote nonfiction as by William Atheling, and first used as a Blish byline on essays for Skyhook; in other fanzines such as Warhoon he published critiques under his own name. Much of this criticism was collected in two books, The Issue at Hand: Studies in Contemporary Magazine Science Fiction (coll 1964) as by William Atheling Jr and More Issues at Hand: Critical Studies in Contemporary Science Fiction (coll 1970) as by William Atheling Jr; Blish acknowledged his authorship in introductions to both. The criticism is notably stern in many cases, often pedantic, but intelligent and written from a much wider perspective than was usual for fan criticism of Blish's era. Further essays, including that on Spengler noted above, appear in a posthumous, curate's-egg collection, The Tale that Wags the God (coll 1987), edited by Cy Chauvin. As anthologist, Blish edited New Dreams this Morning (anth 1966) and Nebula Award Stories 5 (anth 1970). He also edited the only issue of the sf magazine Vanguard Science Fiction (June 1958).

Blish did much to encourage younger writers, and was one of the founders of the Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference (he and J A Lawrence also founded the UK Milford workshop), and an active charter member of Science Fiction Writers of America. He also became, in 1970, one of the founder members of the Science Fiction Foundation in the UK. The latter organization named the James Blish Award for excellence in sf criticism in honour of him after his death. The first award went in 1977 to Brian W Aldiss, but it then lapsed for lack of funds.

His dominant intellectual passions, which often recur in his writing, were – aside from Spengler – the works of Ezra Pound, a palpable influence on the poems posthumously assembled as With All of Love: Selected Poems (coll 1995); James Joyce (he published papers on both Joyce and Pound); other writers of Modernist literature; James Branch Cabell (he edited the Cabell Society magazine Kalki); the music of Richard Strauss (though he was strangely deaf to Strauss's later work); and Relativistic physics. Blish was an interesting example of a writer with an enquiring mind and a strong literary bent – with some of the crotchets of the autodidact – who turned his attention to fundamentally pulp Genre-SF materials and in so doing transformed them. His part in the transformation of pulp sf to something of greater cognitive ambitiousness is historically of the first importance. Nonetheless, he was not a naturally easy or harmonious writer; his style was often awkward, and in its sometimes anomalous displays of erudition it could appear cold. On the other hand, there was a visionary, romantic side to Blish which, though carefully controlled, is often visible below the surface. Blish had a scholastic temperament, and in 1969 emigrated to England to be close to Oxford, where he is buried. His manuscripts and papers are in the Bodleian Library. These include several unpublished works of both mainstream fiction and sf. He was posthumously honoured with a special British Science Fiction Association Award in 1976 and inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2002. [PN/DRL]

see also: Adam and Eve; Aliens; Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Arts; Asteroids; Children's SF; Colonization of Other Worlds; Communications; Computers; Continuous Creation; Cosmology; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Dinosaurs; End of the World; Evolution; Fantastic Voyages; Faster Than Light; Force Field; Galactic Empires; Generation Starships; Golden Age of SF; Gothic SF; Gravity; History of SF; Imaginary Science; Immortality; Invention; Jupiter; Longevity in Writers; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Mars; Mathematics; Messiahs; Matter Duplication; Miniaturization; Monsters; Music; Origin of Man; Paranoia; Perception; Physics; Politics; Pollution; Reincarnation; Rejuvenation; Shared Worlds; Sociology; Space Flight; Space Opera; Superman; Supernatural Creatures; Terraforming; Thrilling Wonder Stories; Time Radio; Transportation; Under the Sea; Upload; Utopias; Weapons; World Ships.

James Benjamin Blish

born Orange, New Jersey: 23 May 1921

died Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire: 30 July 1975



Okie sequence

After Such Knowledge

Star Trek

All Ties to the original Star Trek series.

individual titles

collections and stories

nonfiction and poetry

works as editor

about the author


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