Sunday, 22 April 2012

Interconnected Series Of James Blish

(This article was published in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Sept '08)

Transition, Trilogies and Tetralogies

In his contribution to the “Special James Blish Issue” of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lester del Rey wrote:

“The first ten years of writing were a voluntary apprenticeship for James Blish, devoted to an intense study of skill and craftsmanship.” 1

From 1939 to 1949, Blish learned plotting, transitions, scene-setting and pacing by writing only pulp magazine short stories, few of which have been reprinted. Del Rey notes four stages in Blish’s transition from mere craftsmanship to mature writing, from mechanical technique to working “…from inside himself outward…," from “…slave labour…” to “…his real beginning as a major writer in the field…” 2

(i) His 1949 novelette, “Let the Finder Beware," later became Jack Of Eagles, “…one of the finest and most seminally rational novels of psi powers at work.” 3

(ii) A 1950 story about flying cities later became Chapters One and Two of the novel, Earthman, Come Home, which in turn became Volume III of the tetralogy, Cities In Flight, combining Blish’s study of history, training in science and ability to think through ideas that would otherwise have remained mere sf cliches, in this case antigravity, antiagathics, near future politics and interstellar economics.

(iii) A 1952 story about human beings artificially adapted to inhabit another planet later became Book Three of the volume, The Seedling Stars.

(iv) The 1953 story, “A Case Of Conscience," combining Blish’s interest in Joyce and theology with his knowledge of biology and sociology, later, after del Rey had requested a sequel, became Book One of a Hugo-winning novel which in turn became Volume III of the trilogy, After Such Knowledge.

These examples exhibit Blish’s tendency to expand or merge short stories into novels for which he has been adversely criticized although some readers value this organic development of story ideas. In fact, Cities In Flight and After Such Knowledge are his two major works – or at least bodies of work. Although Cities In Flight is a linear tetralogy, del Rey found “…no central character or theme…” in After Such Knowledge – three novels of different genres set in different periods - but I doubt whether any critic would deny that each of these volumes individually is a major work by Blish.4

The Seedling Stars, although shorter, is also major. Like Cities In Flight, which it parallels, it is a linear tetralogy although of stories, not of novels, thus one volume, not four. All three works, or bodies of work, (Cities In Flight, After Such Knowledge and The Seedling Stars) grew from their centers outwards towards a definite beginning, middle and end. Cities In Flight begins with the discovery of antigravity and antiagathics, describes interstellar nomadism and ends with the end of the universe.

The Seedling Stars begins with the discovery of “pantropy," the science of artificial adaptation, describes colonized planets and ends with Adapted Men recolonizing a changed Earth. 
After Such Knowledge begins with the discovery of scientific method in the thirteenth century, describes a supernatural conflict in the twentieth century and ends with a conflict between scientific discoveries and supernaturalist beliefs in the twenty first century. Thus, its three genres are historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction. By definition, only the fantasy volume treats supernatural entities as unequivocally real. There is a case for regarding the supernatural conflict, Armageddon and its aftermath, as the real climax, therefore reading the middle volume, written last, as Volume III and A Case Of Conscience as Volume II.

The chronological order, recommended by Blish, need not be definitive because the trilogy is thematic, not linear. The chronological order is also dialectical, because sf synthesizes the realistic with the fantastic, but the alternative order is dramatic because Armageddon fulfills expectations in the other volumes. The “middle volume” is in fact two volumes, Black Easter and its sequel, The Day After Judgement, amalgamated. Thus, After Such Knowledge may also be described as a tetralogy, written in five parts: “A Case Of Conscience”; A Case Of Conscience, Book II; Doctor Mirabilis; Black Easter; The Day After Judgement. Doctor Mirabilis was to have been the first in a series of historical novels about important scientists and crucial ideas in the history of science. Blish had started the second. 5

