Editor, Edward L. Ferman; Assistant Editor, Andrew Porter
Midsummer Century • novella by James Blish ♥♥♥
The Anthropiranhas • short story by Joseph Renard
The Recording • short story by Gene Wolfe ♥
No Other Gods • short story by Edward Wellen ♥
No Vacancy • short story by Jesse Bier ♥
Cover • Judith Blish
James Blish: Profile • essay by Robert A. W. Lowndes
The Hand at Issue • essay by Lester del Rey
James Blish: Bibliography • by Mark Owings
Coming Next Month
Cartoon • by Gahan Wilson
Films: Kubrick’s Earth Odyssey • by Baird Searles
Books • by James Blish
Moon Over Babylon • science essay by Isaac Asimov
Key to Cover
This issue is another of the F&SF Special Issues that celebrate the work of one writer, in this case James Blish. The Cover is by Judith Blish, his wife.1 A Key to Cover is provided inside the magazine so, if you think you are an expert on Blish’s work, have a go at identifying the various elements and then check below. (Not only do I provide a review this time around, but a quiz too!)2
The feature story is a long novella by Blish called Midsummer Century.3 I rated this quite highly when I read it in my youth, and I was curious as to it would hold up.4
The story starts with an atypical passage, for SF, describing the class and politics of Martels, the young astronomer who is the protagonist of the story:
Martels, unmarried and 30, was both a statistic and a beneficiary of what his British compatriots were bitterly calling the brain-drain, the luring of the best English minds to the United States by higher pay, lower taxes, and the apparent absence of any class system whatsoever. And he had found no reason to regret it, let alone feel guilty about it. Both his parents were dead, and as far as he was concerned, he owed the United Kingdom nothing any more.
Of course, the advantages of living in the States were not quite so unclouded as they had been presented to him, but he had never expected anything else. Take the apparent absence of a class system, for instance: All the world knew that the blacks, the Spanish-Americans, and the poor in general were discriminated against ferociously in the States and that political opposition of any kind to the Establishment was becoming increasingly dangerous. But what counted as far as he was concerned was that it was not the same sort of class system.
Born of a working-class family in the indescribably ugly city of Doncaster, Martels had been cursed from the outset with a working-class Midlands dialect which excluded him from the “right” British circles as permanently and irrevocably as if he had been a smuggled Pakistani immigrant. No “public” school had been financially available to his parents to help him correct the horrible sound of his own voice, nor to give him the classical languages which in his youth had still been necessary for entry into Oxford or Cambridge.
Instead, he had ground, kicked, bitten and otherwise fought his way through one of the new redbrick polytechnics. Though he emerged at the end with the highest possible First in astrophysics, it was with an accent still so atrocious as to deny him admittance to any but the public side—never the lounge or saloon—of any bar in Britain. p. 5-6
After a little more of this, and a brief description of his job in America as a radio astronomer, he falls down the waveguide of a large telescope and finds himself 25,000 years in the future.
Martels does not find immediately find out this information, of course, but initially wakes and sees what appears to be a museum. It then becomes apparent that he is in a receptacle that contains an intelligence called Qvant. He watches a primitive human come into the museum and question Qvant about a problem his people are having. Martels speaks up during this transaction: the native flees and in a subsequent conversation Qvant tells Martels where and when he is before attempting to eject him and failing:
“It appears that I cannot be rid of you yet,” Qvant said. The tone of his amplified voice seemed to hover somewhere between icy fury and equally icy amusement. “Very well, we shall hold converse, you and I. It will be a change from being an oracle to tribesmen. But sooner or later, Martels-from-the-past, sooner or later I shall catch you out—and then you will come to know the greatest thing that I do not know: What the afterlife is like. Sooner or later, Martels . . . sooner or later . . .”
Just in time, Martels realized that the repetitions were the hypnotic prelude to a new attack. Digging into whatever it had been that he had saved himself with before, that unknown substrate of the part of this joint mind that belonged to him alone, he said with equal iciness:
“Perhaps. You have a lot to teach me, if you will, and I’ll listen. And maybe I can teach you something, too. But I think I can also make you extremely uncomfortable, Qvant; you’ve just shown me two different ways to go about that. So perhaps you had better mind your manners, and bear in mind that however the tribesmen see you, you’re a long way from being a god to me.”
