Every author knows this, but most nuture a frail but stubborn fantasy that they’ll somehow dodge the bullet. Even those who don’t trouble the bestselling charts (ie most of us) hope that they will, like Herman Melville, who barely earned $10,000 from his books during his lifetime, achieve posthumous recognition. A vain and foolish hope, of course, but apart from the very few pragmatic authors who write only to pay the electricity bill it’s one most cling to. So it’s always a salutary lesson to discover that a favourite writer is slipping away into obscurity, which brings me to one of my favourite science-fiction authors, James Blish.
I was a big fan of Blish’s work back when I was at the age where I read almost nothing but science fiction. My other abiding interest was science, especially the biological sciences, and Blish, who worked as a technician in an Army medical lab during the Second World War, and studied zoology at Columbia University, not only understood how scientists thought and worked, but was one of the first sf authors to tackle the ramifications of molecular biology, genetics, and Darwinian evolution. And he put his biological knowledge to good use when he invented the science of pantropy, the deliberate modification of the standard human form to adapt it to conditions on other planets, and one of the stories that explores its implications, ‘Surface Tension’ (collected in The Seedling Stars), is one of my all-time favourites, and in its description of an unlikely spaceship toiling from puddle to puddle on a bleak waterworld, contains one of my all-time moments of pure sense of wonder:
Under the two moons of Hydrot, and under the eternal stars, the two-inch wooden spaceship and its microscopic cargo toiled down the slope towards the drying little rivulet.
I also delighted in the kind of obscure knowledge that salted Blish’s fiction, no more so than in his novels about the release of Satan and his hordes from Hell, and the apocalyptic war that follows, Black Easter and The Day After Judgement, in which magic is treated as an exact science.
At that time, the early seventies, most of Blish’s work could be found in the library, or in paperback. He was one of the major shapers of modern science fiction, and one of the first sf writers with a strong interest in literature and modernism (he admired and championed the work of James Joyce, which is why I ended up reading Ulysses at age seventeen, and doing my best to read Finnegans Wake). He was one of the authors of science fiction’s so-called Golden Age. He joined the Futurians, a feisty group of New York sf fans whose other members included Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth, and Fredrik Pohl. He was a regular contributor to the pulps who amped up his game and wrote a series of stories about cities flying about the galaxy like pollinating bees that he stitched into a novel, Earthman, Come Home: the cornerstone of the Okie series, and a major influence on the revivalists of space opera in the 1990s. Another novel, A Case of Conscience, won the Hugo for best novel in 1959. Several of his short stories are regarded as classics; he was one of the first serious science fiction critics; and he wrote the first original Star Trek novel, Spock Must Die, and numerous novelisations of the original TV scripts. And so on, and so on.
But now, a little over thirty years after his death, almost all of his books have fallen out of print; only the Okie series, collected as Cities in Flight, is readily available. It’s true that Blish never quite shook off his pulp origins, that his plots are driven by hectic action and incident, that his characters - even the redoubtable Major Amalfi, of the flying Okie city of New York, New York - aren’t as fully rounded as they should be, and tend to lapse into comic- book cliche. And it’s also true that his work could sometimes be acerbic and chilly, and that he didn’t wear his learning lightly, had no time for popular culture (he dismissed pop music as ‘Beatles and other Coleoptera’), and suffered a fall in the standard of his later work. But he doesn’t, I think, and not just because of the shiver of presentiment it engenders in me, deserve his present obscurity. Maybe in a few years, or ten, or a hundred, that will change.
Essential short stories:
‘A Work of Art’
‘How Beautiful, With Banners’
Jack of Eagles
Cities in Flight:
They Shall Have Stars
A Life For the Stars
Earthman, Come Home
A Clash of Cymbals
After Such Knowledge:
A Case of Conscience
The Day After Judgement
UPDATE: NESFA Press, that haven of good deeds in a naughty world, have published two reprint collections of Blish's work, Flights of Eagles, and Works of Art.