Cities In Flight would have remained a trilogy if Blish, asked to write a juvenile sf novel, had not set that novel on a flying city, thus inserting an extra volume between what had been Volumes I and II of a completed trilogy. Earthman, Come Home, now Volume III of the tetralogy, is itself a tetralogy: the complete “Okie” series. (Okies are the nomads who fly cities.) Volumes I and IV of Cities In Flight are, respectively, a pre- and a post-Okie novel. Volume I is two previously published stories, about physics and biology, with new material on politics. Thus, the complete series was written in nine parts. In Earthman, Come Home, Okie society ends when its germanium-based Oc dollar collapses, thus introducing economic issues. While Cities In Flight was still a trilogy, Lester del Rey suggested a post-cosmic sequel, to be entitled “After Strange Gods," but this idea was not accepted.6

A similar growth towards completion is exhibited by the three stories co-written with Norman L. Knight and incorporated into the co-written over-population novel, A Torrent Of Faces, itself a “…logical outgrowth of…” and “…a sort of sequel…” to two of Knight’s novels although, not having read the Knight novels, I cannot summarize this sequence.7
Although Jack Of Eagles is a lesser work, its theme of a proposed rationale for telepathy recurs in several later works. Thus, the transition period provides a framework for considering Blish’s works as a whole.

“Sunken Universe” and “Surface Tension”

When commenting on the 1952 story, “Surface Tension," (iii) above, del Rey wrote:

“…in 1952, Blish proved that he could do very well with a fantasy world where humanity was shrunk to a microscopic size and lived in a universe of a small puddle of water. ‘Surface Tension’ was another example of thinking an idea through far better than anyone else had done. He realized the real difficulty of such things as the force of surface tension – and he made them his problems. It was a fine story, still much reprinted, and so warm and real that no honest writer will try to better this story of shrunken man.” 8
I agree but Blish had already proved this ten years earlier with “Surface Tension”’s prequel, “Sunken Universe." The latter is full of carefully observed color perceptions, tactile sensations and well-conceived details of life in the pool:

“Lavon’s feet struck a yielding surface, and with a splash he was over his head in icy water. He bobbed up again, feeling the icy division drawn across his shoulders. Other splashes began to sound all along the thermocline as the army struck it, although, since there was water above and below, Lavon could not see the actual impacts.

“Now they would have to wait until their body temperatures fell. At this dividing line of the universe, the warm water ended and the temperature fell rapidly, so that the water below was much denser and buoyed them up. The lower level of cold reached clear down to the bottom – an area which the rotifers, who were not very clever, seldom managed to enter.

“A moribund diatom drifted down beside Lavon, the greenish-yellow of its body fading to a sick orange, its beautifully marked, oblong, pillbox-like shell swarming with greedy bacteria. It came to rest on the thermocline, and the transparent caterpillar tread of jelly which ran around it moved feebly, trying vainly to get traction on the sliding water interface.” 9

Characterization is warm and sympathetic, especially for a story whose theme is not particular characters but mankind in an alien environment. Shar, the scientist-scholar, refuses to part from his mysterious history plates and sobs convulsively when one is lost in a battle with Eaters (rotifers). Lavon, view point character, man-of-action and human leader, wants to kill Eaters and destroy their eggs and seems unsympathetic to Shar’s curiosity but basically realises that knowledge is necessary for action against Eaters which in turn will produce a world where men have time for study. Para, a Proto (protozoan) and an objective or at least alien assessor of man, comments that Shar’s thoughts “…are water…” but men plan, lead, remake the world and must be helped if their rule is better. “That is reason.” 10 (Mankind is superior in this as in other though not all Blish stories.)

If “Sunken Universe” had remained an independent story, it would, I hope, have been included in Blish’s first collection, Galactic Cluster. Instead, it became the earliest written part of the “pantropy” series collected as The Seedling Stars. Book Three of The Seedling Stars, entitled “Surface Tension”, is sub-divided into “Prologue," “Cycle One” and “Cycle Two”. “Cycle One” is “Sunken Universe”; “Prologue” and “Cycle Two” are the 1952 “Surface Tension." Thus, a reader of The Seedling Stars and of del Rey’s article would not realize that “Cycle One," no longer called “Sunken Universe," is ten years older than the rest.

