Tuesday, 24 April 2012

James Blish Compared With Graphic Novelists

In Black Easter by James Blish: 

the three superior demons, Satan, Beelzebuth and the Sabbath Goat, never appear;
however, the powerful black magician, Theron Ware, accepts a commission to release forty eight other major demons without restraint;
the demons initiate World War III;
Ware fails to recall them;
the Sabbath Goat does appear, is unaffected by an attempted exorcism and states that Ware has initiated Armageddon;
further, he claims that the demons are winning because God is dead.

That was meant to be a final conclusion but

the Goat said only that the demons were winning, not that they had won;
he may have been mistaken or lying;
demonic conjurations may have been the magicians’ hallucinations, although I will argue further against this last idea (see here).

In the later conceived sequel, The Day After Judgement

the Goat fails to return, as promised, for the magicians;
the world starts to recover from the nuclear exchange;
the white magician sees prima facie evidence for God’s continued existence;
the demon fortress Dis appears in Death Valley;
the Strategic Air Command attacks Dis and is destroyed;
Satan calls the magicians to Pandemonium;
he announces that, since evil is only opposition to goodness, he is now God but does not want the role so offers it to Man;
mankind begins a long development towards Godhood;
Satan/God undoes the effects of the nuclear exchange;
during his speech in Miltonic verse, Satan speculated that God had withdrawn, not died. (1)

Some graphic novelists (adult comic strip writers) address similar themes. 

In Last Days Of The Justice Society of America by Roy Thomas:

the Spear of Destiny has magical powers because it pierced Christ’s side on the Cross;
Hitler in his Bunker uses the Spear to conjure Ragnarok;
World War II superheroes merge with the gods;
they prevent cosmic destruction by re-fighting Ragnarok endlessly;
Ragnarok replaces Valhalla as a cyclical conflict. (2)

In Justice League: Paradise Lost by Mark Millar:

an angel enters the Palace of the Presence to challenge God;
however, the Palace is empty because God is in all things, not in one place. (3)

In Swamp Thing by Alan Moore:

male witches want to destroy Heaven;
so they conjure the Original Darkness that was before the Creation;
a dark tower emerges from Chaos and advances through Hell, fomenting demonic civil war;
the tower is then seen to be the index finger of an immense hand;
however, a hand of Light descends to clasp the hand of Darkness;
the Taoist symbol of interpenetration appears in the eye of the psychic witness to the supernatural events;
light and darkness, life and death, are interdependent;
no part of this polarity is “evil”;
the title character, a plant elemental, asks, “Where is evil in all the wood?”;
this question enables the Darkness to accept and merge with the Light after sweeping aside powerful spirits resisting it as evil.(3)

In Swamp Thing by Mark Millar:

the plant elemental acquires the powers of all the elements;
his daughter reverses the sound of the Word, cancelling the divine agent;
thus, the elemental becomes powerful enough to displace God and destroy mankind;
however, he realises that he has become vast enough to incorporate us. (3)

In John Constantine, Hellblazer by Jamie Delano:

John Constantine, a powerful magician, sabotages the Resurrection Crusade's attempt to prepare the woman Zed to be the new Mary;
a Masonic magician raises the masculine "God of all Gods" to facilitate Masonic regime change in Britain;
however, Constantine, Zed and Marj raise the anima which counterbalances the GOAG. (3)

In John Constantine, Hellblazer by Garth Ennis:

Constantine defies the demonic triumvirate;
then he sells his soul to each in turn;
if he dies, they will fight for his soul, thus dividing Hell and allowing angelic victory;
to prevent this, they cure Constantine’s lung cancer.(3)

In Sandman by Neil Gaiman:

Lucifer Morningstar tires of presiding over pointless anguish;
so he expels the demons and damned from Hell and retires;
however, Hell is a necessary counterpart to Heaven;
so a higher authority returns its inhabitants to Hell;
two angels are appointed to preside over pain that will now be neither pointless nor punitive but purgative;
the Endless - Destiny, Death, Dream etc - are anthropomorphic personifications of aspects of consciousness;
Despair of the Endless persuaded the star god Rao to destroy a planet but to let one inhabitant survive...
gods begin in Dream's realm, become temporarily independent and end in Death's;
thus, the Norse Aesir, the Japanese ka
mi etc coexist with each other and with the Endless;
the cyclical Ragnarok (see above) is a simulation in a transparent sphere held by Odin;

Destruction of the Endless does not want to preside over nuclear war in yet another world;
so he abandons his realm;
however, he is the personification, not the process;
so the realm continues without him;
the Furies attack Dream's realm;
Dream enters Death's realm;
but ideas cannot be killed;
so Dream is replaced by another aspect of himself;
his death causes a reality storm affecting many times, realms and myths;
the storm strands travellers in the Inn of the Worlds' End.