For answer, Qvant simply prevented Martels from saying another word. Slowly, the sun set, and the shapes in the hall squatted down into a darkness against which Martels was not even allowed to close his unowned eyes. pp. 12-13
The story subsequently charts the game of cat and mouse between the pair as Martels tries to learn more about this world. Every time he thinks he is getting nearer to forming a plan that will help him get back to his own time Qvant will fall silent for months. Nonetheless, Martels eventually discovers a number of things: that Qvant is a brain in a box, and that the natives can communicate with their dead ancestors; he also learns that the ‘Birds’ are a threat to humanity and will wipe out what is left of the human race in the near future.
When Qvant appears to be sleeping another native appears, and Martels speaks and urges him to get his tribe to make alliances with the others against the Birds. The native, thinking he is being mocked, leaves. Qvant has meantime awoken and laughs: he had previously told Martels of the futility of this course of action.
In the middle and final sections Martels manages to escape by taking possession of one of the natives’ bodies and heads south through the Birds’ territory to what was Antarctica, home of Terminus and the survivors of Rebirth 3.
As you can gather from the above, this story has something of a Van Vogtian feel to it (the far future setting, the sudden changes of direction, the hand-waving explanations of sentience, etc.) and I wondered if this was a conscious decision by Blish. What sets him apart from Van Vogt is that the narrative is easier to follow, and Blish’s writing and vocabulary is superior. He also takes the time to do a number of quarter or half page digressions on various matters that he wants to discuss or describe (the social and political observation referred to above, the mechanism of telepathy and Rhine’s experiments, etc., etc.).
As it turned out, I didn’t rate this as highly as I did when I originally read it but found it an entertaining read for all that. But probably one not to take too seriously.
There is the usual selection of Special Issue non-fiction. James Blish: Profile by Robert A. W. Lowndes is an interesting profile of Blish that is studded with quotable parts:
I’ll never forget the subject of our conversation around a table at the old Dragon Inn on West 4th Street, Manhattan, that evening. Here we were, a group of science fiction editors, writers, and fans, welcoming a fellow enthusiast on leave from the army, and what were we talking about? Science fiction? Fantasy? The shape of the postwar world with its science fiction aspects? No; what Jim wanted to talk about was FINNEGANS WAKE.
Don Wollheim’s argument was that Joyce’s final work was little more than an elaborate puzzle for the elite literateur. I hadn’t read it, so I just listened. Jim’s argument was that if you applied yourself to it, the story came to a great deal more than a melange of puns and esoteric references. And right there, although I did not realize it at the time, I had been given one of the keys to this multitalented, charming, and irascible personality I would get to know, respect, and love in later years: any work of literature, or any other art worth paying attention to, makes demands upon the reader, listener, or viewer. p. 66
Jim had not started with the old Gernsback publications, like most of the rest of us, back then, and only read some of the stories from them much later. I was astonished to learn, upon suggesting to him that his CITIES IN FLIGHT series owed something to Edmond Hamilton’s old Air Wonder Stories serial, CITIES IN THE AIR (1929), that not only had he never read the story—he’d never even seen the magazines with Frank R. Paul’s fascinating drawings of the flying cities. p. 68
His own writing has always tended toward the intellectual, but when emotion and feeling are called for, you will find it there in the story in proper proportion. Even sentiment may appear at times, but always controlled. One of my favorite story endings appeared in the magazine version of the novelet he did with Norman L. Knight, “The Shipwrecked Hotel” (part of the novel, A TORRENT OF FACES). “And they lived happily ever after, but it wasn’t easy.” You won’t find it in the book version; it just doesn’t belong as the final sentence of a connected episode. p. 70
The second of the Advent books [More Issues at Hand, a book of criticism] shows a slight mellowing of the waspish qualities; he says in his foreword: “While I still believe that it is desirable to be merciless to a bad story, I am no longer quite so sure that the commission of one represents flaws in the author’s character or horrid secrets in his ancestry.” p. 71
It is an essay that is definitely worth reading.
There is one final quote of note:
At 50, with developed interest, and recognition, in numerous fields (he’s still working on a book relating to music “ the hard way” ), we may not see quite so much more science fiction from Jim as we have in the past. p. 71
Unfortunately, Lowndes was correct, but not in the way he expected: Blish would die four years later of cancer, age 54.
The Hand at Issue by Lester del Rey is an OK, if rather dry, appreciation that finishes with del Rey stating ‘he hasn’t, in my opinion, gone above the general average he maintained between 1950 and 1960’! He does caveat this by asking ‘has the last decade only been an incubation period for even higher levels?’ but it is odd to read this in what I presume is meant to be a celebratory overview.
There is also James Blish: Bibliography by Mark Owings. As I’ve said before, in the days before ISFDB and the like these bibliographies were like gold dust.