Though Blish later excelled at scientific rationales for sf ideas, “Sunken Universe” does not attempt to rationalize its implausible premise that microscopic brains can be complex enough or have other qualities sufficient for intelligence but Blish makes a token effort to fill this gap in “Surface Tension” by explaining that these Adapted Men have:

“…a minute cellular structure, with nuclei as small as Earthly ricketsiae…”. 11
The physically simpler Protos’ intelligence can be at least partially rationalized on the grounds that it is telepathic, collective, uncreative, unimaginative – and extraterrestrial. Blish does not, even fictitiously, attribute intelligence to terrestrial protozoans. But his sunken universe would be less interesting if its only intelligences were human so his license is at least artistically sound.

Brian Stableford writes:

“The notion of a metazoan creature as complex as a man existing in parallel with similarly-sized single-cell creatures is conceptually hopeless, as is the notion that protozoan creatures…could be capable of hive-intelligence and telepathic communication.” 12

However, Stableford shows that, despite these weaknesses, inherited from “Sunken Universe," “Surface Tension," like Asimov’s “Nightfall," which Stableford mentions, and Heinlein’s “Universe," which he doesn’t, succeeds because it expresses the scientific myth of:

“…a group of enquiring minds, opposed – as is usual – by cautionary conservatism, issues of faith, and mundane dangers, who are on the threshold of discovering that there lies beyond the horizon of their perception and imagination a vastly greater and more wonderful cosmos.” 13

(In all three stories, the dramatic revelation is perception of “the stars” – a central sf image symbolizing the scientific myth. The word Star or Stars appears in seven Blish titles apart from the unoriginal Star Trek.)

Thus, despite his harsh criticism of the scientific implausibilities, Stableford agrees that these need not prevent a story from succeeding on other grounds, though the story that he praises is “Surface Tension," not “Sunken Universe," which, he says, is “…a pure adventure story…” 
containing “…nothing…about the different balance of forces pertaining to underwater life on a small scale…” 12 It contains less than its sequel but not nothing as I tried to show earlier.
Nor do I agree that shortened protozoans’ names ( Paramecium to Para etc) are one of the story’s “…na├»ve literary strategies…” 12 Rather, they are a convenient short-hand for informed readers and plausible in Adapted Men who, it seems, inherit some linguistic memories from terrestrial humanity. Finally, I do not agree that “…the introduction of the stranded genetic engineers…” in the Prologue of “Surface Tension” is a “…weak attempt to ‘justify’ the initial hypothesis…” 12 The engineers were implied by the title of the plates found in Shar’s spore: “History of the i-terste- - ar e - - e – ition” and in Shar’s unexplained knowledge of protozoans’ names so their appearance is a legitimate expansion of the original idea. 14 It is the first stage of expansion to the galactic scope implicit in “Sunken Universe”’s opening phrase:

In a forgotten corner of the galaxy...” 15

which sets the scene for much of Blish.

The Protos’ intelligence is partly rationalized by the fact that it is telepathic, thus collective. However, Blish disliked telepathy and later used it only when he could present a new rationale for it. His dislike is suggested by “Sunken Universe”’s qualified phrase, “…semi-telepathic impulses…” but unrationalized and now unqualified telepathy is one of “Surface Tension”’s weak conceptual inheritances from its prequel. 16


A Short Trilogy

Rationales in two later stories could help. Galactic Cluster includes a short trilogy, “Common Time," “Nor Iron Bars” and “This Earth Of Hours," of which the middle story is yet another amalgamation, incorporating “Detour to the Stars." This trilogy later acquired a prequel, about the discovery of antigravity, and several branching timelines including the events of A Case Of Conscience but it is difficult to discuss these connections meaningfully without first discussing the connected works. As del Rey commented, citing After Such Knowledge as an example:
“…such complexity in an honest writer must lead to complex threads and themes in his fiction. And sometimes the complexity may overbalance other things, unless the necessary care is taken in reading.” 4

A reader tracing non-linear connections between Blish’s works may lose sight of the works themselves, not seeing the trees for the wood.

