Wednesday, January 13, 2010


If history teaches us one thing, it’s that almost all authors writing now will be forgotten in a hundred years time, and even if their books linger in some vast long-tail electronic library, few will read them. Most authors, and most books, achieve obscurity far sooner than that, of course, but best-selling status is no guarantee of long-term survival. A hundred years ago, Marie Correlli was the most widely-read author of her time, so wealthy that she paid for restoration of many properties in her adopted home of Stratford-upon-Avon and imported a gondola and a gondolier from Venice, so that she could be poled about the Avon. But who now reads A Mighty Atom or The Sorrows of Satan?

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’
‘Common Time’
‘How Beautiful, With Banners’
‘Surface Tension’

Essential novels:
Jack of Eagles
Fallen Star

Cities in Flight:
They Shall Have Stars
A Life For the Stars
Earthman, Come Home
A Clash of Cymbals

After Such Knowledge:
Dr Mirabilis
A Case of Conscience
Black Easter
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.


Blogger Ian Sales said...

I was a big fan of Blish in my teens. I had most of the Arrow paperbacks with the Chris Foss covers. In fact, I still have them. I reread Jack of Eagles last year and, while it has dated, and some of his made-up science no longer seems even remotely plausible, I did enjoy the book.

January 13, 2010 4:10 pm  
Blogger talkie_tim said...

I intended to point out that "A Case Of Conscience" was re-published in the Gollancz SF Masterworks imprint, but now I see that even that was ten years ago. Still, I really enjoyed it, and you've inspired me to dig out some others.

I similarly noticed the lack of variety in bookshops, when I noticed that Harry Harrison seems to have disappeared from the shelves also. Is this really great authors slipping into obscurity or just a symptom of Waterstones' dominance vs the long tail available online? Even Bristol seems to be lacking in decent second hand bookshops now.

January 13, 2010 4:10 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Ian, I had a lot of those Arrow pbs too. Bought new, most of them.

Tim, I think it's just that the books aren't in print. Gollancz is about the publisher regularly reprinting sf more than twenty years old, in the UK. Maybe ebooks will change that, but I assume there must be a certain level of demand to bring back titles even as ebooks...

January 13, 2010 5:09 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

I'd rather forgotten Blish - thanks for the reminder. I'll try and pick something up s/h. There are many greats who have effectively completely disappeared - I'm currently i the process or reading a stack of John Brunner books I picked up in Inverness, and it's a great loss that these can't easily be found these days.

January 13, 2010 6:30 pm  
Blogger psteve said...

Some years back I read his books of criticism, which are even more dated, in a way, than the fiction.

But I was thinking of him after seeing Avatar. Alas I don't have any copies of his nonfiction around, but Avatar made me think of a phrase along the lines of "if you call it a meep but it looks and acts like a rabbit, it's still a rabbit." I'm sure I butchered that quote, and it may not be Blish, but thats' really the way Avatar struck me.

January 13, 2010 7:32 pm  
Blogger Niall said...

When Faber started their "Faber Finds" print-on-demand operation, they asked for readers to email suggestions of what could be reprinted; I suggested that as the original UK publisher of After Such Knowledge they could try that -- in large part because I haven't read it but very much want to! -- but alas they didn't go for it.

(And of course I have to put in a word for The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand -- though they are even less likely to ever be reprinted, I imagine.)

January 13, 2010 8:41 pm  
Blogger Andi said...

Thanks for the post. I, too, really liked Blish as a teenager in the '70s, even though I could tell how cheesy some of it was. The ending of 'A Clash of Cymbals' has stuck with me (and maybe the 'eternal chaotic inflation' cosmologists?) to this day ...

January 13, 2010 9:17 pm  
Blogger George Berger said...

Several years ago I considered writing something about eschatological SF. This would have involved a lot of rereading. I started with the Okie series (of which I have 2 different old editions) but was so terribly dissapointed by its stylistic and scientific simplicity that I could not get through the third book, Earthman Come Home . If I ever complete the project I shall have to. I read other stuff, and of all that I've reconsumed, Stapledon's Last and First Men holds up the best, despite the dated astronomy. Moreover, at the risk of engendering controversy, let me say that its attack on American advertising is effective. I was born there and despised the crap. At the very least, it is a fine satire.