In Lucifer by Mike Carey: 

dangerous primal gods are reactivated; 
the angelic host hires the retired Lucifer to destroy them; 
he is paid with a "letter of passage," an exit from God's universe;
the angel Meleos had created the Basanos, living tarot cards;
the Basanos warn Lucifer that his Gateway to the Void will close behind him, denying re-entry to the universe;
but he seals it open with the divine name;
an agent of the Basanos prevents the jin-en-mok, survivors from a previous universe, from seizing the Gate;
Lucifer's wings, cut off at his request by Dream, had remained in Hell and were traded for souls by Remiel and Duma, the angels now ruling Hell;
needing wings to navigate the Void, Lucifer regains them from the Japanese hereafter;
he places a monster in the Void;
it destroys angels who try to claim the Void for Heaven;
the angel Sandalphon had tried to breed a new host to attack Heaven, using the captured Michael's wounded body as an incubator; 
the new host includes Elaine Belloc, British schoolgirl, Michael's daughter, God's granddaughter, Lucifer's niece;
by releasing Michael's energy in the Void, Lucifer creates a new universe;
the angel Amenadiel of the Thrones adopts the talking serpent role in Lucifer's universe;
he advocates asceticism because Lucifer has merely told his creatures to enjoy;
Lucifer welcomes immigrants through multiple Gates but forbids worship;
Meleos and Elaine help Lucifer against the Basanos who try to kill him and rule his universe;
a jin-en-mok kills Elaine;
Lucifer annihilates a previously unknown realm of the hereafter by passing through it to rescue Elaine;
he lets Elaine and her dead friend become presiding spirits in his universe;
Elaine leads a team to expel immortals who have migrated to Lucifer's universe;
the demoness Lys takes damned Christopher Rudd as her lover;
Rudd rises in demonic society;
Lucifer and Amanadiel duel in Hell;
God leaves;
his universe will disintegrate without him; 

Lucifer helps the host against giants trying to replace God;
Fenris Wolf tries to hasten cosmic disintegration;
he induces Lucifer to shed fratricidal blood, Michael's, above Yggdrasil;
Elaine absorbs Michael's energy;
with Lucifer's advice, she creates a third universe;
Rudd preaches unity in Hell;
Remiel and Duma relinquish power to him;
Rudd stops the infliction of pain and plans an attack on Heaven;
old powers destroy the angelic Silver City to prevent God from returning;
Lucifer had persuaded Rudd to lead demons and damned in defense of the City;
Rudd fights Fenris on the steps of the Primum Mobile;
God lets Elaine and Lilith debate whether his universe should be uncreated;
at Lucifer's suggestion, God gives the decision to Elaine;
by combining the three universes, she prevents cosmic disintegration;
becoming God, she abolishes Hell;
by coupling with Lucifer, the Japanese goddess Izanami becomes the new Adversary;
Lucifer transfers his Lightbringer role to his former companion, Mazikeen of the Lilim;
Elaine hires fallen cherubim to neutralize Remiel, now resisting her from the remnants of former hereafters;
God and Lucifer meet and part unreconciled in the Void;
Lucifer flies into the Void. (3)

Because Milton believed that sin caused death, he personified Death as a shapeless monster, begotten on Sin by her parent, Satan.
Because Gaiman believes that death defines life, he personifies Death as a perpetually young woman created by the universe.
Like John Keats, Gaiman’s readers are “…half in love with easeful Death…” but with better reason. We have seen her.
Constantine helped the elemental and Dream.
An anti-material attack on the multiverse initiated the Ragnarok and Darkness conjurations and a revised superheroes history.
Decades of interconnected story lines approach real life in complexity.


Graphic novelists, as imaginative as prose fantasists, can end the world but continue the series, as Blish did in Black Easter and The Day After Judgement.

  1. James Blish, Black Easter and The Day After Judgement (London: Arrow Books, 1981).
  2. Roy Thomas, Last Days Of The Justice Society Of America (New York: DC Comics Inc, 1986).
  3. Swamp Thing, Justice League, Hellblazer, Sandman and Lucifer are or were monthly periodicals from DC Comics who also publish well-known superheroes and allow all their characters to interact. In Moore’s Swamp Thing: Gotham City Police, rounding up suspected prostitutes, arrest the elemental’s girl friend, then detain her because she had earlier been photographed embracing a humanoid vegetable and charged with “crimes against nature”; Swampy attacks the city and its vigilante; able to leave his body, grow another and accelerate plant growth, he seems indestructible so a covert Government agency consults Lex Luthor, an expert in the attempted killing of an indestructible being. Thus, the covert agency is unconcerned that an industrialist is trying to kill Superman. Characters familiar from childhood are presented anew from an adult perspective. They must have been like this all along but we did not realize it before. At Dream's Wake, we learn that Clark Kent and the Gotham City vigilante, though not a lesser known character, dream of being actors in TV versions of their lives. In case anyone does not know, the destroyed planet in the Rao system was Krypton and its survivor was Kal-El who has other names on Earth.
    DC has also collected Moore’s Swamp Thing, Gaiman’s Sandman, Carey's Lucifer and 
  5. the multi-authored John Constantine, Hellblazer as four series of graphic novels.

Email address: paulshackley@gmail.com

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.

James Blish: The End Of The World

James Blish presents five end of the world scenarios:

a cosmic collision;
a nova;
an asteroid strike;
an ecological catastrophe.

(By a cosmic collision, I mean not a collision on a cosmic scale but literally a collision between two universes.)

Blish usually tells us what happened afterwards:

“Creation began.” 1
“We have escaped…we will survive.” 2
“…Resurrection.” 3
“…the world was ready to begin.”4

Only the ecological catastrophe story ends without hope because, like Orwell’s 1984 and Blish’s own They Shall Have Stars, it is a warning. The catastrophe tidally disrupts the Earth-Moon system so that lunar bases are no escape. Thus, the story ends not with a new beginning but with a dying moment:

“Juli felt the soft, familiar thump of Hausmaus [a cat] landing on his frequent perch between her shoulder blades, and ”5

Blish was not usually pessimistic. They Shall Have Stars, despite its political dystopia, has an up-lifting title and ends when exiles escape from the world Bureaucratic State which will be overthrown in a later volume. On the last page, a man about to be executed writes on the wall of his cell:

“Every end…is a new beginning.”6

- thus echoing the positive endings of four of the five end of the world scenarios.

  1. James Blish, The Triumph Of Time in Blish, Cities In Flight (London: Arrow Books, 1981), p. 596.
  2. James Blish, …And All The Stars A Stage (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971), p. 84.
  3. James Blish, Black Easter and The Day After Judgement (London: Arrow Books, 1981), p. 208.
  4. James Blish and Norman L. Knight, A Torrent Of Faces (London: Arrow Books, 1978), p. 270.
  5. James Blish, “We All Die Naked” in Silverberg, Zelazny, Blish, Three For Tomorrow (New York: Meredith Press, 1969), p. 204.
  6. James Blish, They Shall Have Stars in Cities In Flight, p. 129.

James Blish: Okies


Summarising the plot of a complicated science fiction series can add to the pleasure of reading it. Publishing the summary might either increase others’ pleasure or encourage yet others to read the work for the first time.


Before the Bureaucratic State took over Earth and banned space travel, a few “spindizzy”-powered spaceships escaped from the Solar System. When antigravity was rediscovered, cities left and became “Okies” trading with the extrasolar colonists. Cities and colonials overthrew the Vegan Tyranny. One city, Interstellat Master Traders (IMT), sacked a colony and fled to the Greater Magellanic Cloud. Earth police regulated trade and reduced a human interstellar empire. New York, fleeing the police by crossing the Rift, a valley in the face of the galaxy, found a wild star with a colonised planet, He. Okies helped Hevians to move their planet across the Rift and out of the galaxy faster than light.

When the germanium-based interstellar currency collapsed, the cities marched on Earth and were suppressed by the police. A surviving Vegan orbital fort attacked Earth under cover of the march but was destroyed by a planet flown into its path by Amalfi, the Mayor of New York. Police pursued New York to the Greater Magellanic Cloud but Amalfi tricked them into destroying IMT, mistaking it for New York. Former Okies ruled the Cloud from New Earth while a nonhuman civilisation, the Web of Hercules, replaced Earthman rule in Arm II of the Milky Way. The Hevians visited the Andromeda galaxy but discovered, in intergalactic space, evidence of an imminent collision between this universe and its anti-matter counterpart.

Returning to the Milky Way in search of scientific help, the Hevians passed through the Greater Magellanic Cloud where they met their former Okie acquaintances who initially mistook the approaching dirigible planet for a nova. Hevians and New Earthmen flew He to the Metagalactic Centre where they survived the cosmic collision long enough to create new universes from their own bodies. The Web of Hercules, whose power was based on the control of anti-matter, failed to occupy the Metagalactic Centre but transmitted a historical record to at least one of the new universes.


It is an unacceptable coincidence that the only two races, Earthmen and Herculeans, able to reach the Metagalactic Centre in time to intervene in the cosmic collision originate from the same galaxy. The Okie film series, if it had been produced, would have been an opportunity to re-address this issue.

James Blish, Cities In Flight (London: Arrow Books, 1981).

James Blish's After Such Knowledge Trilogy

(This article, with some slight textual alterations, was originally published in The New York Review of Science Fiction, No. 250, Vol. 21, No. 10, June 2009.)


James Blish claimed that one historical novel, one contemporary fantasy and one futuristic sf novel comprised his trilogy, After Such Knowledge. The three volumes are:

Doctor Mirabilis;
Black Easter
and its sequel, The Day After Judgement, considered as a single work;
A Case Of Conscience.

Black Easter/The Day After Judgement, hereinafter abbreviated as Black…Judgement, comprises Volumes IIa and IIb.

The trilogy is thematic, not linear, i. e., is three related works, not one three-volumed work, but how are the three works related? David Ketterer suggests that scientifically rationalized sf (Volume III) synthesizes the realism of historical fiction (I) with its antithesis, fantasy (II). 1

In Doctor Mirabilis, Roger Bacon believes that a gaseous explosion is demonic. In Black Easter, a scientist denies that a visible demon is real. Natural phenomena preexisted understanding of them. Supernatural beings would outlast belief in them. In both cases, reality transcends concepts. Conceptual breakthrough is a theme of the trilogy as of sf in general and of Blish’s in particular.

Thus, appropriately in Hegelian dialectics, the thesis, an accurately realized historical period, and its antithesis, a vividly imagined supernatural incursion, are interconnected. Also appropriately, they are connected by conceptual advance and resistance to it.

Historical events did occur. Historical fictions could have occurred. Bacon causes an explosion by natural means although his inner voice may be demonic.
Fantasy describes supernatural events that scientific rationalists believe cannot occur.
Scientists controlling natural forces can cause apparently miraculous events and might cause more in future. Futuristic sf writers must both describe fantastic events and realise future periods as effectively as historical novelists realize past periods.

This triadic formula explains why only Volume II treats the supernatural as unequivocally real. Volume III returns to the ambiguity of Volume I but at the higher synthetic level of rationalized fantasy (=sf).

Volume III also introduces an apparent contradiction between scientific discovery and religious belief. This conflict, already implicit, becomes explicit when the scientific achievement of interstellar travel enables Earthmen to meet aliens who do not conform to Christian preconceptions. A Jesuit priest-scientist finds an answer that satisfies him but ambiguity remains. The planet Lithia explodes when but not necessarily because Fr. Ruiz-Sanchez exorcises it from a safe distance. The explosion is also scientifically explicable.
It is also appropriate that a synthesis generates a further antithesis.

An Alternative Order

Blish’s suggested chronological reading order corresponds to Ketterer’s proposed dialectical order. However, I argue that another order is also valid: Volume II, written last, is the literary climax.

Reading the trilogy in chronological/dialectical order, we encounter the black magician, Theron Ware, in Volume II and a reference to a commentator on Finnegans Wake called “Fr. Ware” early in Volume III. Either “Fr. Ware” is real or Blish used the same fictitious surname twice. Either way, an unknowing reader might think that Theron Ware had been ordained after the events of The Day After Judgement whereas the writing order alone shows that Blish cannot have meant this.

More importantly, in Black…Judgement, demons defeat Heaven and their fortress of Dis rises to the Earth’s surface. It is therefore an anticlimax for the chronological reader when, near the end of Volume III, Ruiz-Sanchez thinks that:

“…Lithia transformed into a planet-wide fortress of Dis was a threat to Heaven itself.” 2

There is no such threat in this Volume but Ruiz-Sanchez’s heretical over-dramatization is a seed of Volume II. A Case Of Conscience could have been followed by a novel set later in which the Antichrist did appear. Instead, Blish next wrote a novel set earlier in which the Antichrist did not appear although Armageddon occurred.

Armageddon, anticipated in Volumes I and III, occurs, although with an unexpected outcome, demonic victory, at the end of IIa. IIb presents an unexpected, but logical, consequence of that outcome: Satan becomes God but unwillingly.

The ending of Black Easter had precluded any further secular events, yet A Case Of Conscience, set later, was regarded as a subsequent volume of the same trilogy. At the end of The Day After Judgement, Satan/God reverses the effects of a nuclear war so that perhaps the events of A Case Of Conscience can occur after all but this is not necessary for the unity of the trilogy.

What is clear is that the occurrence of Armageddon and the examination of its consequences make Black…Judgement the dramatic fulfillment of anticipations in both of the previously written volumes. Volume IIb reads like the culmination of a long literary sequence but is also a turning point: Satan, who fell at the beginning of Paradise Lost, in a prequel to Genesis, anticipates his far future transference of Godhood to man.

In the literary sequence from the Bible through Dante and Milton to Black…Judgement, the literary form has changed from scripture to epic to novel. At the end of The Day After Judgement, the text shifts from standard prose to indented paragraphs to Miltonic verse to dramatic dialogue, thus expressing ontological changes. The characters and their context have been transformed. A film director might show this by shifting from monochrome to color or from animation to live action. Blish progresses through the literary forms: prose, verse and drama.

Parallels and Influences

Black Easter belongs at the end when comparing Blish with his predecessor, C. S. Lewis. Lewis’s Ransom trilogy is a Christian reply to Wellsian-Stapledonian sf. Blish, a Wellsian sf writer and agnostic, refers to and quotes from Lewis in After Such Knowledge. I suggest that Blish’s Welcome to Mars and After Such Knowledge Volumes III and IIa constitute apost-Lewis” trilogy. Ransom visits Mars and a sinless planet, then demons manifest on Earth. In Blish’s works, Haertel visits Mars, his successors visit a sinless planet and demons manifest on Earth. 

Whereas Volumes II and III of After Such Knowledge are post-Lewis, Volumes I and II are post-Eddison. E. R. Eddison’s fantasy novel, The Worm Ouroboros, inspired Blish to write a novel about ceremonial magic. Mistakenly believing that Roger Bacon was a magician, Blish researched Bacon, learned that he was a scientist mistaken for a magician, wrote Doctor Mirabilis about him, then returned to magic in Black Easter. This common origin, although illuminating, is neither evident in the texts nor sufficient to link the novels directly to each other.
A Case Of Conscience originated separately. What became Book One of the novel was commissioned for a collection of stories set on a fictitious planet designed by two scientists. However, I agree with Blish that a common theme does link the three volumes.

A Trilogy?

The volumes are connected by:

a chronological sequence (past, present and future) culminating in Volume III;
a dialectical process (thesis, antithesis and synthesis) culminating in Volume III;
a dramatic progression (fears, prophecies and their fulfillment) culminating in Volume II;
a two-volume Eddison influence (demons, magicians and conjurations) culminating in Volume II;
a two-volume Lewis parallel (quotations, references and common themes) culminating in Volume II.

Thus, Volume II emerges as a focal point. But would we have called the three volumes a trilogy if Blish had not? 

We would at least have recognized common references to Bacon, Catholicism, Popes, supernatural evil, Antichrist, Armageddon and science. Each novel begins by assaulting the senses (a freezing stone corridor, a slammed stone door, a stink of demons), presents interactions between practicing scientists and supernaturalists and ends with transformations (deaths and realizations). Bacon is a scientist-monk mistaken for a magician. Ruiz-Sanchez is a scientist-priest who initially forgets that the office of exorcist remains open to him. In Black…Judgement, the black magician, the monk-magician and the scientist are different characters.

Even genre diversity connects the volumes. Fantasy and sf transcend existing experience. Historical fiction and futuristic sf present other periods. Blish wrote:

“…the historical novel is a natural second medium for the ‘hard’ SF writer.” 3

The Bacon of Doctor Mirabilis is a forerunner of modern science struggling against medievalism. Volume III describes a culmination of science: interstellar travel. Its aggressively atheist scientist character, Cleaver, regards Christianity as medieval and strives to thwart Ruiz-Sanchez. Thus, these two works might have been seen as a diptych. The Armaggedon and Dis references and Lewis parallels are enough to link Volumes II and III.