The Galactic Cluster trilogy begins with the first interstellar expedition, describes a telepathic experience during the second interstellar expedition and ends with a telepathic interstellar empire. The second expedition, detouring through the microcosm by shrinking into an atom, learns that parapsychological fields belong to the microcosm’s fine structure as electromagnetic fields belong to the macrocosm’s, suggesting that any macrocosmic telepathy is an uncontrollable trace, leak or residuum, thus explaining its unpredictability. In “This Earth Of Hours”, it is learned that weak-brained or brainless macrocosmic creatures can use telepathy and have united as the Central Empire. Protos are arguably small enough and certainly brainless enough to be telepaths on this rationale. “Nor Iron Bars”’s subelectronic particles, underlying sentience on an electron’s surface, can help to rationalize merely microscopic intelligence. 

Both Protos in “Sunken Universe” and Calleans in “This Earth Of Hours” converse with nontelepaths by producing with organs not designed for sound-formation pure tones which intermodulate as speech. This is a clear conceptual link between the stories. If “Sunken Universe” had joined not The Seedling Stars but Galactic Cluster, then it would have fitted into a period of human colonization between the second expedition and the encounter with the Central Empire.

Another Connection

Similarly, references in “Surface Tension” to Oc dollars and ultraphones signaled to the reader that pantropy stories might fit into the Okie series. The ideas are complementary. Adapted Men colonize extrasolar planets. Okies trade with extrasolar colonies. A pantropy collection might have become Cities In Flight, Volume II. However, Blish places no Adapted Men on planets visited by Okies. The near future events leading to the development of pantropy are incompatible with those leading to the development of antigravity and antiagathics.

Blish the completist wrote both an opening and a conclusion for each of the two series and these beginnings and endings became mutually inconsistent. The beginnings are parallel narratives: Okies escape from a Russian-ruled Earth; pantropists escape from an American-ruled solar system. The endings are logical developments from their premises. Pantropy enables human beings to spread through the galaxy over many millennia. Antiagathics enable some characters to live until the end of the universe.

However, having decided to write about the end of the universe, it became convenient for story purposes to move that ultimate ending closer to the present. It happens not in the remote future because of entropy but in 4004 AD because of anti-matter. 4004 AD mirrored Bishop Ussher’s creation date but was incompatible both with the many millennia of The Seedling Stars and also with the several millennia of Earthman, Come Home. Therefore, the two series are separate and Cities In Flight is internally inconsistent. Revised dates in later editions, for example 4104 instead of 4004, do not adequately address the scale of the inconsistencies.

Another Series

Another idea in the Okie series generated a separate series. Blish reasoned that, in a four dimensional continuum, the instantaneous Dirac transmitter used by Okies for interstellar communication should receive messages from past and future as well as from the present.

However, Okies able to solve their problems in advance would not have been the kind of characters he wanted to write in that series so this application of the Dirac transmitter became a separate story, “Beep," collected in Galactic Cluster and novelized as The Quincunx Of Time. “Beep”/Quincunx is a utopia because the controllers of the Dirac transmitter foresee themselves preventing disasters and administering a peaceful, expanding intergalactic civilization, free from the conflicts experienced, in their alternative future, by the Okies.

The Special James Blish Issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction featured a new short novel by Blish, Midsummer Century. This novel completes a tetralogy with Welcome To Mars, “A Style In Treason” (in the later collection, Anywhen) and The Quincunx Of Time. Yet again, “A Style In Treason” is an expansion of an earlier story, “A Hero’s Life," so this tetralogy was written in six stages.

The tetralogy begins with the discovery of antigravity by the young Adolph Haertel, first seen as an old man in “Common Time," describes an interstellar civilization based on the Haertel overdrive and the Dirac transmitter and ends in 25,000 AD when a Dirac message that had been received in 2091 is transmitted. Of course, more than this happens in Midsummer Century. For example, the time-projected astrophysicist Martels unwillingly accepts and uses telepathy for which he finds yet another rationale.