January 14, 2010 8:37 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Pete - why not buy a new copy of Cities in Flight? Four novels in one at regular pb price. Not that the others aren't worth getting s/h, but buying new might stimulate publishers to bring back more titles.

psteve - it's smeerp not meep, for what's it's worth, but yr on the money there. Criticism a bit dated, yes, but important in context and Blish is very good on anatomising the common errors and faults to which sf is still prone.

Niall - an omnibus edition of 'After Such Knowledge', or even just Black Easter & The Day After Judgement wwould be a fine thing. Is it too late to start a write-in campaign to Faber?

Andi - I love that ending too. Also the notion that two universes could collide and annihilate one another, long before the theory of branes. Blish thought big.

George - there's a gap that needs to be filled...

January 14, 2010 8:59 am  
Blogger George Berger said...

Not sure what you mean, Paul. And BTW, I agree with Andi about "A Clash of Cymbals." My plan was to work towards precisely that book.

January 14, 2010 9:25 am  
Blogger George Berger said...

Well, I see one gap that you surely would have noticed. I should have written "astronomy and biology."

January 14, 2010 9:35 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Sorry, that was a bit of an obscure remark. I meant yr as yet unwritten study.

January 14, 2010 10:01 am  
Blogger George Berger said...

That was my first idea of your meaning. There's a good chance that I shall write something about this. The project was abruptly broken off by illness, which is now in one sense a thing of the past. As of last Tuesday.

January 14, 2010 10:10 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post thanks for the lesson.

January 14, 2010 11:10 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure you've seen this or not but it is a really nice page.

January 14, 2010 1:42 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Orthor,

I have, but it's always worth looking at again!

January 14, 2010 3:52 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

It would be a fine thing if Penguin could be persuaded to bring back into print some of their old sf titles.

January 14, 2010 3:58 pm  
Blogger George Berger said...

I have a collection of several copies of each of Stapledon's classics. The old ones are all in Penguin and I treasure them. Unless I am mistaken we have Brian Aldiss to thank for this.

January 14, 2010 4:43 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

I'll keep my eyes open for Cities in Flight, but actually I'm keenest to find The Seedling Stars, or something else with Surface Tension in it. I recall I liked that a lot back when I found it in the 70s.

January 14, 2010 6:02 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

I notice Surface Tension is in Works of Art, but that's pretty pricey

January 14, 2010 6:04 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Pete, it has been widely anthologised. Most recently, I think, in 'The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One', edited by Robert Silverberg.

January 14, 2010 11:08 pm  
Blogger George Berger said...

I have most or perhaps all of those old Blishes. There was a great used book store in Amsterdam, which sold only English language books. Around 1985 a Dutch philosopher and friend said to me, " you know George, we are not going to read The Critique of Pure Reason again after we retire. The next day I started buying classic sf like mad in that bookshop. I bought as many of the greats as I could, with no thought of money. My current collection is among the best in Sweden. Blish is well-represented.

January 15, 2010 2:26 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

When I was about ten years old my first exposure to SF in its literary form came by way of James Blish; two volumes of his series of novelizations of the Star Trek TV episodes (Star Trek 2 & 3, as I recall) were among a half dozen paperbacks my father purchased to help me pass the time on a long flight (ironically I had never
actually seen a complete episode of the show when I read the books).

I still recall the vivid impression
his adaptation of Ellison's 'The City At The Edge Of Forever' made on my young self; this story
did more than any other reading experience to make me alifelong
reader of SF, with its marvelously evocative title and its central image of a lonely sentinel keeping watch over a ruined citadel while awaiting a question.

January 15, 2010 3:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved Black Easter at college, but loaned it, lost it and forgot it. Years later I went looking for it knowing neither the title nor the author. I found it, eventually, discovering a couple of similarly named nobodies along the way - Tom Disch and Philip K Dick. Sometimes I'm grateful for the failure of memory.

January 15, 2010 8:21 pm  
Blogger LarryS said...

I've not read a great deal of Blish(I love that Foss cover!),but I remember reading about him and wanted to find those titles but even back in the 80s I couldnt find any! Now I have his Cities in Flight on my TBR pile which contains many of those hankered after stories!
I have read A Case of Conscience which I didnt finish, just didnt like it at all past the halfway mark.

March 06, 2010 9:18 pm  

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