Tuesday, 24 April 2012

James Blish: A Second Tetralogy Or Two More Diptychs?

The First Tetralogy

James Blish’s Okie quartet, collected as Earthman, Come Home, became a trilogy with the addition of a pre-Okie and a post-Okie novel, then a tetralogy with the addition of an Okie juvenile novel. Did Blish write a second tetralogy?

An Expeditions Tetralogy?

David Ketterer suggests that Blish’s Fallen Star, The Night Shapes, …And All The Stars A Stage and VOR “…add up to a very loose ‘Expeditions’ tetralogy…” 1 Such a tetralogy would be very loose although Fallen Star, about an Arctic expedition, appropriately refers to The Night Shapes, about an African expedition, so these two works can be described as an Expeditions diptych. I discuss Fallen Star here.
The Night Shapes

The Night Shapes, a novelization of two pulp magazine jungle stories, represents yet another genre addressed by Blish. His novels include historical fiction, fantasy, sf and mainstream fiction. He had also written pulp western, sport, detective and romantic fiction but none of these stories made it into his collections or novels because they were his writing apprenticeship.

The Night Shapes combines two Edgar Rice Burroughs themes: African adventure and living dinosaurs (Tarzan and The Land That Time Forgot). Its central character, Kit Kennedy, has a strange affinity not with apes but with snakes and is a living legend: Ktendi, Son of Wisdom, King of the Wassabi, Master of Serpents. One officious European, unaware that he is addressing the source of the legend, says:

“There’s no such thing as Ktendi…And, as for you, Mr Kennedy, why don’t you mind your own business?” 2

Kit shares with Amalfi, the hero of Cities in Flight, the ability to manipulate populations for remote ends based on abstruse reasoning. His final insight, after killing the physical dinosaurs, or “night shapes,” is that:

“…the shapes are inside us. They’ve always lived there. They always will.” 3

Kit is helped by an African shaman who successfully asks “the Powers” to raise a storm and thus is a magician like Theron Ware in Blish’s fantasy Black Easter but with some differences. First, Ware compels demons. Secondly, the shaman’s “Powers” are a mere genre cliché. Thirdly, they are understated. We know only that, as Kit requested, an unseasonal storm disturbs the night shapes.

Blish usually exercised auctorial restraint. Although Black Easter describes in detail the “Last Conjuration” of many major demons, its sequel does not present the demons rampaging through the world. In fact, the magicians have to ask why the Goat has not returned and why life seems to be returning to normal. 

Similarly, The Night Shapes does not present dinosaurs rampaging through their hidden valley. In the valley, beyond the slavers’ heavily palisaded village, at night, Kit sees something large and black and hears a cough or roar with a hissing edge. When he has fomented civil war in the village, a single stegosaur, angered by the noise and excitement, breaks through the wall and tramples everything.

Later, many dinosaurs, driven by the shaman’s storm and fire, do stampede through part of Africa but only for a page. Some are described but we are also told that:

“They were hard to see…” 4


“…there were shapes for which no words existed, shapes older than words, shapes older than the walking apes who had invented words.” 5

Kit, an American who rejects his origins and embraces Africa but has read a geology text book, is credited with “the Sight” because he knows that night shapes include flying things and walking thunderers. In Africa, this had been a shamanic secret. Thus, Blish bizarrely links the idea of an ancient but human oral tradition to the completely unrelated idea of ancient, because pre-human, monsters.

The stegosaur that tramples the village is attacked by Manalendi, the twenty five foot python that has adopted Kit. Here, Blish is unrestrained. He describes an impossible relationship between a man and a snake. When Kit has tried to warn off the interfering Europeans, Manalendi unexpectedly and unaccountably grasps him by the waist and lifts him into the trees, then pushes him away from the approaching fire. This is a genre cliché.

Other cliches include:

Kit’s scandalous past and exile;
his ambiguous status as a stateless person with skills valued by the state;
his African friend, Tombu, a king but subordinate to him;
the fat, fake, Tombu-hating shaman;
the old, genuine, Kit-teaching shaman;
Kit’s defeat of the slaver king and temporary acceptance of the kingship;
the rescued beautiful white woman, Paula;
the Arab anti-heroine controlling the slaver king;
the marine captain secretly in league with the Arab woman 

– all the right ingredients. One further cliché would have been a fountain of immortality, enabling Kit and Paula still to be alive fifty years later when another expedition, mentioned in Fallen Star, seeks mokele-mbemba, the living dinosaurs.

Kit was a pulp series character in two magazine short stories and is a potential series character in the novel where he says:

“It’s over…There may be something else tomorrow…” 6

 We see his lodge, the perfect starting point for many safaris, only once. The series did not continue because the author’s apprenticeship ended.

Despite the fantasy elements, Blish, in his “Prefatory Note," outlines an sf story. Having summarized some “science fact” about living fossils – coelecanth, proto-snail and snizard (ancestral snake-lizard) -, he comments:

“Evidently there are still a few kinks in the coils of time in which fragments of the remote past can remain alive…Some day we may be glad to find such a kink for ourselves. I trust that our successors’ hands will be less shaky.” 7

He described the novel as a parody of African adventure stories but some passages transcend parody. We recognize a tyrannosaur from its description. We hear hissing coughs and roars and try to imagine unknown shapes. The book begins with the proto-sf story and ends when the night-shapes are identified as “…the ideas of evil…inside us.” 3

  …And All The Stars A Stage and VOR

...And All The Stars A Stage does describe an Interstellar Expeditionary Project of humanoid aliens but this is hardly comparable to the terrestrial expeditions of Fallen Star or The Night Shapes. VOR describes not an interstellar expedition but only its result, one alien’s arrival on Earth. Each of these two novels was written to an idea suggested by someone else and both involve extrasolar alien(s) arriving on Earth. Thus, they might be called a diptych although an extremely loose one.

VOR is a contemporary alien invasion novel featuring an indestructible monster whereas …And All The Stars A Stage ends in 3900 B. C. when its extraterrestrials arrive not as invaders but as beings that are human enough to intermarry with, in fact to merge into, the terrestrial population.

When Jorn, the viewpoint character, meets his first terrestrial, he sees that:

“He was wholly human. This did not surprise Jorn…There was, he had come to suspect, a Model.” 8

Jorn’s suspicion that there is “a Model” contradicts the auctorial statement in the Epilogue that life randomly takes all possible paths.

Also in the Epilogue:

1086 A. D.: A sudden glare of light in the constellation later called Taurus. The Chinese astronomer T’ang Yaou-Shun marks it down:
 A new and marvellous star, portending miracles.
“But the miracle has already happened. It sleeps inside Yaou-Shun, in twelve of his genes.” 9

Ketterer asks:

“Are we to assume the birth of some miraculous savior, possibly generations in the future, as a result of the effect of the light of that supernova on T’ang Yaou-Shun?” 10

I had assumed only that Yaou-Shun was descended from the aliens who had been driven into space by the supernova. The miracle has happened. The story is complete.

…And All The Stars A Stage connects with history (Earth’s first king is crowned in 3900 B. C.; a nova is seen in Taurus in 1086 A. D.) but also with Blish’s futuristic fiction because of its galactic setting. It contains six themes that Blish developed elsewhere.

Themes in ...And All The Stars A Stage

(i) Matriarchy. The aliens’ political system is a Matriarchy because enabling parents to choose the sex of their children had led to a glut of males. In Blish’s “This Earth of Hours," the future Earth has become a Matriarchy for the same reason. 11

(ii) Planetary evacuation. The aliens evacuate a small percentage of their population in a faster than light space fleet because their Sun is about to become a supernova. In “We All Die Naked," the terrestrial authorities evacuate a small number of people to the Moon because “…vulcanism on a scale never seen before in the lifetime of man…” is about to make Earth uninhabitable. 12 These are just two of Blish’s five end of the world scenarios. (See here.)

(iii) A central galactic empire. When ships approaching the galactic center become incommunicado, it is theorized that they have fallen foul of a central empire. In “This Earth of Hours," the State Department of the Terrestrial Matriarchy fears that there is a vast federation at the galactic center, then in fact encounters the Central Empire. In Mission To The Heart Stars, Jack Loftus visits the ancient Heart Stars empire. The heart stars are older and closer together than those at the periphery. Therefore, both civilization and interstellar travel could also be older there.

In Asimov’s humans only galaxy, human beings spread throughout the galaxy, then rule it from the center, not from their point of origin, which is forgotten. Later thinking, represented, for example, by Larry Niven, is that:

radiation levels might make the galactic center uninhabitable;
there could be a chain reaction of exploding stars at the center;
there is a large black hole at the exact center.
(iv) The Rift. Ships approaching the galactic edge have to cross the, unexplained, “Rift” where they will find no promising stars.

“They will probably not even get to the other side.” 13

In Earthman, Come Home, a city flies through the starless void of the Rift which is explained as “…a valley cut in the face of the galaxy.” 14 A city that grows its own supplies might succeed where a ship would fail. Of the Rift, it is said that:

“A few stars swam in it, light millennia apart – stars which the tide of human colonization could never have reached.” 14

The refugees from the supernova are unlikely to have reached any of these stars but the city does find one runaway star whose habitable planet had been colonized before entering the Rift.

(v) Beta Solis. The ship that approaches our solar system detects a white dwarf companion star half a light year from the Sun. It is implied that the white dwarf lacks planets. In “Darkside Crossing," John Hillary Dane travels to Beta Solis, the Sun’s previously undetected white dwarf companion. 15 In “Our Binary Brothers," he has landed on one of its planets. (vi) Alien arrival on Earth, as in VOR.Conclusions


The four works are not a tetralogy but two of them are an Expeditions diptych. The works are of interest in themselves and in relation to Blish’s more significant works.

  1. David Ketterer, Imprisoned In A Tesseract: the Life and Work of James 
  2. Blish (Kent, Ohio, and London, England: The Kent State University Press, 1987), p. 108.
  3. James Blish, The Night Shapes (London: The New English Library, 1963), p. 107.
  4. ibid, p. 125.
  5. ibid, p. 117.
  6. ibid, p. 118.
  7. ibid, p. 124.
  8. ibid, p. 2.
  9. James Blish, …And All The Stars A Stage (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971), p. 203.
  10. ibid, p. 206.
  11. Ketterer, op. cit., p. 134.
  12. James Blish, “This Earth Of Hours” in Blish, The Best Of James Blish (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979), pp. 257-280.
  13. James Blish, “We All Die Naked” in Silverberg, Zelazny, Blish, Three For Tomorrow (New York: Meredith Press, 1969), p. 177.
  14. Blish, …And All The Stars A Stage, p. 178.
  15. James Blish, Earthman, Come Home in Blish, Cities In Flight (London: Arrow Books, 1981), p. 286.
  16. James Blish, “Darkside Crossing” in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine (New York: UPD Publishing Corporation, December 1970), pp. 4-25.
  17. James Blish, “Our Binary Brothers” in Galaxy, February 1969, pp. 122-130.

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