Sunday, 22 April 2012

Some Early Blish

Blish Stories of the 1940’s

From 1939 to 1949, James Blish wrote only pulp magazine short stories. The ’40’s were his “…voluntary apprenticeship…” when he learned how to write fiction.1 As such, the entire decade beneficially influenced his later output. However, few individual stories from that period left their mark.

Blish himself:

incorporated “Sunken Universe” (1942), the earliest written “pantropy” story, into The Seedling Stars (1957) as “Cycle One” of “Surface Tension” (1952);
expanded and revised “Serpent’s Fetish” (1948-49) and “The Snake-Headed Sceptre” (1949) as The Night Shapes (1962);
included “The Box” (1949) in his collection, So Close To Home (1961);
referred to “The Real Thrill” (1941), albeit with alterations, in his novel, The Quincunx Of Time (1973).

Damon Knight:

agreed with Blish that their jointly written “Tiger Ride” (1948) should be included in Harry Harrison’s anthology, Backdrop Of Stars (1968);
included Blish’s “Mistake Inside” (1948) in his anthology, The Dark Side (1965);
introduced The Dark Side by discussing bright and dark sides of consciousness, thus echoing the Blish story’s focus on IN- and OUT-sides of life (see below).

Robert Lowndes:

included “The Box” and “Sunken Universe," the latter as part of “Surface Tension," in The Best Of James Blish (1979);
also included “Citadel Of Thought” (1941), not “…as a reasonable sample of his ‘best’…” but to “…enable the reader to see who Jim’s earliest ancestors in science fiction and fantasy were…” 2
Judith Merrill, Robert Silverberg and H. H. Greenberg:

all anthologized “Solar Plexus” (1941) which Blish, influenced by Knight, analyzed as sharing a symbolism with some of his other works (see below).

I discuss The Seedling Stars here andThe Night Shapes here. This article, an expansion and revision of the unpublished “Some Early Blish” mentioned by David Ketterer, addresses the remaining early stories mentioned here. 3

“Citadel Of Thought” (1941)

This story is a proto-series. Dan Lothar had been an “interplanetary outlaw” for ten years and had somehow been exposed to the poisonous atmosphere of the Jovian moon, Io, before a police space cruiser shot him down over Neptune. A psychically powerful “college of metaphysicians," confusingly also referred to as “intellectuals," had existed in secret for centuries before they rescued Lothar so that he could help them against extrasolar invaders. Lothar and the psychics will presumably continue working together after defeating the invaders on Pluto. One of them tells him:

“You are in the Hall of Thought, on Neptune, at the bottom of the Sea.” 4

These sound like archetypal place names meriting a longer history than this single, ephemeral short story. 

The outer Solar System setting anticipates the opening sections of Blish’s pantropy and Okie series. Ancient anti-materialist philosophy, not Blishian scientific rationalization, explains the metaphysicians’ immortality and telepathy:

“ ‘The mind controls the body, as it controls, perhaps creates, all matter.’ ” 4

“ ‘There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is mind, and its manifestation…’ ”5

This emphasis not on future technology but on prescientific philosophy contrasts with the Neptunian setting and is antithetical to Blish’s later espousal of empirical science. His description of the defeated invaders is not scientific extrapolation but Lovecraftian horror:

“…the alien ship shattered like a glass bubble. Within they caught brief, horror-stricken glimpses of things forever unknowable and indescribable…” 6

The story virtually identifies alienness with evil:

“ ‘We felt this deadly current, this other-world pattern…’ ” 7 (my emphases)
The metaphysicians help Lothar to sense, approaching the Solar System:

“…Fear, and Hatred, and emotions human beings had never known.” 8

and explain this as:

“…the approach of another world, another people…” 8

This “people” is simply destroyed without any understanding of it. Of course, the story’s premise is that these aliens are both hostile and otherwise incomprehensible so that, in these terms, nothing else can be done. Faced with such a threat, we would have to act likewise. But this pulp premise generates neither an interesting nor a plausible narrative of extraterrestrial contact.

One metaphysician had become deathless and ageless while still a young girl. Lothar persuades her to improve her appearance and to heed her feelings, previously disregarded in favour of abstractions. Thus, she provides unnecessary but conventional romantic interest.
I suggest elsewhere that some sf themes became a separate genre: super heroes. 9 A psychically powerful secret society defending Earth from horrific invaders is one such theme.

“The Real Thrill” (1941)

This story has never been reprinted and I am grateful to David Ketterer for sending me a copy of his faded photocopy of its only magazine publication.

James Blish, later known as the author of Cities In Flight and After Such Knowledge, was introduced, in the Cosmic Stories of 1941, as the “Author of ‘Phoenix Planet,' ‘Callistan Cabal’ etc”.10 The two named stories, never reprinted, had been published earlier that year.

Martin Burrowes, the hero of “The Real Thrill," is a rocket technician made redundant by the invention of the gravity impellor and geotrons, gadgets whose names prefigure the Okies’ “gravitron polarity generator”. 11, 12 “Citadel Of Thought” had told us that:

“...geotrons were invented in 1967…”13

Sf readers in general and Blish’s in particular are bound to ask whether some of these early stories formed a series by making common reference to future technologies, extraterrestrial settings or even continuing characters. Fortunately, Ketterer summarizes these stories that we have never read. 14 There are indeed common features, including at least two further instances of geotrons and at least three repeated characters: a Government agent, a Martian and the pirate, Dan Lothar. A different set of non-linear cross-references between disparate stories and novels became a hallmark of Blish’s later career.

But, returning to Burrowes, by joining the crew of an antiquated police rocket cruiser, he helps to resist a Lunar attack and sacrifices his life for others. Thus (what he sees as) his worthless life gains meaning in the act of losing it.

“That last second, Martin Burrowes felt the burden of uselessness at last lifted completely from his shoulders.” 15
Lunar rebels are more plausible and interesting opponents than Lothar’s unknowable and indescribable invaders. Hanging on Burrowes’ arm is an unnamed dumb blonde stereotype with only the negative virtue of not being a conventional heroine. Burrowes has to eject her from the engine room in which he then dies and, with no understanding of what has happened, she waits outside to give him a piece of her mind. Thus, as in Greek drama, comedy follows tragedy.

“Solar Plexus” (1941)

I read this story once decades ago but do not have a copy and am dependent on the summary in Damon Knight’s In Search Of Wonder.16 A renegade scientist has had his surgically removed brain incorporated into a spaceship’s electronics so that he perceives through its instruments and controls it like a body. He intends to put the captured hero’s brain into a second ship but the latter hurts the villain by kicking the wall and knocks him out by destroying the autopilot.

Knight analysed Blish’s “Common Time” (1953) as symbolizing sexual intercourse and birth. Blish then analysed other stories of his, including this one, as containing the same symbolism. Finally, Blish consciously and deliberately incorporated such symbolism into “How Beautiful With Banners.” (1966)
Thus, despite being “technically…pretty crude…," “Solar Plexus” connects conceptually with two later, more substantial, works. 17

"Mistake Inside" (1948)

  Like Blish’s later fantasies, Black Easter (1968) and The Day After Judgement (1970), “Mistake Inside," contains magic, demons, Hell and the fortress of Dis but otherwise is quite unlike them and is even light-hearted so that it is impossible really to believe that its Dis is the same as theirs. In “Mistake Inside," a man and a cat changing places in time “temporally pivot” astronomer Hugh Tracy into a mock Elizabethan town called Outside whose language is English of different periods:

“ ‘…Aye, in the square, sir; one may hope that it bodes us some change….’ ‘…Of Yero eke, that a younge wyfe he gat his youthe agoon, and withal….’ ‘An’ pritnear every time dis guy toins up, yiz kin count on getting it in the neck….’ ‘…Oft Seyld Yero sceathena threatum, hu tha aethlingas ellen fremedon….’ ”18

Hugh, who had been about to murder Jeremy Wright for suspected adultery with his wife, learns that Wright’s double, Yero, periodically rules and is hated by Outsiders and Hugh too hates Yero when he sees that the returning ruler’s new wife is his wife. A magician tells Hugh that being Outside enables “transportees," like himself, to correct significant mistakes by touching simulacra of their “Avatars” or temporal pivots.19 The human Avatar’s simulacrum tells him that Outside is really Hell which Yero invades to help transportees, or potential damned, to correct their mistakes which he therefore resembles so that it is natural but fatal to hate him. Hugh’s mistake turns out to be misunderstanding his wife’s relationship to Wright.

To find the cat’s simulacrum, a divining rod takes Hugh running through the town whose disguise wavers while its inhabitants stampede. Bursting into Dis, he confronts Yero, cat and wife and is back in Wright’s apartment confronting, but not killing, his wife’s astrologer. He has remembered not to hate Yero. In fact, the tumult has frightened him into almost forgetting that Yero resembles the hated (though misunderstood) Wright so perhaps Hell’s desire to trap him overreaches itself?