Because the trilogy was not preconceived, Blish was unable, for example, to incorporate into Bacon’s apocalyptic vision, in Volume I, prophetic images of the Lithian explosion (Vol. III), the Black Easter conjuration (Vol. IIa) or the SAC attack on Dis in Death Valley (Vol. IIb). However, this would have been inappropriate in any case. The historical Bacon did anticipate flying machines and submarines so it is legitimate for a novelist to present him visualizing them. However, Doctor Mirabilis is otherwise a straightforward historical novel which would arguably be marred by intrusions from a fantastic present or a technological future. Later volumes refer to Bacon but he cannot refer to them.

Knowledge As Evil

Blish tells us that, as its title suggests, After Such Knowledge dramatizes the question whether the desire for secular knowledge is evil. Each volume does address this question, thus validating the thematic unity of the trilogy whatever its reading order.

Volume 1:

Bacon’s inner voice claims:

I am the raven of Elias," 4

a source of food in the desert (1 Kings 17.6) but Bacon rejects this claim as “blasphemous and untrue." 6 Since Elias’ raven was from God, the claim may be blasphemous. Food in the desert, wealth where there was poverty, would be good unless it were gained at the expense of a greater evil: exploitation or pollution – or blasphemy or untruth.

The voice continues:

Thou art the man shalt bring back into the world the scientia universalis.” 4

To medieval Christians, all discovery was rediscovery because:

“…God revealed all wisdom to his holy patriarchs and prophets from the beginning of the world…” 5

Bacon (fore)sees Antichrist leading an army, sees aircraft, submarines and subterrenes and hears an anagrammic formula for gunpowder. If science did only destroy, then it would be evil. But it doesn’t. Aircraft are not used only in warfare. Armies preexisted Bacon’s conceptual revolution. Wealth, once produced, was fought for as Doctor Mirabilis, opening with the seizure of the Bacon estate, reminds us.

“…men began to abuse science, turning to evil what God granted in full measure for the safety and advantage of man…” 6

Later, Bacon challenges authority with the scientia experimentalis, knowledge from experience. Although this science is not prima facie evil, it was safer to practice it secretly in Latin Christendom. Even a Pope who does not want to offend the powerful religious Orders must ask Bacon to send his major work “in secret." 7 Bacon attributes experimental science not only to God and Socrates but also to his own “…imprisoned demon self." 8 Thus, he champions science but remains ambivalent about his role in it.

Bacon’s legend requires a “…deathbed renunciation of his whole life and purpose…” 9 In Doctor Mirabilis, he says:

“ ‘Now bitterly do I regret, that I spent mine wholle lyf in the lists against the ignorant. Enough! Lord Christ, enough!’ ” 10

Ketterer comments:

“…because this renunciation is not prepared for and is quickly passed over, it is highly likely that the reader will not even notice it…There is, then, little doubt that Roger’s act of renunciation is not endorsed by Blish.” 11

I did notice Bacon’s powerful statement but did not recognize it as a renunciation. I thought that he regretted that he had had to oppose the ignorant. Thus, he would have preferred a life in which there were no “ignorant” authorities for him to oppose, not a life in which he himself avoided the conflict. While writing this article, I quoted Bacon’s “last words” to someone who did recognize them as a renunciation so perhaps I have been alone in misunderstanding them.

Of the two men present at Bacon’s death, one says:

“ ‘…he was so perverse…forever at hares and hounds after matters men are forbidden to know.’ ” 12

The other replies:

“ ‘…there can be nothing that is forbidden for man to know since we ate of that Apple; for it states in the Proverbs that knowledge is good and beautiful for its own sake.’ ” 13

This conclusion remains ambiguous. Knowledge is inherently good in Proverbs but eating its fruit was sinful in Genesis.

Bacon knows Simon de Montfort and hears of “Robin of Sherwood”. We inherit experimental science, parliamentary democracy and popular resistance. Ketterer thinks that Blish imparts insufficient historical information, e.g., about why the French were then so influential. I suggest that readers may either consult reference works or accept that historical fictions have wider contexts and that what matters here are the effects of contemporary conflicts on Bacon.

Volume III:

Ruiz-Sanchez’s scientific discoveries on Lithia seem to him to contradict Catholicism. If the Lithians are apparently good without divine help, then they are really created by Satan to mislead mankind even though Catholics deny that Satan can create. Pope Hadrian VIII helps Ruiz to resolve this conflict by regarding the Lithians as a demonically-induced hallucination but how plausible is that? If Satan does not, we think, induce planet-wide hallucinations on Earth, why should he be able to do so fifty light years away? But, in any case, mere contradiction of Catholicism would not make the desire for secular knowledge evil.

An atheist defeats Ruiz by influencing UN policy on Lithia. A lapsed Catholic inspires awe in Ruiz by communicating instantaneously with Lithia. Thus, secular scientists dominate Ruiz’s period for both good and evil, communication and destruction.

Volume II:

Ware and his client, Baines, an arms merchant, seek knowledge that can be gained only by causing immense suffering. The scientific equivalent of “let’s see what the demons ‘…would do if they were left on their own hooks…’ ” would be “let’s see what this chemical weapon does to an entire population." 14 The desire for such knowledge would be evil. If, at the end of The Day After Judgement, the last magicians do begin to move away from their destructive motivations, then I think that they will have to deal with a great deal of guilt. Lewis’ morality, if not his theology, remains relevant.

