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James Blish: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland

His career in SF began as a fan. He became close friends with Damon Knight and was a member of the New York based fan group The Futurians, which also included Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, and C. M. Kornbluth, along with his future first wife, writer and literary agent Virginia Kidd. He was among the first to write serious critical essays of the genre, even though most of his pieces appeared only in small circulation fanzines. He generally used the pen-name of William Atheling, Jr. for this, and most were later collected in two books, The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand. Two separate, short-lived awards were created in his honor, both recognizing SF literary criticism. The Atheling had only two recipients, in 1976 and '77, and then was revived (for only three years so far; 1998, 2001 and 2007) as part of the Ditmar Awards, presented by the Australian SF Society. The Blish Award's first and only recipient was Brian Aldiss, in 1977.

In his later years Blish lived in England where he continued his critical work, which was posthumously published in 1987 in the book The Tale That Wags the God. Before his move to England Blish resided in Milford, Pennsylvania, very near to where Damon Knight lived and where the latter began seminars in his home known as the Milford Writer's Workshop, which later became the Clarion Workshops with their move to a nearby state college. Both Blish and then wife Virginia Kidd were active in these workshops, and later he and his second wife, Judith Ann Lawrence, created another such workshop, coincidentally(?) in Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire, England. Another of his literary duties while in England was as editor of Kalki, the journal of the James Branch Cabell Society.

His first short story, "Emergency Refueling," appeared in Super Science Stories (edited by Pohl) in 1940. His fiction work was infrequent for the rest of that decade, and most of those stories were collaborations with other Futurians. At this point, almost all of the genre magazines (excluding Astounding) were either edited by or contained stories contributed by this close-knit group. He graduated from Rutgers University in 1942 with a BSc degree in microbiology. He was then drafted into the army and spent the majority of World War 2 as a medical lab tech. Following the war he entered Columbia University in pursuit of a Masters in zoology, but he did not complete his studies but rather left the academic life to devote himself to a full-time writing career. The 50s was his most prolific period, a time when he created several different (and overlapping) fictional sequences. These include stories he identified as the Haertel Scholium, the "Pantropy" and the After Such Knowledge trilogy. Another sequence which does not rightly fit into either of these groups is the "Okie" stories, collected in Cities in Flight, previously reviewed by Raedom. As was noted in that review, the publishing history of most of these stories does not coincide with the internal chronological sequence, as well as the fact that most of the "novels" were actually either expansions of or collections of previously printed short stories.

The Haertel stories revolve around future space explorations made possible by the Haertel space-drive and the Dirac Radio (an FTL communication device which had to have been an inspiration for Ursula Le Guin's similar "ansible"). Galactic Cluster (1959) was the first collection of short stories in this sequence, although 1967's Welcome to Mars! recounted Dolph Haertel's creation of his revolutionary new propulsion system. Other stories in this group include the collections So Close to Home and Anywhen, and the novels The Star Dwellers, its sequel Mission to the Heart Stars, Midsummer Century and A Case of Conscience. The latter is also part of the After Such Knowledge trilogy, but must be considered part of the Haertel sequence because that space drive is mentioned and the end of the book perhaps depicts the creation of what would later be named the Dirac Radio.

The Pantropy consists of various short stories (most of them collected in The Seedling Stars) which detail genetic engineering techniques designed to prepare humans to endure the harsh environmental conditions on other planets. The collection includes "Seeding Program," "Watershed," "The Thing in the Attic" and "Surface Tension," which is probably his best and most anthologized story. It was among the SFWA's picks for the best short stories preceding the organization's creation in 1965, and is included in the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1. The Internet Science Fiction Database has a listing which includes one other story for this sequence, 1942's "Sunken Universe," but that seems to be just an early version of what was later revised and expanded into "Surface Tension."

In my research for this article I have been unable to determine what type of religious upbringing Blish experienced or what spiritual writings he may have studied. It is apparent he did have serious and profound thoughts on the subject, but apparently kept that portion of his real life relatively private. What he designated as the After Such Knowledge trilogy (actually four separate stories, but he considered two of them to be one) consists mainly of the age-old question of how far-reaching man's knowledge can be before it encroaches on God's realm. One of his characters states, "...the possession and use of secular knowledge—or even the desire for it—is in itself evil..." This has been at the core of SF from the very beginning, especially if you agree with the strong consensus that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was the first true SF novel. This group of books is only connected in a tangential way, alternate ways of approaching the notion from different perspectives. Doctor Mirabilis was not published first but is chronologically the first in the set, since its protagonist is the 13th Century philosopher and religious figure Roger Bacon, considered by many to be the first cleric to embrace the empirical nature of the modern scientific method. I intend to re-read this book soon, along with the later Black Easter/The Day After Judgment (originally published separately but considered by the author to be one novel, and later collected as The Devil's Day), and I will return with my thoughts on them at that time. The intervening novel in the sequence is the Hugo Award winning A Case of Conscience, which I have recently re-read and reviewed here.

Considering the more metaphysical nature of much of his writing, it may at first seem odd that Blish's later literary career was taken up almost exclusively with adaptations of stories from the original Star Trek television series. It is quite possible that Trek fans only know of his work in this realm and are not aware of his other books, while genre elitists may think his earlier work is good but look down on the Trek books as beneath their notice. I consider both areas of his career to be significant, and an indication that he viewed all of the SF world to be of interest. Certainly original Trek, even with its frequent humorous episodes, was a very serious attempt at presenting a possible, and in many ways, desirable future for man in space. There were twelve books in the series (later combined into four volumes) that adapted the broadcast episodes to short story form. Blish died before completing the last volume, but it was finished by his second wife, Judith Ann Lawrence, who also put the finishing touches on the novel Mudd's Angels, which included the two stories featuring that character along with some extra scenes. Blish also was the first to write an original Trek novel, Spock Must Die! (1970). It is unfortunate that all of these are now out of print, and in fact only two of his books mentioned are currently available in new editions, but most could be found at used bookstores or through alternate sellers on amazon. BookFinder.com is also a good source, one I used recently to purchase a copy of Doctor Mirabilis, which I had read many years ago from the library.

James Blish died at the very early age of 54 in 1975, after two separate bouts with cancer. While he is far from being a great literary stylist, the ideas he expressed and dissected in his books and stories put him in the upper echelon of SF writers. I think it quite likely he was influenced by another of my favorites, Olaf Stapledon, and in turn he has influenced many others. This is just conjecture on my part, but I can see his influence in Brian Aldiss, John Barnes, Greg Bear, Neal Stepheson, and Ian M. Banks, along with many others, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear them list Blish as one of their favorites. Both his fiction and his critical essays are still highly regarded by many in the genre.

 

JB was an interesting example of a writer with an enquiring mind
and a strong literary bent...who turned his attention to fundamentally
pulp genre-SF materials, and in so doing transformed them."

Peter Nicholls

 

Related Links:
My review of A Case of Conscience
Raedom's review of Cities in Flight
Blish's bibliography at fantasticfiction.co.uk
James Blish Appreciation, with links to many articles
Blish's Family Tree
Memory Alpha, a brief look at the Star Trek books
Wikipedia

 

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Born
May 23, 1921
East Orange, New Jersey

Died
July 30, 1975

No Official Website
Check links at end of article for more info

Awards
1 Hugo
+ 2 Retros
BSFA Special Award (1976)
SF Hall of Fame (2002)