Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #21: James Blish

Many newer readers may know James Blish for his Star Trek books, but his writing spans four decades, with most of his best work being written in the fifties -- a decade notable for the volume and the variety of his work. Variety means taking chances, and some of his efforts turned out badly, but most were imaginative, original, thought provoking, and readable. They've aged moderately well: His better books are worth reading, but often show their age.

"Cities in Flight" (***) consists of four novels -- "They Shall Have Stars", "A Life For the Stars", "Earthman Come Home", and "The Triumph of Time" -- but it's fairly easy to find in an omnibus paperback edition. It is a future history stretching from 2018 AD to (not coincidentally) 4004 AD. "They Shall Have Stars" (**) is a prologue to the other three, and introduces the two key technologies upon which the rest of the story rests -- a superb all-purpose spacedrive, to make space travel possible, and longevity drugs, to make it practical. The spacedrive (the spindizzy) imposes no practical size limit on spacecraft -- and one by one, Earth's major cities fit themselves out for space travel and become galactic migrants. "A Life For the Stars" (***) takes place at the height of this period, which we see through the eyes of a boy who leaves Earth for New York City. (I apologize for the straight line. Please resist the temptation.) "Earthman Come Home" (***+) was written first of the four, and tells of the collapse of this system, and of the cities' attempt to return to Earth. "The Triumph of Time" (***) is something of an epilogue -- a tale of NYC-in-space and the threatened premature end of the universe. It doesn't hurt to read the books out of order. "Cities in Flight" isn't Blish's best-written work, but it's his biggest -- in more than page count -- and tends to be a favorite.

"A Case of Conscience" (***) may be Blish's best-known book. Father Ruiz Sanchez, a Jesuit and a scientist, is a member of the expedition to the newly-discovered planet Lithia. As the book opens, he is relaxing by attempting to disentangle a theoretical theological conundrum of the sort in which Jesuits are supposed to delight. He solves this conundrum at about the time he begins to realize that Lithia itself offers a nastier real-life theological conundrum: Much as it galls his scientific mind, the evidence suggests that the planet was Satanically custom-designed to undercut the Christian faith. Needless to say, other expedition members are not thrilled by his conclusion. Neither is the Church, since that conclusion is heretical. Sanchez, being a good scientist and a good theologian, realizes this, but the logic appears to be compelling.

"The Seedling Stars" (***) is a fixup novel about a future in which humanity has colonized the galaxy through genetic manipulation. Earthlike planetsare few, and terraforming is impractically expensive, so instead, worlds which are habitable (in the broadest sense of the word) are settled by people who have been bioengineered for their new habitats. The book consists of four sections, the best of which is the novella "Surface Tension" (****-). "Surface Tension" begins with a seeding expedition that crashes on an inhospitable world. The only ecological niche the doomed crew can find that offers a chance of survival for their bioengineered descendents is a microscopic one. ("Interplanetary travel" takes on a new meaning when your world's a puddle.)

I see these three as the best starting points for readers who are unfamiliar with Blish, but readers who enjoy these may want to read other Blish novels. "Black Easter" (**+), a theologically oriented contemporary fantasy, is abouta Catholic priest who finds himself involved in an effort to summon demons from Hell. That this effort is more successful than expected may be inferred from the title of the sequel, "The Day After Judgment" (**). "Jack of Eagles" (***-) is a minor novel for which I have a fondness, about a man who finds himself developing a range of esp talents. It's a relatively early use of this theme, so the talents are the focus of the novel, rather than just serving as a plot device. (There may be two versions of this novel, because I think I remember seeing a later edition whose ending included a social-conscious-angst insertion which the 1953 copy lacks.)

"The Star Dwellers" (***-) is a Heinleinesque juvenile, set in a future in which potential successors are apprenticed to senior officials at an early age. This device also motivates the inclusion of the inevitable teenagers in a mission aimed at forging a treaty with a completely alien life form. Another juvenile novel set in the same universe is "Welcome to Mars" (**+). An honorable mention goes to "The Quincunx of Time" (**), a short novel in which Blish has some fun with the concepts of causality and faster-than-light communication. Dishonorable mentions go to "Vor" and "The Warriors of Day".


Standard introduction and disclaimer for Belated Reviews

Dani Zweig
The inability of snakes to count is actually a refusal, on their part, to appreciate the Cardinal Number system. -- "Actual Facts"