Messages from the future contain:
“…many future paradigms, which not only conflict with ours but with each other.” 17

Science is not an arbiter because it is one of the paradigms. Thor Wald, the inventor of the Dirac transmitter, is prepared in “Beep” to accept a deterministic universe but then, in Quincunx, says:

“If a technologically sophisticated people of twenty-five thousand years from now believes that the future is not fixed, it is plain on the face of it that they know something about the matter that we don’t know.” 18

The Dirac message (in Machine, not in English) to which he refers reads in part:

“‘…the analysis found distinct traces of previous occupancy by a third personality, dating the year of its origin to ‘1955’. This style of dating antecedes Rebirth One and thus cannot be any less than twenty-five thousand years in the past…How could time-projection have been known that long ago without significantly changing history…?’ ” 19

What does “changing history” mean here? To change anything is to make it different either from what it was before we acted on it or from what it would have been if we had not acted on it. If Greek atomists had initiated an industrial revolution BC, that would have changed history, i.e., would have made history different from what we now know it to have been. It does not follow from this that a foreknown history could have been changed. If there had been going to be a Greek industrial revolution, then that would have been foreknown.

Wald can try to change events as described in messages from his future but should not, I think, draw the conclusion that he does from this particular message. His successors are right to believe that Dirac messages contain mutually inconsistent paradigms but mistaken, I think, if they accept Wald’s conclusion that this message entails mutable history. But, in any case, if someone had been projected into the past and had made history different from the way he remembered it as having been, how would anyone in 25,000 AD know this? If they inhabit an altered timeline, then their memories and records will tell them what has happened in that altered timeline but not what had happened in any original timeline that would be remembered only by the time traveler.

The message interpreted by Wald is transmitted in a Dirac pulse:

“…so that all receivers who might have any reason to care about the problem should have a record of it.” 20

Its senders do not know that the receivers include the inventor of the Dirac transmitter trying to understand its implications.

Not only scientific theories but also historical narratives are mutually inconsistent. References to “A Style In Treason” and Midsummer Century help to expand “Beep” into Quincunx although internal evidence alone would suggest that “A Style In Treason” occupies an alternative timeline with no instantaneous communicator. Although much deception is practiced in the “Treason” period, this cannot account for some of the basic incompatibilities. Thus, in 3480, the president of the Milky Way announces its federation with its satellite galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, yet, in a period that may be four thousand years after the twenty first century, these galaxies are and always have been divided between High Earth, served by a Traitor’s Guild, and the non-human Green Exarchy.

It remains at least logically possible that some Dirac messages express merely potential futures which the transmitter’s monopolizers, forewarned, will prevent although, at the end of Quincunx, they seem to expect that, in accordance with their current policy of avoiding hybris by resisting the temptation to choose between potential futures, their organization, the Service, will continue to allow or even actively to cause all foreknown events and therefore will either facilitate or even become the Traitors’ Guild, a process which, because of the galactic federation of 3480, seems to require longer than four millennia but the dating of the High Earth period is in any case imprecise.

Despite their policy, Service agents would not cause all foreknown events if this required them, for example, to commit mass murder. A message reporting a massacre will be received only if such a message is transmitted. It will be transmitted only if a massacre occurs. A massacre will occur only if the Service allows or even commits it. The Service will allow or even commit a massacre only if, first, they receive a message reporting the massacre and, secondly, they are the kind of people who would insist on implementing their policy of preserving the known future even at the expense of allowing or committing massacres. It follows that messages reporting massacres will be received only if messages reporting massacres are received (so far, a tautology) and if Service personnel are capable of massacres. Since they are not capable of this, such messages are not received.

Instead, Service personnel foresee themselves implementing only, to them, morally acceptable scenarios and then have no problem about implementing those scenarios, which is why such scenarios are implemented and foreseen. I suggest that this moral circular causality explains the utopian consequences of Service policy. A Dirac transmitter monopolized by Poul Anderson’s Merseians, Larry Niven’s kzinti or the Star Trek Klingons would have been an instrument of galactic conquest, including the deaths of all their opponents. One welcome feature of the expansion of “Beep” is the extended discussion of the philosophical issues. The moral circular causality argument is my contribution to such discussion.