(Incidentally, surely it was predictable that unrestrained demons + nuclear stockpiles = nuclear war. When Ware releases forty eight major demons all night without restraint, he is confident that this will not unleash Armageddon because there is no Antichrist. He is also confident that the demons will harm no one inside his magic circle because he is a skilled magician. However, neither he nor Baines would have wanted to emerge into a nuclear wasteland. “Deterrence” should have prevented the Last Conjuration as it had, until then, prevented World War III. Self-interest, if not morality, would have prevented Ware’s “experiment”.)
After writing two and a half volumes, Blish recognized the common theme and named the trilogy accordingly.

The Volumes resemble not three panels of sequential art but three paintings with a common theme, the middle painting, a sequential diptych, hanging slightly above the others.
Possible covers: I, Antichrist’s giant army; IIa, the crowned and immensely horned Goat, seated on an altar; IIb, Satan cut off at the breast by the floor of the great hall in Pandemonium; III, a twelve foot Lithian. In each picture, the main figure(s) dwarf human characters in the foreground.

Other Volumes?

An expanded After Such Knowledge sequence could incorporate other works by Blish.
Doctor Mirabilis was to have been the first in a series of historical novels about important scientists and crucial ideas in the history of science. Blish had started the second novel, “…set in the Venetian Republic during the Borgia pontificate…”, focusing on “…the invention of the security system for technical information”. 15 Here, not religious authority but political control threatens scientific knowledge.

The adverse effect of “security” on science is central to Blish’s They Shall Have Stars:
“…scientific method…depends on freedom of information, and we deliberately killed that.” 16

It also occurs in Black Easter when Baines asks Ware to arrange the death of a scientist who might otherwise make discoveries that Baines’ company wants, temporarily, to monpolize.
Blish’s Fallen Star is sf if Elvers’ claim to be a Martian is genuine but mainstream if he is psychotic. As Volumes I and III of After Such Knowledge remain ambiguous about the supernatural, Fallen Star remains ambiguous about the extraterrestrial. 17

Elvers destroys scientific evidence of extraterrestrial life because, he says, it includes forensic evidence of Martian genocide. They destroyed an inhabited planet. Elvers’ action suggests an inversion of the T. S. Eliot quotation:

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” 18

from which Blish named his trilogy. Elvers does not seek knowledge that may be evil but suppresses knowledge of an evil act. He thinks that, after knowledge of this crime, there will be no forgiveness. Like a terrestrial dictator, he suppresses knowledge of an atrocity. The next step for dictatorships is to control what counts as knowledge and therefore to suppress the search for knowledge in any objective sense. Genuine science and scholarship become unforgivable offenses. Elvers, killing explorers and destroying evidence, personifies the worst aspects of medievalism and dictatorship.

Fallen Star and The Night Shapes are an “Expeditions” diptych with Arctic and African antitheses. The Polar explorer of Fallen Star had previously sought the African “night-shapes," not knowing that these surviving dinosaurs had been wiped out fifty years earlier in the other novel. The hero of The Night Shapes, an American alienated from Western civilization, identifies the real night-shapes as the ideas of evil inside us but does not go as far as to identify secular knowledge with evil. 19


Ketterer argues:

“From a strictly human point of view, the major events which take place in Black Easter’s fourth-dimensional rendition of our world do not, strictly speaking, happen…To a three-dimensional perception Earth has not been destroyed. None of the major events described are part of recorded human history. They amount to some kind of Blakean vision of what is really going on behind the scenes…The preponderance of internal settings and the complementary, almost allegorical characterization accentuates the feel of a stage set for inner vision; the outside setting with which The Day After Judgment concludes marks a return to everyday reality…there are no references to the general public.” 20

I suspect that when Satan=God starts Man on a new path by undoing the effects of nuclear war, he also revises the memories of everyone except the main protagonists. Thus, the war did occur but will not be recorded. Allegorical characterization could be an extra level overlying the novel’s literal level.

Ketterer backs up his dimensional metaphor by arguing that Black Easter emphasizes threes whereas:

The Day After Judgment ends with four statements indicative of improvement…a threefold vision has been transformed into a fourfold vision…” 21

and the concluding “…four literary modes…might somehow approximate a completed fourfold vision.” 21

The diptych does end with a fourfold vision (Domenico’s thought, Baines’ belief, Ware’s hope, Ginsberg’s love) but the evidence offered for an earlier threefold vision is more diffuse (the three word phrase, “God is dead," the “Three Sleeps” Station, three-headed demons, World War III). 21 I think that the four literary modes express changes in reality although they could, of course, have more than one meaning.

Volume II (antithesis), unlike I (thesis) and III (synthesis), presents not only believers in demons but also literal demons. It deals:

“…with what real sorcery actually had to be like if it existed…” 22

Baines wants to know what the major demons would do if they were “‘…loose in the world…’” and Blish’s “…aim in the sequel was to pursue the literal-mindedness of the first book to still greater absurdities.” 14, 23

Ketterer quotes the scientist, Hess:

“‘Couldn’t all this be a hallucination…?’” 

But Hess is swallowed by the Goat. 24, 25 Before that, Baines had reminded him:

“‘…you and I have seen a demon.’” 26

Baines affirms the reality of the Black Easter event whether caused by demons or electrons but his remaining skepticism about demons flounders when Hess is swallowed.

If, at the end, Domenico alone had emerged from a trance, then we could have located Armageddon in his inner landscape. However, demons interact, sometimes fatally, with people who did not previously believe in them: a succubus visits Ginsberg; airmen photograph Dis; demons slaughter soldiers; General McKnight sees the Goat on TV.

Ketterer observes that the world population, the magicians, the military and the demons successively experience defeat, thus acknowledging that the events do occur for the general public. He points out that it is hypothesized that perhaps in some sense Dis had never been in Death Valley. But perhaps, in some other sense, it had, as the SAC computer concluded.
Televised pictures of devastation looked:

“…like scenes from an early surrealist film, where one could not tell whether the director was trying to portray a story or only a state of mind.” 27

but they were televised pictures of the results of a war. Later, can the SAC attack on Dis be “behind the scenes”?

Brian Stableford writes: 

“…demons are released from the mind of the characters…this is difficult to take. Demons in the mind are much more credible than demons at large.” 28

I agree that demons are “at large” but find this acceptable in fiction. They are released not from the mind but from Hell where, in Christian belief and Blish’s fiction, they preexisted human minds.

There may be some textual evidence that the demons are not really at large. When Domenico wondered why an angel conjured by the white magicians appeared headless:
“The leaden skies returned him no answer.” 29

And when Hess suggests that they are all insane, he does so “…in a leaden monotone.” 30
Does Hess’ leaden monotone confirm that Domenico’s leaden skies are part of a collective hallucination? The word “leaden” seems significant. Blish would have known that he used it twice and that, by doing so, he linked an inner state, insanity, to an outer appearance, an unanswering sky. However, the Goat’s swallowing of the hysterically incredulous Hess seems even more significant, a decisive statement that demons are real.

Ketterer calls McKnight’s identification of the Goat with “‘…the insidious Doctor Fu Manchu!’” “corny”; Stableford calls it flippant. 31, 32, 28 McKnight needs to identify an enemy, can think only in terms of national or racial stereotypes, has watched all his weapons fail and now sees an “immense Face” on a Cinerama-sized screen so he loses his grip on reality and retreats into fiction. 33

Others also apply old concepts to new experiences: Domenico sees a demon Pope as the Antichrist, not as the new divine appointee; Ginsberg lives on “company time” after Armageddon; Hess denies his senses.34

Blish on Knowledge

Although Blish addressed the question whether the desire for secular knowledge is evil, there is no doubt about his answer to it, as expressed through other characters.
In another work, an alien says:

“This organism dies now. It dies in confidence of knowledge, as an intelligent creature dies. Man has taught us this. There is nothing. That knowledge. Cannot do. With it…men…have crossed…have crossed space…” 35

Blish’s major character, Amalfi, says:

“That’s the priceless coin, gentlemen, the universal coin: human knowledge.” 36

When the universe ends, a scientist pronounces the:

“…epitaph for Man: We did not have time to learn everything that we wanted to know.” 37

And that is a fitting epitaph for James Blish.


  David Ketterer’s book provides a framework for discussing Blish’s works. I am grateful to Ketterer for both writing the book and sending me a copy and am sorry that my response is so late and slight.

1. David Ketterer, Imprisoned in a Tesseract: the Life and Work of James Blish (Kent, Ohio: the Kent State University Press, 1987), pp. 318-319.
2. James Blish, A Case Of Conscience (New York: Ballantine Books, 1958; Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1963), p. 180.
3. James Blish, “The Strange Career of Doctor Mirabilis” (Australian SF Review, no. 6, January 1967), quoted in Ketterer, op. cit., p. 195.
4. James Blish, Doctor Mirabilis (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971), p. 157.
5. ibid, p. 155.
6. ibid, p. 156.
7. ibid, p. 255.
8. ibid, p. 254.
9. James Blish, letter to Lois Dwight Cole, quoted in Ketterer, op. cit., p. 214.
10. Blish, DoctorMirabilis, p. 330.
11. Ketterer, op. cit., p. 214.
12. Blish, Doctor Mirabilis, p. 329.
13. ibid, pp. 329-330.
14. James Blish, Black Easter (New York: Doubleday, 1968), reprinted in Black Easter and The Day After Judgement (London: Arrow Books Ltd, 1981), p. 73.
15. James Blish, letter to Philip K. Dick, 13 June 1964, quoted in Ketterer, op. cit., pp. 192, 349.
16. James Blish, They Shall Have Stars (New York: Avon, 1957; London: Faber & Faber, 1956), reprinted in James Blish, Cities in Flight (London: Arrow Books Ltd, 1974), pp. 7-129, at p. 14.
17. James Blish, Fallen Star (Signet/New American Library, 1977; London: Faber & Faber, 1957).
18. T. S. Eliot, “Gerontion”, www.bartleby.com.
19. James Blish, The Night Shapes (Ballantine Books, 1962; London: The New English Library, 1963).
20. Ketterer, op. cit., p. 312.
21. ibid, p. 313.
22. Blish, Black Easter, p. 11.
23. James Blish, letter to Paul Shackley, quoted in Ketterer, op. cit., p. 303.
24. Blish, Black Easter, p. 107, quoted in Ketterer, op. cit., p. 312.
25. ibid, p. 111.
26. ibid, p. 106.
27. Blish, The Day After Judgement, p. 131.
28. Brian Stableford, “The Science Fiction of James Blish” (Foundation 13, 1971), p. 41.
29. Blish, Black Easter, p. 86.
30. ibid, p. 107.
31. Blish, The Day After Judgement, p. 192.
32. Ketterer, op. cit., p. 306.
33. Blish, The Day After Judgement, pp. 191, 185.
34. ibid, pp. 125, 182.
35. Blish, The Seedling Stars (Gnome Press, 1957; London: Arrow Books Ltd, 1972), p. 180.
36. James Blish, Earthman, Come Home (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1955), reprinted in Cities in Flight, pp. 235-465, at p. 376.
37. Blish, The Triumph of Time (New York: Avon, 1958), reprinted in Cities in Flight, pp. 466-596, at p. 596.

Email address: paulshackley@gmail.com

James Blish and Norman L Knight: Benevolent Fascism?

The Corporate State

In the future society of A Torrent Of Faces by James Blish and Norman L. Knight, most members of the large world population do not work, own shares or vote. They exercise neither economic nor political power, yet the Corporations maintain them in comfort instead of consigning them to poverty or extinction. Blish and Knight thought that such a social system “…might be workable…even inevitable, in a high-energy economy…” 1 If it were known that mass poverty or extinction would cause social conflict and collapse, then world rulers might prefer population-preserving welfare to population-reducing warfare.


That the future society retains a state, in the sense of a body of armed men differentiated from civil society, is shown by the intervention of uniformed Precinct Guards to protect a Triton, a member of a new amphibious human species, from a prejudiced mob.

Money and coins are mentioned because the unemployed receive a dole and even find a way to gamble illegally for small numbers of Corporate shares. However, the Corporations do not compete for profits but co-operate on a plan. A cut by World Resources Corporation in the basic food ration requires a vote by chairs of Corporations (Communications, World Resources, Submarine Products, Transportation) and chiefs of Boards (Disaster Plans, Genetics).

The ration is distributed, even to the planners, through a card system with extra credits for those whose metabolisms need more than the minimum daily requirement. Money does not seem to be necessary for this transaction. The apartments of UNOC (Union of Occupied Classes) members are no larger or better equipped than those of the unemployed. Thus, a UNOC member has higher income and status than a dole-recipient but no greater access to basic (very high standard) accomodation, nutrition or entertainment.

Orwell’s 1984 dystopia presupposes that totalitarians had tirelessly co-operated while all their opponents (democrats, liberals, progressives etc) had become implausibly impotent. The A Torrent of Faces utopia presupposes an implausible fusion between private corporations and social administration. In the current world economy, corporate profits are paramount and social funding is cut or rationalised accordingly. Powerful vested interests resist any threat to profit accumulation. I believe that these interests can be overthrown but not that they are capable of merging peacefully into a planned utopia.

Marxists envisage collectively controlled productive processes enabling all individuals to live fully and develop freely by sharing equally in social wealth. (See here.) Thus, they do not agree that:
“In any conceivable society…somebody has to be on the bottom.”2

  - although they do recognise that most people usually assume that the norms of their own society are universally applicable.

Some sf works imply that further stage of social organisation and inclusion: Brain Wave and The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson and Blish’s unfinished “The Breath of Brahma."3
Torrent shows the human and social waste of unemployment. When the chief of the Disaster Plans Board “goes Under," becomes unemployed, he accesses a social network that leads him to an unrecognized innovator:

“He knew that many of the unemployed were creative in one way or another, and that some even dabbled in the sciences…But this [a new food production process]…was, in fact, of far greater potential importance than even a real interstellar drive could possibly have been.” 4

But the ex-chief’s former professional contacts are necessary to bring the new process to the attention of the chairman of the World Resources Corporation - effectively the world president although there is officially no such post because UNOC is a headless oligarchy acting through an unchaired committee.

The ex-chief, who already knows that:

“…huge percentages of the unemployed were anything but mindless…” 5

soon learns that, far from merely eating and watching television, the unemployed have somehow developed sophisticated, technological, interactive entertainment systems. They are clearly capable of participating in the running of the world. The contradictory process of planning for all their needs while excluding them from decision-making would surely cause conflicts that are not evident in the novel. In fact, participation in decision-making is a need.


In Robert Heinlein’s Future History:

“…the Voorhis financial proposals gave a temporary economic stability…” 6

but Blish and Knight tell us in their Preface that Jerry Voorhis’ “eminently sensible” economic system has “never been tried." 1 Thus, while presenting an alternative future history to Heinlein’s, they continue his debate on socioeconomic systems.


When re-reading A Torrent of Faces, I noticed that it is similar to, although better than, the earlier The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. Both novels describe an overpopulated, urbanized Earth but Torrent is more detailed and better researched. It might be regarded as an “improvement," especially since Blish and Knight knew that they had to compete with The Caves of Steel. However, Blish thought that The Caves of Steel existed because an editor had leaked the idea of Torrent to Asimov.7

The Naked Sun by Asimov is both a sequel and an antithesis to The Caves of Steel. It describes an underpopulated, roboticized extrasolar colony. Thus, its “Solarians” are not regulated urban citizens but robotically served rural aristocrats, like John Byrne’s later Kryptonians.8 Thus, there is a possible line of influence from Blish and Knight to Asimov, then from Asimov to Byrne, but, in any case, Blish was a more imaginative sf writer than Asimov as shown by comparing their future histories. (See here and here.)

  1. James Blish and Norman L. Knight, A Torrent Of Faces (London: Arrrow Books, 1978), p. vi.
  2. ibid, p. 224.
  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), pp.243-248.
  4. Blish and Knight, op. cit., pp. 233-234.
  5. ibid, p. 223.
  6. Robert Heinlein, The Man Who Sold The Moon (London: Pan Books, 1963), p. 7.
  7. Ketterer, op. cit., p. 75.
  8. John Byrne, The Man Of Steel (New York: DC Comics Inc, 1986), No. 1.

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.