Thursday, 27 September 2012

Two Masters Of All The Genres

Poul Anderson mastered historical fiction, science fiction (sf) and fantasy and even set one novel in each of these genres in the fourteenth century with a minor connection between the historical novel, Rogue Sword, and the sf novel, The High Crusade. (See an earlier post on Poul Anderson Appreciation, "Finding an Unexpected Connection" by Sean M Brooks, Wednesday, 9 May, 2012. Also here.)

James Blish, with a much smaller output, not only mastered these three genres but also went one step further than Anderson or any other author by writing a three genre Trilogy, After Such Knowledge:

in Volume I, Doctor Mirabilis (a historical novel), Roger Bacon, the founder of scientific method, is suspected of witchcraft and has a drug-induced vision of Armageddon;

in Volume II, (a) Black Easter and (b) The Day After Judgement (contemporary fantasies), magicians release and cannot recall demons who then wage and win Armageddon;

in Volume III, A Case Of Conscience (futuristic sf), experiences on an extra-solar planet oblige a Jesuit biologist to ask heretical questions about the relative powers of God and Satan and to fear an imminent Armageddon.

The Trilogy is thematic, not linear, so it does not matter that Armageddon happens in the late twentieth century yet is still to happen in the mid-twenty first century - although this discrepancy might be resolved by the conclusion of The Day After Judgement, when Satan/God undoes (at least some of) the damage caused by the conflict in order to initiate a long development of mankind towards Godhood. This development could still be occurring in Volume III although, as was the case after the Armageddon in Volume II, the characters' mind-sets have not progressed yet.

The unifying theme of the Trilogy is the question whether the desire for secular knowledge is evil. Blish, like Anderson or any other scientifically trained hard sf writer, answered "No" but he managed to write a Trilogy about the question.

Anderson addressed a single theme in different genres when he presented the original of Odin in a historical novel, a time traveler mistaken for Odin in an sf story and Odin in three fantasy novels. However, this single theme does not make these works a single series. Instead, the contrasting treatments differentiate them as distinct works.

I was reminded of Black Easter, the definitive novel of demonic conjuration, when I read Anderson's account of Queen Skuld's ritual cursing in Hrolf Kraki's Saga. Pagan witchcraft was followed by Christian witchcraft which led, in Blish's fantasy, to Armageddon.

Your New God II

Appropriately, both James Blish's Satan Mekratrig and Mike Carey's Lucifer Morningstar refer to damnation when they express their attitudes to Godhood.


"I, SATAN MEKRATRIG, can no longer bear
"This deepest, last and bitterest of all
"My fell damnations: That at last I know
"I never wanted to be God at all
"And so, by winning all, All have I lost." (1)


"Someone has to be the Founder. The preserver. The arbiter. And I was damned if it was going to be me." (2)

However, Satan speaks literally whereas Lucifer speaks colloquially, thus ironically. Lucifer had known for a long time that he did not want the top job and had planned accordingly, preparing another candidate. By contrast, Satan was taken by surprise, winning supreme power only to realise at that late stage that he did not really want it.

This Satan is the conventional figure described by Dante, remaining off-stage until the end, whereas Lucifer, looking like a regular guy except when he manifests his wings, had resigned as Lord of Hell and has had time to develop an independent existence first in The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, then in Lucifer by Carey. He is not malicious but he is selfish, casually destroying billions of beings in a hitherto unknown realm of the hereafter in order to rescue one to whom he felt an obligation.

(1) Blish, James, The Day After Judgment (New York, 1971), p. 162.
(2) Carey, Mike, Lucifer: Morningstar (New York, 2006), p. 188.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Your New God

The Day After Judgement by James Blish and Lucifer: Morningstar by Mike Carey have parallel passages.

In Blish's work, Satan, having won Armageddon, summons to the Citadel of Dis those magicians whose conjuration had initiated the conflict. He hears their advice before informing them in Miltonic verse that he is now God but does not want to be, so Man must evolve towards that role. Four men stand before the huge form of the Dantean Satan, "...five hundred yards from crown to hoof...", with only his upper body reaching above the floor of the great hall of Pandemonium. (1)

In Carey's work, the situation is more complex but there is a similar scene. God is not dead but has withdrawn, leaving others to address the problems caused by his absence. Elaine Belloc, a British schoolgirl but the Archangel Michael's daughter, thus God's granddaughter, has absorbed Michael's demiugic energy and created a new universe. Controlling such power also enables her to prevent the otherwise inevitable dissolution of the original, now God-abandoned, universe.

At last, Elaine and Lucifer stand before the remnants of the Hellkin, the Heaven-host and the Army of the Damned in a massive amphitheatre of the fallen Silver City where Lucifer announces, "You're looking at your new God," adding to her, "...I was damned if it was going to be me. For what it's worth, I think you'll be an improvement on the old regime." (2)

Like Blish's Satan, Carey's Lucifer doesn't want Godhood but, in this case, an alternative candidate is already in place.

(1) Blish, James, The Day After Judgment, New York, 1971, p. 154.
(2) Carey, Mike, Lucifer: Morningstar, New York, 2006, p. 188.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

"Hard Fantasy"

(I have copied this post from the Science Fiction blog because of its relevance to James Blish.)

The premise of Robert Heinlein's "Magic, Inc." is that magic works and is practised like a set of technologies. Magical practice is based on the reality of supernatural entities and forces, not on any new theory, discovery or application of the natural sciences. Thus, "Magic, Inc." is fantasy, not science fiction (sf).

We might call it "hard fantasy" to indicate that the implications of the premise are deduced as rigorously as are the consequences of any new technology in hard sf.

Two other "hard fantasies":

in The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, there is time travel to historical periods with circular causality as in an sf novel but here the time travel is one of several applications of magic;

in Black Easter/The Day After Judgement by James Blish, demons are real.

Blish wrote mostly hard sf. It is possible, when reading his fantasies, to forget that they are a different genre from his sf. Indeed, some of his characters find it hard to believe that their high technology coexists with demons. In fact, Black...Judgement is the second volume of a trilogy about the conflict between secularism and supernaturalism. Volumes I and III remain ambiguous but it is a premise of Volume II that demons exist and are neither technological nor extraterrestrial but supernatural.