In Quincunx, Service personnel help the moral circular causality process by never mentioning the date of death of any sentient being in a Dirac message. The Service is an Event Police, not a Thought Police or an Assassins’ Guild. This Service rule is an example of the further thought that Blish had put into Quincunx since, in “Beep," the rule had only been that the dates of Servicemen’s deaths should not be mentioned.

A second welcome feature of the novelization is the increased number of fascinating messages from the future especially since the new messages are derived from otherwise unconnected and even apparently incompatible Blish stories. Even an uncollected 1941 story, “The Real Thrill," provides material for a Dirac message although in revised form.
The culmination of this process of linking stories was the reception in one novel of a message transmitted later in another, despite the characters’ completely different contexts and problems. On the other hand, despite their differences, all Blish’s characters face the future, with science and technology. Most live in what is to us the future. Additionally, our contemporary, Martels, is projected into 25,000 AD and the protagonists of Quincunx, living in our future, receive messages from many periods of their future. Thus, Quincunx is uniquely about coping with the future in a very real sense.

“One of the many original features of this novel is that it does actually concern the future.” 21
Although Quincunx is not a time travel story, it also addresses time and temporal paradoxes in ways that I discuss elsewhere.22 “Beep” assumes a physics of temporal extension identical with the static four dimensional physics expounded in The Time Machine. This physics definitely rules out the kind of temporal motion, at least for material objects, that Wells nevertheless then attributes to his Time Machine. One Dirac message in “Beep” and another in Quincunx do refer to different kinds of time travel, world-line cruising and time-projection, which, if they can be accommodated within Einsteinian physics, do not require a fifth dimension to function as the temporal dimension for their “motion," contra the Wald of Quincunx.

To disappear at one moment and to reappear at an earlier or later moment is not necessarily to move along the temporal interval between the two moments in the same way as objects move along spatial distances. The “time traveling” entity might either, like other spatiotemporal objects, extend along the temporal interval or, like a Dirac message, simply not exist between the moments of departure and arrival. Despite his sensation of headlong motion, Wells’ Time Traveler simply prolongs himself further along the Fourth Dimension in an intangible, attenuated form whereas Poul Anderson’s Time Patrollers instantaneously, from their point of view, disappear from one set of spatiotemporal co-ordinates and appear at another.

A vessel moving along the fourth dimension, therefore enduring in a fifth dimension at right angles to our temporal axis, would not extend along our temporal axis but would bisect it at a single set of spatiotemporal co-ordinates. The vessel would be detectable, if at all, by us only as a momentary anomaly. In order to communicate with anyone in our four dimensional universe, the vessel would have to stop moving and start extending along the fourth dimension, i.e., to start enduring in our temporal dimension.

In time-projection, the “…semistable electromagnetic field…” of a personality leaves one physical substrate and energy source and enters another. 23 “World-line cruising” is more enigmatic but the reference to world-lines suggests the finite spinning universe form of time travel which, I think, involves world-lines curving around through space-time in such a way that they point towards the past instead of, as they usually do, towards the future. This does not seem to require motion along the fourth dimension with duration along a fifth dimension which would, in any case, be undetectable by beings who perceive only three spatial dimensions and experience only one temporal dimension.

Because my training is philosophical, not scientific, I discuss how many dimensions are logically necessary for temporal experience but not how many are mathematically necessary for physical phenomena. My correspondence with Blish on mutable pasts in time travel scenarios led to Quincunx’s multi-dimensionality. The Dirac transmitter allows action on known futures but not on pasts. Wald does contemplate preventing transmission of an already received message but this cannot prevent its past reception whereas a time traveler altering past events does imply a second temporal dimension connecting the original and altered sequences of events. By criticising Quincunx’s multi-dimensionality, I respect Blish’s work and continue the discussion which never ends with a single text.

