James Benjamin Blish (23 May 1921 – 30 July 1975) was an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He is best known for his Cities in Flight novels, and his series of Star Trek novelizations written with his wife, J. A. Lawrence. He is credited with creating the term gas giant to refer to large planetary bodies.
Blish was born on 23 May 1921 at East Orange, New Jersey. While in high school, Blish self-published a fanzine using a hectograph, called The Planeteer. The fanzine ran for six issues. Blish attended meetings of the Futurian Science Fiction Society in New York City during this period.
Futurian members Damon Knight and C.M. Kornbluth became close friends, however, Blish's relationship with other members were often bitter. A personal target was fellow member Judith Merril, whom he would debate politics with. Merril would frequently dismiss Blish's self-description of being a "paper fascist". She wrote in Better to Have Loved (2002), "Of course [Blish] was not fascist, antisemitic, or any of those terrible things, but every time he used the phrase, I saw red."
James Blish's grave marker.
Blish studied microbiology at Rutgers University, graduating in 1942. He was drafted into Army service, and he served briefly as a medical laboratory technician. The United States Army discharged him for refusing orders to clean a grease trap in 1944. Following discharge, Blish entered Columbia University as a masters student of zoology. He did not complete the program, opting to write fiction full-time.
In 1947, he married Virginia Kidd, a fellow Futurian. They divorced in 1963. Blish then married artist J. A. Lawrence in 1968, moving to England that same year.
From 1962 to 1968, Blish worked for the Tobacco Institute, as a writer and critic. Much of his work for the institute went uncredited; subsequently, his work has been characterized as delusional and normalizing of "one of the least healthy habits imaginable".
Blish died on 30 July 1975 from complications related to lung cancer. He was buried in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford. The Bodleian Library at Oxford is the custodian of Blish's papers. The library also has a complete catalog of Blish's published works.
Throughout the 1940s, Blish published most of his stories in the few pulp magazines still in circulation. His first story was sold to fellow Futurian Frederik Pohl for Super Science Stories (1940), called "Emergency Refueling". Other stories were published intermittently, but with little circulation. Blish's "Chaos, Co-Ordinated", co-written with Robert A. W. Lowndes, was sold to Astounding Science Fiction, appearing in the October 1946 issue, earning Blish national circulation for the first time.
Blish was what Andrew Litpack called a "practical writer". He would revisit, revise, and often expand on previously written stories. An example is "Sunken Universe" published in Super Science Stories in 1942. The story reappeared in Galaxy Science Fiction as "Surface Tension", in an altered form in 1952. The premise emphasised Blish's understanding of microbiology, and featured microscopic humans engineered to live on a hostile planet's shallow pools of water. The story proved to be among Blish's more popular, and was anthologized in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964, edited by Robert Silverberg.
The world of microscopic humans continued in "The Thing in the Attic" in 1954, and "Watershed" the following year. The fourth entry, "A Time to Survive", was published by The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1957. The stories were collected, edited together, and released as the fixupThe Seedling Stars (1956) from Gnome Press. John Clute said of all of Blish's "deeply felt work" explored "confronting the Faustian (or Frankensteinian) man".
The stories detail the life of the Okies, humans who migrate throughout space looking for work in vast city-ships, powered by spindizzies, a type of anti-gravity engine. The premise and plot reflected Blish's feelings on the state of western civilization, and his personal politics. The first two stories, "Okie", and "Bindlestiff", were published in 1950, by Astounding. "Sargasso of Lost Cities" appeared in Two Complete Science-Adventure Books in April 1953. "Earthman, Come Home" followed a few months later, published by Astounding. In 1955, Blish collected the four stories together into an omnibus titled Earthman, Come Home, published by Putman.
More stories followed: In 1956, They Shall Have Stars, which edited together "Bridge" and "At Death’s End", and in 1958, Blish released The Triumph of Time. Four years later, he published a new Okies novel, A Life for the Stars. The Okies sequence was edited together and published as Cities In Flight (1970).
Clute notes, "the brilliance of Cities in Flight does not lie in the assemblage of its parts, but in the momentum of the ideas embodied in it (albeit sometimes obscurely)."
Blish continued to rework older stories, and did so for one of his best known works, A Case of Conscience (1958). The novel originated as a novella, originally published in an issue of If, in 1953. The story follows a Jesuit priest, Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, who visits the planet Lithia as a technical member of an expedition. While on the planet they discover a race of bipedal reptilians that have perfected morality in what Ruiz-Sanchez says is "the absence of God", and theological complications ensue. The book is one of the first major works in the genre to explore religion and its implications. It was the first of a series including Doctor Mirabilis (1964) and the two-part story Black Easter (1968), and The Day After Judgment (1971). The latter two were collected as The Devil's Day (1980). An omnibus of all four entries in the series was released by Legend in 1991, titled After Such Knowledge.
A Case of Conscience won the 1959 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and was collected as part of Library of America’s omnibus American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-1958.
Blish was commissioned by Bantam Books to adapt episodes of Star Trek. The adapted short stories were generally based on draft scripts, and contained differing plot elements, and situations present in the aired television episodes.
The stories were collected into twelve volumes, and published as a title series of the same name from 1967 to 1977. The adaptations were largely written by Blish, however, his declining health during this period proved problematic. His wife, J. A. Lawrence, wrote a number of installments, however, her work remained uncredited until the final volume, Star Trek 12 released after Blish's death in 1977.:25
The original novel based on the television series, Spock Must Die! (1970), was also written by Blish, and he planned to release more. According to Lawrence, two episodes featuring popular character Harry Mudd, "I, Mudd" and "Mudd's Women", were held back by Blish for adaptation to be included in the follow-up to Spock Must Die!. However, Blish died before a novel could be completed. Lawrence did eventually adapt the two episodes, as Mudd's Angels (1978), which included an original novella Business, as Usual, During Altercations by Lawrence.
Blish credited his financial stability later in life to the Star Trek commission, and the advance he received for Spock Must Die!.:21
Literary criticism and legacy
Blish was among the first literary critics of science fiction, and he judged works in the genre by the standards applied to "serious" literature. He took to task his fellow authors for deficiencies, such as bad grammar and a misunderstanding of scientific concepts, and the magazine editors, who accepted and published such material without editorial intervention. His critiques were published in "fanzines" in the 1950s under the pseudonym William Atheling Jr.
The essays were collected in The Issue at Hand (1964) and More Issues at Hand (1970). Reviewing The Issue at Hand, Algis Budrys said that Atheling had, along with Damon Knight, "transformed the reviewer's trade in this field". He described the persona of Atheling as "acidulous, assertive, categorical, conscientious and occasionally idiosyncratic".
Blish was a fan of the works of James Branch Cabell, and for a time edited Kalki, the journal of the Cabell Society.
In his works of science fiction, James Blish developed many ideas and terms which have influenced other writers and on occasion have been adopted more widely, such as faster than light communication via the dirac computer, introduced in the short story "Beep" (1954). The dirac is comparable to Ursula K. Le Guin's ansible.
Blish is also credited with coining the term gas giant, in the story "Solar Plexus" as it appeared in the anthology Beyond Human Ken, edited by Judith Merril. The story was originally published in 1941, but did not contain the term. Blish reworked the story, changing the description of a large magnetic field to "a magnetic field of some strength nearby, one that didn't belong to the invisible gas giant revolving half a million miles away".
Blish's work was released by a variety of publishers in the United Kingdom and the United States, often with variations between editions and different titles. Blish also expanded and re-released his older work on several occasions. His work continued to be published after his death.
^Blish, James (27 Sep 2012). "A Case of Conscience". In Wolfe, Gary K. American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58. The Library of America. 228. New York: The Library of America. pp. 373–554. ISBN978-1-59853-159-6.
^ abKetterer, David (1987). Imprisoned in a Tesseract : The Life and Work of James Blish. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press. ISBN978-0-87338-334-9.
^Ayers, Jeff (14 Nov 2006). Voyages of Imagination: The Star Trek Fiction Companion. New York: Pocket Books. pp. 9–11. ISBN1-4165-0349-8.