Tuesday, 24 April 2012

James Blish: Symbols and Anagrams

William Atheling, Jr. and David Ketterer discuss symbolism in James Blish’s works. (Atheling was Blish’s pen-name when writing sf criticism.)
Blish’s “A Case of Conscience” ends with a slamming door (“Cleaver’s trade-mark”), thus implying the success of Cleaver’s view point even though the author had intended greater ambiguity.1 In Black Easter, light falling through a stained glass window onto a computer symbolises sacred versus secular knowledge, especially when the light from the window is said to mock the computer’s safe-lights.2
Other alleged symbols are less obvious. In “A Case of Conscience," when Fr. Ruiz-Sanchez, looking through a window, saw a “truncated tetrahedron of yellow light being cast out through…” the window, Blish intended the image to be metaphorical of Ruiz-Sanchez’s apartness from his three colleagues. The colleagues are the untruncated corners of the tetrahedron. David Ketterer rightly comments:

“…it is extremely unlikely that even the most perspicacious reader would understand the image in the way that Blish decoded it…”3
but adds:

“…Blish’s intended meaning is embedded in the choice of words and syntax.”3
Ketterer explains that Ruiz is connected to the light because he is looking out while it is being cast out and that “cast out” has religious connotations relevant to the issues estranging Ruiz from his secularist companions. I find this explanation less convincing than the interpretations of the slamming door and of the stained glass light on the computer.

In Blish’s other major work, Cities in Flight, the historian of Okie civilisation is ACREFF-MONALES. Is this name an anagram for SON-FORCE AMALFE, thus ensuring the transcendence of the Okie hero, Amalfi, despite the changed spelling of “Amalfi” and the extra “O” in the second phrase?4 Did Blish intend this anagram? Could it be valid even if he had not consciously intended it? I would not have thought so and cannot think of any way to answer these questions once they have been asked.

Blish’s “Get Out Of My Sky” features twin planets, Home and Rathe, whose names suggest another Blish title, Earthman, Come Home. Since Earth is humanity’s home planet and “Rathe” is an anagram, whether intended or not, for “Earth," I thought that the planets, both inhabited by humanoid beings, both symbolied Earth. However, Blish suggested in correspondence, then confirmed in conversation, that the names were inspired by Lewis Carroll (“mome rathes”).5

Without this auctorial explanation, I would have thought that Home/Rathe = Home/Earth was more plausible than ACREFF-MONALES = SON-FORCE AMALFE. If the rather obvious equation of Home/Rathe with Home/Earth was mistaken, then I am even less sure of the proposed interpretation of ACREFF-MONALES.

  1. William Atheling Jr., The Issue At Hand (Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1967), pp. 56-57.
  2. David Ketterer, Imprisoned In A Tesseract: the Life and Work of James Blish (Kent, Ohio, and London, England: The Kent University Press, 1987), p. 300.
  3. ibid, p. 86.
  4. ibid, pp. 190-191.
  5. ibid, p. 117.

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