Despite its fantastic content, the story is rational, even scientific. In Blish’s works, if magic (or telepathy) works, then it is empirical and limited, like everything else. The magician works for slight results and says “Dirac hole” in an incantation, thus revealing another Blish preoccupation.19 Violence does not kill Outsiders but can distribute them to the point of helplessness. There is similar speculation about demons in The Day After Judgement. The story is complex, tightly-plotted and has elements of detective fiction first because the reader misses clues that the mysterious location is really Hell and secondly because Blish hints that Hugh’s wife accepts the supernatural so that this, not adultery, might be the problem between them.

The astrologer seems superior to the astronomer: Hugh reacts emotionally and absurdly to his wife’s interest in astrology whereas Wright remains “serene” even when his client’s husband bursts in with a gun.20 However, Hugh corrects his mistake by heeding evidence that magic works, like the time traveling astrophysicist Martels unwillingly accepting and using telepathy in Blish’s later Midsummer Century (1972). Science is paramount. Blish simply shows it incorporating new data.

Some of these data are sketchy. The time-displaced human Avatar and his Outsider simulacrum, though not the cat and its, are transparent and semicorporeal although the human simulacrum solidifies at will to touch Hugh. This simulacrum remembers its original’s time travel adventures and does not mind vanishing on touching Hugh as long as this enables its original to return home. It calls itself “this image” so its relationship to the original is unclear.21 That individual’s above average knowledge of Blish’s partly invented demonology enables his simulacrum to tell Hugh where he is but this possible deus ex machina is noticed only by dissecting the story. Read, it moves rapidly, giving new information continually though at just the right pace.

Hugh’s trip to Hell is momentary. It begins as he splinters a door and ends as he enters the room. This, as a sorcerer explains, is because:

“ ‘Your Avatars changed places in time, while you stood still in time and space, but were pivoted to face Outside.’ ” 19 (My emphasis.)

But, from a secular perspective, we can ask whether the trip, being momentary, was also merely internal. Not if the human Avatar can vouch for his adventures. Besides, in Blish’s curiously inverted symbolism, Hell is not within but “Outside” and this is more than a name because:

“ ‘All living has two sides…The OUT-side is where the roots of significant mistakes are embedded; the IN-side where they flower. Since most men have their backs turned to the OUT-side all their lives, few mistakes can be rectified. But, if a man turns, as if on a pivot, so that he faces the other way, he may see and be on the OUT-side, and have the opportunity to uproot his error if he can find the means. Such a fortunate man is a transportee.’ ” 22

Hugh turns from the safe inside of New York, science and astronomy, to the dangerous outside of Hell, magic and astrology while Blish turns the searchlight of rationality onto the darkness of demonology as he does to witches and werewolves in, appropriately, “There Shall Be No Darkness” (1950). (The latter goes further in presenting a specific scientific rationale for lycanthropy.)

The light in Outside is “…bright and cheerful…always…” 23

but that is because the appearance is an illusion. Outside is really the Biblical outer darkness. “Outside," implying fear of unknown things lurking outside at night, is where Lovecraft’s Lurker and Tolkien’s Dark Lord came from. Since Blish’s Outside is also Hell, it does, after all, make sense to say that mistakes are rooted there, not inside, despite the story’s title.

Blish left unfinished a major History of Witchcraft, Demonology and Magic, which shows that this was a permanent interest. Fortunately, it did not displace his science fiction (sf) though, also fortunately, it produced “Mistake Inside”, Black Easter and The Day After Judgement.

CS Lewis

While writing an article comparing Blish with CS Lewis, I noticed a curious parallel between Lewis' The Great Divorce (1946) and Blish's "Mistake Inside." (1948) Although Blish read Lewis and admired The Great Divorce, he may not have read this work that early. In any case, the two works differ considerably and I do not suggest any conscious influence. However, in both works, potentially damned Purgatory candidates enter Hell, which is disguised as a town, but need not stay there and someone in authority visits the town to help them to leave.

In The Great Divorce, the “Driver” of the bus that collects passengers from the “grey town” “…seemed full of light…” and “...had a look of authority…” 24 In “Mistake Inside," when Hugh asks, “ ‘Who’s Yero, then? He’s called The Enemy…," his informant, the simulacrum, replies:

“He’s their enemy, sure enough. I don’t know exactly who he is, but he’s someone in authority, and his job is to see the Purgatory candidates get a chance to straighten things out for themselves. Naturally the Fallen buck him as much as possible…” 25

So who are the Driver and Yero? Later in The Great Divorce, Lewis’ spiritual guide, George MacDonald, tells him:
“ ‘Only the Greatest of all can make himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend…Only One has descended into Hell.’ ” 26

Lewis’ demon character, Screwtape (1942), consistently calls Christ “the Enemy." 27 I do not suggest that Blish intended Yero to be Christ but the character does play a Christ-like role and is otherwise unexplained.
There is one other way in which The Great Divorce could have influenced a concept in a Blish work. By the time Blish wrote Midsummer Century, already mentioned, he had definitely read The Great Divorce. In Midsummer Century, Martels’ consciousness is accidentally projected into the future when he falls into a new radio telescope. Later, when Martels is disembodied for a second time, Blish writes:

“Once more, he had hit the bottom of the telescope of time…” 28

This evocative phrase, “…the telescope of time…," could have become a title like Blish’s The Triumph Of Time and The Quincunx Of Time. Remembering an experience from decades ago can resemble observing a spatially remote event through the wrong end of a telescope. Lewis applied precisely this image to time:

“ ‘Time is the very lens through which ye see – small and clear, as a man sees through the wrong end of a telescope - …Freedom…,’ ” 29
free will and eternal choice. Lewis looks through the telescope of “Time” and enters an imaginatively described Christian Eternity. Martels falls through his “telescope of time” and enters an intellectually systematied mystical immortality.

“Tiger Ride” (1948)

“Tiger Ride," an unfinished Damon Knight story completed by Blish, was reprinted in Harry Harrison’s anthology, Backdrop Of Stars, for which the authors chose and commented on the stories. Harrison rightly claims that the comments enhance the stories because: “Art gains a dimension through understanding…” 30 Knight and Blish reveal how they collaborated. For this story, Knight produced the idea, characters and diary entry form. Blish added over half the words, a lot of background and a double ending and made the story, Knight thought, “…distinctively his own…” 31 I agree that the story reads like Blish solo although Blish comments that the ageless “…cool clarity…” of its style is Knight’s and that:

…my sole work of that period was relatively turgid and now looks its age.” 31

Ironically, since Blish adapted Star Trek scripts as short stories and wrote one Star Trek novel, this story could easily be adapted as a Star Trek episode because, like some such episodes and the film, Forbidden Planet, it is about an expedition to a planet whose long dead inhabitants left a live and dangerous technology whose effects resemble phenomena encountered more than once by Captain Kirk. (In this case, the technology died long ago but could time travel, therefore can still live in the story’s present which is our future.)

Knight writes that the characters would not come alive for him. He introduces five in a few sentences: Hal Osborn, the view-point character, Laura Peel, whom Hal likes, Chapelin, whom Laura likes, Niki Chapelin, a jealous asp, and Mike Cohen, a bystander. The main characterizations, especially Niki’s, are expert in the space available.

Quarantined in “…a corner of the galaxy…” where they can study the ultimate sub-subatomic “ultronic” energy without killing anyone else even if they detonate several suns, these characters meet an intelligent ultronic device powerful enough to implant new ideas and false memories and to impersonate Laura while making love to both Hal and Chapelin.32, 33 It wants to serve humanity as its kind served their inventors by satisfying all desires though this made the inventors lose desire and die out. To save his race from this fate, Hal destroys the star cluster.

That is the first ending. The second, a concluding diary entry, reveals that the ultronic device survives the explosion and goes to Earth disguised as Hal. Star Trek would not have allowed Kirk to die in a series episode or the device to reach Earth but the story gains poignance by ending as it does with the “…ultimate energy…” possibly destroying a second race through kindness.32 Knight writes that the story asks, “What is a man?” 31 Like Star Trek, though not as tritely, it answers that men need the conflict of unsatisfied desire.

Jains, Yogis and Buddhists aiming to end desire agree that this means ending mankind in its present form but see this as good. However, they end desire by understanding and transcending it whereas the ultronic devices end it by satiation. Mystics seek the dynamic passivity of spiritual wisdom whereas, it is suggested, an omnipotent technology would provide only the deadening passivity of existential pointlessness. These are profound issues to arise from an sf story.

The story’s compactness makes it almost a summary. Parts, like the dead race’s history, are summaries. But the characters live and Blish keeps them moving the way Knight had started them.

The intelligent ultronic “omnibelt” arrives from the distant past by changing places in time with Laura’s experimental levitation belt, another instance of items changing places in time, thus of time travel. 34 Blish wrote no time travel novel because he knew that the idea’s complexities demanded more time and work from the writer than he had yet been able to give them. Unfortunately, he did not live to write the finite-spinning-universe-theory-of-time-travel novel which he mentioned more than once.
“The Box” (1949)

“The Box," reprinted in the uncharacteristically Earthbound collection, So Close To Home, has no space travel except an unmanned Earth satellite on the last page. It humanizes the problem of constructing an old sf prop, the energy screen, by giving it to a German resonance expert, Meister, who, despite concentration camp-induced nightmares, is suspected by his U. S. Government employers because he might have enclosed New York in an air-consuming energy screen. Unless Meister can destroy this “Box," those responsible will know that it is fool-proof enough to shield their cities while they bomb the U. S.

