Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Galactic Conflicts

Because James Blish's Cities In Flight Tetralogy is a fictitious history, it informs us that an interstellar empire called the Web of Hercules displaced Earthman culture which, earlier, had overthrown the Vegan Tyranny, replacing it as the main civilization of the Milky Way. Also, there was one even earlier interstellar civilization of which we are informed only that it existed. Thus, we perceive a process.

By contrast, no less than four works by Blish present merely the beginning of a major galactic conflict. Blish thought that the vastness of the galaxy implied that such conflicts could remain unresolved in works of fiction.

(i) In "The Writing Of The Rat," a race near the center of the galaxy is enslaving entire rational species on a massive scale. A second race, moving inwards from a planet at the outermost end of this spiral arm, occupies emptied planets in the hope that it will eventually be able to return them to their original inhabitants. The second race sometimes meets and fights the slavers and also finds one isolated slaver colony, Earth...

Although Earthmen still produce tyrants and torturers, they have also started to develop creativity, sanity and decency. For this reason, the rat-catchers do not exterminate us but instead ask us to join them. Thus, a point about the nature of humanity is made against a frankly fantastic galactic setting.

(I say "nature of humanity," not "human nature," because the latter phrase is commonly misused to mean something bad and unchanging whereas Blish rightly contrasts slaver cruelty, sadism and destruction with emerging creativity, sanity and decency.)

Unlike other stories or novels mentioned in this post, "The Writing Of The Rat" is a one-off not even loosely linked to any other work, whether published or projected. It refers to Vegans but these are not the Vegans of Cities In Flight. Vega III is one of the planets occupied by the rat-catchers but its original inhabitants were the Cro-Magnons brought as slaves to Earth, where our slaver ancestors exterminated the indigenous South African semi-simian species...

"The Writing Of The Rat" is one of several Blish works in which the UN has become a world government. When a colonel negotiating with the rat-catchers says that there is only one man empowered to accept the offered alliance, he turns out to mean not the President but the Secretary-General. Another telling detail about this future Earth is "...the blasted remains of the British Isles..." (Anywhen, New York, 1970, p. 69).

(ii) In "This Earth Of Hours," the planets of Population I stars in the galactic center and clusters are inhabited by telepathically linked brainless organisms hostile to the brained organisms of Population II systems who are also hostile to each other.

(iii) In the Jack Loftus novels, the Heart Stars cultures are a stable hegemony hostile to younger dynamic races like Earthmen.

(iv) In "A Style In Treason," the Traitor-in-Chief of High Earth makes an alliance with a major human colony planet against the Green Exarch which, however, remains to be overthrown.

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