Differences between “Beep” and Quincunx include, first, that the Wald of Quincunx deduces a fifth dimension from the fact of world-line cruising, secondly, that he receives the 25,000 AD message and, thirdly, that he deduces a mutable history from the latter. Since, on reflection, I disagree with his deductions, I think that the deterministic universe of “Beep," as opposed to the potentially more fluid universe of Quincunx, remains intact.

Wald accepts theoretically that he can prevent some of the events described in Dirac messages but then politically accepts the directive that he should never try to prevent any of them. Thus, his theory is never tested but the beneficial consequences of Service policy are of greater value the quest for scientific certainty. Can this dichotomy occur in the real world? It seems to be an instance of forbidden knowledge, a concept that Blish disagreed with although he reflected on it in After Such Knowledge.

Both the philosophical discussion and the imaginative accounts of future eras could have been continued in further sequels. Blish had hoped to write both a novel set against the background of “A Style In Treason” and a time travel novel based on the finite spinning universe theory. 24,25 

Because the latter involves world-lines, Blish might have connected it with his “world-line cruiser” traveling from 8873 to 8704 along the world-line of a planet on the rim of another galaxy. 26 I find this tantalizing passage the single most imaginative and intriguing in Blish’s works, especially since our informant, in 2091, neither understands what kind of help the cruiser’s commander will need during his 169 year journey nor knows whether he will receive it.
Brian Aldiss, quoting the world-line cruiser passage in full in two articles about Blish, describes it as one of Quincunx’s “…most famous passages…” 27 and as “…one central image, which, being a numerological incantation, banishes all devils…” 28 I echo this fulsome praise. Aldiss also describes the Dirac transmitter as “…a marvelous gadget…”26 Like Wells’ Time Machine, Blish’s Dirac transmitter is an original, imaginative device occasioning both speculation on the nature of time and colorful visions of future periods. Because I welcome two central aspects of Quincunx, I do not agree that it is merely a doubled “Beep” or a “…trivial inflation of the prose…” 29, 30 although it is padded. On the other hand, the change from:
“Josef Faber lowered his newspaper slightly.” 31


“The man code-named Josef Faber – and after ten years he no longer cared about his birth name – lowered his bulky newsfac slightly.” 32

 displays further reflection on the subject-matter. It is possible to enjoy comparing two versions of a text instead of simply preferring one. Knowing, while writing it, that the novelized “Beep” would remain brief, Blish said that he would, if necessary, offer Midsummer Century, which he was writing at the same time, to be published in the same volume.33 It would also have made sense to include “A Style In Treason” between the two short novels. Thus, Quincunx, like “Beep," would, perhaps appropriately because of its brevity, have been published, in book form, as part of a collection.

The novelization occurred at the request of an editor, Larry Shaw, who had seen that the story was about something and I can add, as a reader, that, on first reading “Beep," I thought that it should be novelized.

Years ago, when I visited the Fantasy Centre Bookshop in London, its proprietor raised one further question about “Beep”/Quincunx. Each Dirac communicator simultaneously receives every Dirac message past, present and future. Surely the arrival of all that energy in the first communicator would have destroyed the machine (with a bang, not a “beep”), thus preventing the transmission of any future messages?

One Other Connected Series

The Jack Loftus diptych, Star Dwellers and Mission To The Heart Stars, begins when Haertel overdrive-using Earthmen meet energy beings whom they nickname “Angels” and ends when Angels, Earthmen and other species, encountered either in the first volume or in “Common Time," begin to unite against the tyrannical Heart Stars federation, in accordance with yet another suggestion by Lester del Rey. “Common Time” is common to different timelines. As an account of a first interstellar crossing, it is referred to by other stories with interstellar settings regardless of whether those stories are mutually consistent. 

For example, the Central Empire and the Heart Stars occupy the same volume of space during the same period of history so they must inhabit alternative timelines. Anywhen contains two remaining stories set among Blish’s branching timelines, one set on a version of the Mars shown in Welcome To Mars, the other set long after the events of the first Jack Loftus novel. Thus, the interconnected series are contained in fifteen volumes.