After confronting top brass (“…nothing in uniform looked pleasant to Meister.”), a slum landlord (“ ‘This man is a German, probably a Nazi!’ ”) and New Yorkers’ panic, Meister reasons backwards from the screen’s nature to its projector’s location and nullifies it. 35, 36 The solution is technically neat. Technicalities obtrude but Blish never spared us that difficulty. We leave Meister in a dreamless sleep indicating exhaustion and possibly that the satisfaction of problem-solution has helped to cure his nightmares. There is remote romantic interest because Meister is concerned about “Ellen…probably in The Box…” but she does not appear in the story. 37

A year later, a different force-field protected Manhattan as it flew between stars in the first Okie story. Blish’s critical work, More Issues At Hand, links anti-gravity and energy screens and says rightly that “The Box” and the Okie series speculate usefully about them. It also mentions the pantropy series and “Skysign” (1968) as contributing to molecular biological speculation and to an sf power fantasy respectively, thus indicating his own range within sf. 38


Although few of Blish’s ’40’s stories have been reprinted, I have tried to show that those few are worth reading either in their own right or at least in relation to his later works.

  1. Lester del Rey, “The Hand At Issue” in The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction, Vol. 2, No. 4, Whole No. 251 (New York: Mercury Press Inc, April 1972), pp. 72-77 at p. 72.
  2. Robert A. W. Lowndes, “Introduction: Science Fiction the Hard Way” in Lowndes (ed.), The Best Of James Blish (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979), pp. ix-xxi at p. xi.
  3. David Ketterer, Imprisoned In A Tesseract: the life and work of James Blish (Kent, Ohio, and London, England: The Kent State University Press, 1987), p. 329, n. 14.
  4. James Blish, “Citadel Of Thought” in Stirring Science Stories, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Albing, February 1941), reprinted in Lowndes (ed.), op. cit., pp. 1-19 at p. 6.
  5. ibid, p. 7.
  6. ibid, p. 18.
  7. ibid, p. 8.
  8. ibid, p. 9.
  9. Paul Shackley, “Comics and Science Fiction”,
  10. James Blish, “The Real Thrill” in Cosmic Stories, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Albing, July 1941), pp. 67-73 at p. 67.
  11. ibid, p. 68.
  12. James Blish, Earthman, Come Home (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1955), reprinted in James Blish, Cities In Flight (London: Arrow Books Ltd, 1981), pp. 235-465 at p. 237.
  13. Blish, “Citadel Of Thought”, p. 2.
  14. Ketterer, op. cit., pp. 328-330.
  15. Blish, “The Real Thrill”, p. 73.
  16. Damon Knight, In Search Of Wonder (Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1967), pp. 271-272.
  17. ibid, p. 271.
  18. James Blish, “Mistake Inside” in Startling Stories, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Better Pubs, March 1948), reprinted in Damon Knight (ed.), The Dark Side (London: Corgi Books, 19670, pp. 36-53 at p. 42.
  19. ibid, p. 45.
  20. ibid, p. 53.
  21. ibid, p. 47.
  22. ibid, p. 44.
  23. ibid, p. 49.
  24. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, 1977), p. 15.
  25. Blish, “Mistake Inside”, p. 48.
  26. Lewis, op. cit., p. 114.
  27. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942), pp. 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20 etc.
  28. James Blish, Midsummer Century (London: Arrow Books, 1975), p. 80.
  29. Lewis, The Great Divorce, p. 115.
  30. Harry Harrison, “Introduction” in Harrison (ed.), Backdrop Of Stars (London: New English Library, 1975), pp. 9-10 at p. 10.
  31. James Blish and Damon Knight, “Comment on ‘Tiger Ride’” in Harrison (ed.), op. cit., p. 86.
  32. James Blish and Damon Knight, “Tiger Ride” in Astounding Science Fiction, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Street & Smith, October 1948), reprinted in Harrison (ed.), op. cit., pp. 73-85 at p. 74.
  33. ibid, p. 78.
  34. ibid, p. 83.
  35. James Blish, “The Box” in Thrilling Wonder Stories, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Standard Mags, April 1949), reprinted in Blish, So Close To Home (New York: Ballantine Books, 1961), pp. 39-57 at p. 51.
  36. ibid, p. 52.
  37. ibid, p. 44.
  38. William Atheling, Jr., More Issues At Hand (Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1970), pp. 41-50.

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