When I was in high school, a patron of the public library where I worked handed me a couple of books: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverburg, and the two following volumes edited by Ben Bova. The first is a collection of 26 famed science-fiction stories, and in many ways, it’s the entire Golden Age of SF between two covers. I read it cover to cover and ever since since the stories have remained fresh in my mind; among those, James Blish’s popular story, Surface Tension.
Born on May 23rd, 1921 in East Orange, N.J., Blish was at the right age when the science-fiction genre blossomed. Like many future authors, he found himself caught up in the rush of pulp magazines, along with many other youths in the late 1920s. By the age of 14, he had started his own, short-lived fanzine, The Planeteer, which ran for six issues. While still in high school, he began to attend meetings of the famed Futurian Science Fiction Society in New York City.
Organized Fandom was growing, and Blish was at the heart of a movement that would form the next major generation of science-fiction authors. While he formed close friendships with fellow Futurian members Damon Knight and C.M. Kornsbluth, Blish’s relationship with his fellow Futurians was at times troublesome. He often argued with fellow member Judith Merrill over politics: she was a fervent Trotskyite, while he was a self-described “paper fascist”—dismissed by Merrill as “not fascist, anti-Semitic, or any of those terrible things, but every time he used the phrase, I saw red.” Later, when the Futurians decided to kick founding member Donald Wollheim out, he was one of the signatories.
In 1940, Blish sold his first short story, “Emergency Refueling,” to fellow Futurian Frederik Pohl at Super Science Stories magazine. The story appeared in the March 1940 issue and another, “Bequest of an Angel,” appeared soon thereafter in May. While he was starting to break into the writing market, he attended Rutgers University, studying microbiology.
Shortly after he graduated from college, the United States Army drafted him for service as World War II ramped up. He served as a medical laboratory technician until they discharged him for refusing orders. Following his departure from the military, he entered Columbia University, where he studied zoology for a short time, before turning to writing full time. In 1947, he married fellow Futurian Virginia Kidd, who would become a prominent agent and figure within the science-fiction publishing community.
Throughout the 1940s, Blish published most of his stories in the remaining pulp magazines, but it wasn’t until October of 1946 when his first story for Astounding Science Fiction, “Chaos, Co-Ordinated,” appeared on magazine racks. According to Peter Nicholls in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, it was not until the 1950s “when the first of his Okie stories appeared in Astounding Science-Fiction, did it became clear that he could become an sf writer of unusual depth.”
He was also a practical author, often revisiting, revising and expanding existing stories. In 1942, his novelette “Sunken Universe” appeared in the May 1942 issue of Super Science Stories. The story made little impact, and it wasn’t until a decade later that Blish reworked the story. It appeared in the August 1952 issue of H.L. Gold’s Galaxy Science Fiction under its new title, “Surface Tension.”
The story marks Blish’s academic influences in microbiology, a field he felt was underrepresented in the physics and engineering-laden genre. In it, human colonists crash land on a water-covered planet and are unable to escape or survive. To complete their mission, they use their genetic bank to engineer a new race of microscopic humans to live in the shallow pools. The story was popular, and in 1970, members of the Science Fiction Writers of America selected the story for the Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, 1929-1964 anthology.
Blish would later expand his world with two more related works in If Magazine: “The Thing in the Attic,” which appeared in July 1954 and “Watershed” a year later in May 1955. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction published a fourth, “A Time To Survive,” in its February 1956 issue. In 1957, Blish collected the four stories together in a short collection titled The Seedling Stars and published by Gnome Press. Genre critic John Clute noted that “all of Blish’s more deeply felt work is mainly concerned with this central debate confronting Faustian (or Frankensteinian) man.”
Blish’s Okie stories would become some of Blish’s best-known stories, pulling in his pessimism regarding Western civilization. Loosely based on the history of the Okie migration in the United States throughout the 1930s, the Okie stories featured space-bound cities powered by a MacGuffin called Spindizzies. Their inhabitants traveled the universe, looking for work. The first story, “Okie,” appeared in Astounding’s April 1950 issue, and more soon followed: “Bindlestiff” appeared in Astounding’s December 1950 issue, “Sargasso of Lost Cities” appeared in Two Complete Science-Adventure Books in 1953, and “Earthman, Come Home,” appeared in Astounding in November 1953. In 1955, Blish collected the four stories together into a fix-up novel under the title Earthman, Come Home.
More stories followed: In 1956, Blish published They Shall Have Stars, which fixed up two Astounding stories, “Bridge” and “At Death’s End,” and in 1958, he wrote a novel titled The Triumph of Time. Four years later, he published a final Okies novel, A Life for the Stars. The four books were brought together in an omnibus edition titled Cities In Flight. The stories reflect Blish’s outlook on the world, particularly his influences with Oswald Spengler’s 2-volume work Decline of the West, which depicted history and civilization as an ever-evolving phenomenon, rather than a cyclical one. Clute notes that “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).”
While assembling a space opera epic, Blish continued to cannibalize older stories for newer ones. One of his best known works is 1958’s A Case of Conscience, which he expanded out of a 1953 novella by the same name, originally published in If Magazine. The story recounts a priest who arrives on the planet Lithia as part of an expedition. There, they discover a race that has perfected morality without religion, and theological complications ensue. The book is one of the first major works in the genre to explore religion and its implications, and would go on to receive the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1959. Blish would continue to tinker with the story, expanding it into a loose series that would include 1964’s Doctor Mirabilis and 1986’s Black Easter; Or, Faust Aleph-Null and 1971’s The Day After Judgment. (The latter two regarded as a single novel, The Devil’s Day, published in 1980.)
In the late 1960s, Blish entered a new phase of work when he was contracted to adapt screenplays from a new television show that had begun to air in the United States: Star Trek. The result was a collection of short stories published in 1967 simply titled Star Trek. The series was popular, and Blish continued the series, publishing 11 collections in all until his death in 1975, as well as an original novel, titled Spock Must Die!, which appeared in 1970.
Blish wrote hundreds of stories over his long and varied career and became a notable figure within the genre community for his fiction and critical nonfiction. While his 1959 Hugo win was his only major award, A Case of Conscience (the original Novella) would win a retro Hugo in 2004, alongside with Earthman, Come Home in the same year. A Case of Conscience would also be collected in the Library of America’s collection American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-1958.