I have shown how Blish’s interconnected series grew from each other and I have focused on two stories from opposite ends of his career: the imaginative opening, “Sunken Universe," and the intellectual achievement, Quincunx. There is a great deal more than this to be said about Blish’s works, particularly about his major series, Cities In Flight and After Such Knowledge.
Very few Blish stories from the 1940’s have been included in his collections. The implied unimportance of most of the others highlights “Sunken Universe”’s early excellence. Published a decade before its sequel, it became, as we have seen, the first installment in a long sequence of diverse speculations about interstellar travel and we can be grateful to Blish for rescuing it from pulp obscurity and for building such an immense edifice upon it.

Even if Blish had never revisited either the Traitors’ Guild or time travel, it seems likely that he would have continued to build references to earlier stories into later works. On the other hand, he did not merely rehash earlier ideas but continued to think creatively as readers can verify first by recognizing the diversity of the contents of the interconnected series and secondly by checking references to his unfinished novels, “Glass Night," “King Log” and “The Breath of Brahma," in David Ketterer’s comprehensive study of Blish’s works. 5, 6

  1. Lester del Rey, “The Hand at Issue” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 42, No. 4, Whole No. 251 (New York, Mercury Press Inc, April 1972), pp. 72-77 at p. 72.
  2. ibid, pp. 72-73.
  3. ibid, p. 73.
  4. ibid, p. 76.
  5. James Blish, letter to Philip K. Dick, 13 June 1964, quoted in David Ketterer, Imprisoned In A Tesseract: the life and work of James Blish (Kent, Ohio, and London, England, The Kent State University Press, 1987), pp. 192, 349.
  6. Ketterer, op cit, p. 191.
  7. James Blish and Norman L. Knight, A Torrent Of Faces (London, Arrow Books, 1978), pp. vi-vii.
  8. del Rey, op, cit, p. 74.
  9. James Blish, The Seedling Stars (London, Arrow Books, 1972), p. 126.
  10. ibid, p. 120.
  11. ibid, p. 115.
  12. Brian M. Stableford, “The Science Fiction of James Blish” in Foundation: the Review of Science Fiction no. 13 (London, the Science Fiction Foundation, 1978), pp. 12-42 at p. 20.
  13. ibid, p. 21.
  14. Blish, op, cit, p. 129.
  15. ibid, p. 116.
  16. ibid, p. 124.
  17. James Blish, The Quincunx Of Time (New York, Avon Books, 1983), p. 108.
  18. ibid, p. 101.
  19. ibid, p. 98.
  20. James Blish, Midsummer Century (London, Arrow Book, 1975), p. 86.
  21. Brian W. Aldiss, “Peep: An Introduction to The Quincunx Of Time” in The Quincunx Of Time, pp. 6-10 at p. 7.
  22. Paul Shackley, “The Logic of Time Travel”,
  23. Blish, Midsummer Century, p. 18.
  24. James Blish, letter to Paul Shackley, 4 January 1970, quoted in Ketterer, op, cit, p. 152.
  25. James Blish, letter to Paul Shackley, 23 June 1970, quoted in Ketterer, op cit, pp. 325-326.
  26. Blish, The Quincunx Of Time, p. 85.
  27. Aldiss, op, cit, p. 6.
  28. Brian W. Aldiss, “James Blish: the mathematics of behaviour” in Foundation no. 13, pp. 43-50 at p. 48.
  29. Brian M. Stableford, “ ‘Beep’ x 2 = Quincunx” in Foundation no. 9 (November 1975), pp. 104-105, quoted in Ketterer, op, cit, p. 353.
  30. Stableford, “The Science Fiction of James Blish”, p. 27.
  31. James Blish, “Beep” in Galaxy Science Fiction, Vol. 7, No. 5-A, February 1954, reprinted in Blish, Galactic Cluster (London, The New English Library Ltd, 1963), pp. 93-128 at p. 93.
  32. Blish, The Quincunx Of Time, p. 15.
  33. James Blish in conversation with Paul Shackley.

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