Saturday, January 21, 2006

In Which I Pick On James Blish

I'm now semi-officially admitting that I don't have time to do an original post on Saturdays, and I'm not online enough on Saturdays to reliably do a "respond to something going on" post. So, if I want to post once a day (and I do), it will have to continue to be old RASFW posts, lightly spruced up and shoved back out into the world. I hope no one will mind.

This attempt to slander the name of an author whose boots I am not fit to...etc., etc. was originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 5/13/01:

Honestly, I don't think there's anyone younger than forty or so who's first knowledge of Blish isn't the Trek story-izations (well, they weren't novels, were they?). I'm sure there are a few people who wandered into A Case of Conscience by accident (or just working their way through the SF section from Asimov), but I'd imagine that they're pretty rare.

I also have to admit that I found Cities In Flight (which I read for the first time last year) a tremendous slog. The first novel (sorry, I've resolutely blanked all the names out of my head) was horrible -- not only was it a future we can't get to anymore, it was a future no one would ever have wanted to get to in the first place. The YA novel was fun (except for the fact that our main character gets judicially murdered off-screen in a later book), but the last two were more dreary nastiness. I wasn't convinced in the slightest by the economics (giant, high-tech traveling space-cities are the equivalent of indigent hobos? they're doing manual labor, roughly speaking?) or politics (New York has had some pretty autocratic mayors in its history, but that guy took the cake) or characterization. And the whole "well, it took ten billion years for the universe to expand to this size, but it's just started collapsing, so it'll all be dead by next Tuesday" was laughable. Only the fact that it was a "Classic" and that I was considering it for the club got me through it in the first place; it would take a CIA-trained torturer to make me dive in again.

While I'm attacking the dead, I'll also say I found Case of Conscience relentlessly talky (though, I suppose, it had to be) but had a genuinely unique and startling SFnal idea at its core. The people also seemed like human beings (sexless, '40s-tough-guy-talking caricatures, but roughly identifiable as human, which I can't say for most of the people in Cities).

So I was actually surprised at how much I liked The Issue at Hand: Blish's fiction hadn't thrilled me, and he was mostly talking about stories I didn't immediately recognize. But it's still an excellent book of SF criticism, and the lessons are just as applicable to today's SF. (Though I wish he'd taken his own words about scientific accuracy to heart with the later "Okie" stories, where I think his cosmology and economics both stink up the joint.)

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