As well as the normal Special Issue non-fiction, Blish also contributes the review column, Books. He is a great critic and as he covers the books there are lots of illuminating snippets. In his comments about Gardens One to Five by Peter Tate I learnt something about surrealism:
Thus summarized, the story does sound like an authentic dream, and thus to fall properly within the surrealistic canon, which as originally defined was the artistic representation of materials from the unconscious mind. p. 103
And this about the serial versus book version of Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny:
All but the veriest newcomers to F&SF will recall Zelazny’s JACK OF SHADOWS, which began here in July 1971 as a two-part serial—though this fact is unacknowledged in the Walker book. The book version does not contain any new material of consequence . . . p.103
And there is this resonating comment about Fun with Your New Head by Thomas M. Disch:
. . . the high polish of the writing itself—is not only welcome but essential, for the one thing all the pieces do have in common is that they are all determinedly downbeat, as most New Wave material seems to be. I haven’t the power (nor even the wish) to prescribe Tom Disch’s world-view for him, but I found sharing it all in one gulp a depressing experience. I recommend these stories for both originality and craftsmanship, but I do caution you to read only a few of them at a sitting. p. 104
The rest of the short fiction is a motley collection. The Anthropiranhas by Joseph Renard is a ludicrous story about small men appearing in tap water and eating people alive (they are a mixture of piranha and human, if I recall correctly). An alcoholic flea-circus trainer manages to organise some of them for an act as the world goes through a crisis. This all grinds to a halt with a lame punchline. Awful.
The Recording by Gene Wolfe Story is about a young boy whose uncle has promised to buy him a record (wax cylinder type) to play on the family phonograph. As they go into town to buy one the uncle becomes unwell but the boy, rather than getting the doctor, completes the errand and buys the much desired record. By the time he gets back to his uncle he has died. He never has a chance to listen to record but has nightmares of it containing his uncle’s voice.
This reads, for the most part, like an accomplished weird tale, but the mundane ending disappoints those expectations.
No Other Gods by Edward Wellen has a computer at the Galactic Hub destroying the universe, all apart from itself and a human couple on a spaceship. The computer offers to place them in a time loop of their happiest time. The couple start arguing about what that was: a contrived ending to an artificial story.
No Vacancy by Jesse Bier is the longest story in this group (probably a novelette) and is a rambling story about a couple who end up back in the old Wild West after their car breaks down and they go and look for help. They find a town, and before too long (spoiler), they end up in the middle of a gunfight between a man called Lester and Slade, the sheriff-elect. After a certain amount of further gun-play they escape.
The story is framed by the couple’s interrogation in a police station (well, I say couple but all the writer has the wife do is weep and then faint). This section doesn’t progress matters so the whole thing ends up being little more than an extended anecdote.
The other non-fiction includes Films: Kubrick’s Earth Odyssey by Baird Searles, which reviews A Clockwork Orange (he didn’t like it as much as 2001: A Space Odyssey). Coming Next Month mentions special reports on Science Fiction and the University by Thomas Clareson and Philip Klass (William Tenn), as well as associational book reviews and a piece by Isaac Asimov, Academe and I. There is also a Cartoon by Gahan Wilson (these were always hit and miss for me, the latter this time around).
Finally, Moon Over Babylon by Isaac Asimov is an interesting essay that starts with him in a hotel on a Sunday morning talking to a Seventh Day Adventist. It goes from there to the phases of the moon in Babylonian times and the peculiarities of our calendar. In particular, Asimov focuses on the week and specifically how you cannot easily tell what day of the week it is on any given date without reference to a calendar. He also explains why the Sabbath is Saturday for some people and Sunday for others. At the end of his essay Asimov says our current system is nonsensical and he will suggest an alternative in the June issue.
Overall, this issue is worth a look for the material by Blish and Asimov.
- The cover Judith Blish produced for Impulse #1 (as by Judith Ann Lawrence) can be seen here.
- The cover key:
- ISFDB says that the book form of the work is an ‘expansion of the version published in ‘‘Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction’’ in April 1972.’ Meanwhile, the introduction in the magazine says ‘MIDSUMMER CENTURY will be published in hard covers by Doubleday, but not one word has been cut in the version you are about to read.’ p. 5 (and it appears they have reduced the type size to squeeze it all in).
An OCR word count of the magazine vs. book version shows 29,200 vs. 29,300 words.
Also, for what it is worth, there is a missing line halfway down the left hand column on p. 40 of the magazine version: ‘atedly long tubular skirt. Or perhaps’.
- It didn’t diminish your appreciation of Blish’s books when the Arrow editions had covers like this: