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James Blish has long been acknowledged as one of the major writers in science fiction, his stature almost rivaling that of Robert A. HEINLEIN, Isaac ASIMOV, and Arthur C. CLARKE. He was noted for his critical essays as well as his fiction, as an editor, and unfortunately, toward the end of his career, for his novelizations of the original Star Trek series. Although he was an American citizen, he relocated to England in 1969 and remained there until his death a few years later. Blish had a wide variety of interests, including metaphysics and music, that are sometimes mirrored in his fiction, and he edited the newsletter of the James Branch Cabell Society. His career as a writer extended over nearly 40 years and includes several acknowledged genre classics.
Blish began selling short stories during the 1940s, of which period only “Sunken Universe” is of any lasting interest—a story of miniaturized humans living in a liquid environment, mixing pulp adventure with a serious examination of the physical effects of such an altered environment. In 1950, with the publication of “Bindlestiff,” he launched a series of short stories and novels that would forever establish him as one of the major early influences in the field. The premise of the series is that powerful interstellar engines called “spindizzies” would make it possible for cities to encase themselves in force fields and travel to the stars. The CITIES IN FLIGHT SERIES, later published in omnibus volumes under that name, are—in chronological order, though not the order in which they appeared—They Shall Have Stars (1957, also published as Year 2018!), A Life for the Stars (1962), Earthman, Come Home (1955), and The Triumph of Time (1968). The first volume describes the upheaval caused by the initial development of the new technology, the second describes the turmoil caused when some of the flying cities turn pirate, the third consists of episodic adventures surrounding the conflict between Earth and its wayward children, and the final one recounts events following the discovery of an imminent, universal catastrophe. Blish was influenced by the premise that human history tends to repeat itself— the underlying theme that somewhat less than cheerfully pervades the series. Although the prose is not as polished as in Blish’s later work, only A CASE OF CONSCIENCE, a story of religious beliefs and alien contact expanded from a much shorter story in 1958, rivals it in enduring popularity.
Although Blish’s other early novels were generally not nearly as interesting, another exception is Jack of Eagles (1952, also published as Esper), one of the first thoughtful descriptions of what it might feel like to be telepathic. The protagonist discovers that he has the ability to read minds and uses the knowledge he obtains to make a personal fortune. To his dismay, he belatedly realizes that by doing so he has attracted powerful enemies and much unwanted attention. Blish also wrote several essentially unrelated stories about the human colonization of other worlds, becoming one of the earliest writers to hypothesize that it might be necessary to alter the human form to fit the environment rather than alter the planet to make it suitable for us as we are. Several of these would later be collected as The Seedling Stars (1957).
A significant number of excellent stories appeared during the 1950s, which was Blish’s most productive period. “Common Time” (which experimented with narrative style), “Surface Tension” (a sequel to the earlier “Sunken Universe”), “Watershed,” and “Beanstalk” have been highly praised and frequently reprinted. Blish was one of the first writers to introduce sophisticated biological concepts into science fiction and many of his stories were therefore quite extraordinary for their time. When most of his colleagues were accepting that the advance of knowledge was necessarily a good thing, several of his stories expressed a more skeptical view, that knowledge gained without a commensurate degree of responsibility was dangerous if not outright evil.
During the 1960s Blish continued to write excellent short stories and interesting but mostly unremarkable novels. The Star Dwellers (1961) was one of the best of these, describing the encounter between humans and a form of spaceborne intelligence that may have existed since the dawn of time. The sequel, Mission to the Heart Stars (1965), was more ambitious but less involving: Delegates from Earth travel to the heart of a galactic civilization seeking admission as a peer race, unaware of the fact that if their petition fails, it may result in the extinction of humankind. A Torrent of Faces (1967), written in collaboration with Norman L. Knight, revives the idea of physically altering humans, in this case providing gills so that the oceans of Earth can be colonized; but even with that new frontier opened, the planet becomes overpopulated.
Blish became involved with the early Star Trek novelizations during the 1970s, which unfortunately consumed much of his writing time. He wrote two notable novels during this period, of which the more conceptually interesting is Quincunx of Time (1973), which made use of a fascinating plot device. Instantaneous interstellar communication has become possible by means of a newly discovered physical law, but there is an odd side effect: Since all messages from all times are essentially being conveyed simultaneously, it becomes possible to listen to a specific communication before it has actually been broadcast. In Midsummer Century (1972) a man from our time is revived from suspended animation thousands of years in the future, where he learns that human civilization has risen and fallen several times. There, against a backdrop of superscience that sometimes seems akin to magic, he discovers that a race of intelligently evolved birds are battling humans for control of the planet.
Blish’s substantial body of short stories has been collected in The Seedling Stars (1957), Galactic Cluster (1959), So Close to Home (1961), Anywhen (1970), The Best of James Blish (1979), and In This World, or Another (2003). In addition to his novelizations, Blish wrote the first original Star Trek tie-in novel, Spock Must Die (1970); the book is interesting historically, but it is a mediocre piece of fiction. Blish was one of the few writers who successfully moved from the pulp adventure style of the 1940s to embrace mainstream literary techniques and values, and he wrote several works outside the field that, with the exception of the thematic After Such Knowledge trilogy, remain unpublished or largely unknown. His critical essays have been collected in book form and are still highly regarded, and there are periodic reissues of his best work, which has maintained its appeal to generations far removed from the time when it was first written.
Encyclopedia of Science Fiction