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"IMPRISONED IN A TESSERACT": BLACK EASTER AND THE DAY AFTER JUDGEMENT BY JAMES BLISH / David Ketterer Asked to name a contemporary author of science fiction, the average person would probably mention one or more of the following: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein. He or she would almost certainly not mention an American named James Blish. Nevertheless, Blish does belong in any list of the twenty or so most significant writers of science fiction. His 1958 Hugo-awardwinning novel A Case of Conscience, which successfully fuses complex religious issues with the theme of alien contact (i.e., contact with the apparently Unfällen inhabitants of the planet Lithia), is one of the genuine classics of the genre, far superior to most of the titles loosely touted as such. It is, of course, much too early to know which works published in the years since 1926, when (with the appearance of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories) science fiction became a publishing category, will best withstand the test of time. But I would hazard the guess that the work of the four writers who are today best known will wear less well than A Case of Conscience and some other works by James Blish. Much of Blish's output is as ephemeral and tawdry as most science fiction but his best work, unlike such classics as Asimov's Foundation series and Heinlein's A Stranger in a Strange Land, both invites and rewards close scrutiny. Today, eight years after his death from lung cancer in England (his adopted home) at the age of fifty-four, virtually all the writings which saw book publication in his lifetime are easily available. Paperback publishers in both America and Britain have recently reissued, or are in the process of reissuing, these titles. Two such titles, less well known and less praised than A Case of Conscience, will serve here to make the case for Blish's artistry and thereby explain why, by the twenty-first century, the name James Blish just might occur to the average person (assuming the survival of the species) asked to name an author of science fiction. 1. After Such Knowledge Despite a dislike of fantasy, an admiration for E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros (1922) led James Blish to write first the straight historical novel Doctor Mirabilis (1964) and subsequently his own supernatural fantasy Black Easter (1968). But as a novella set more or less in the present day, Black Easter might also be grouped with Blish's five more or less The Missouri Review · 243 abortive attempts in the realistic mode: The Frozen Year (1957), The Vanished Jet (published in the same year as Black Easter), and the unpublished "A Cage of Birds," "A Prophecy of Love" and "Is That A Death?" (the last two being autobiographical pieces). This paradoxical state of affairs suggests some kind of avoidance-compulsion mechanism which, as we shall see, reflects the dilemma of the science fiction writer in his attempt to bridge the modes of realism and fantasy. And, as we shall also see, both Black Easter and its tour de force sequel, The Day After Judgement (1970), although purportedly works of bizarre supernatural fantasy, actually exemplify Blish's well-nigh deathbed thoughts on the nature of science fiction as expressed in a last essay entitled "Probapossible Prolegomena to Ideareal History." Previously Blish had come to see (falsely, some would say) that Black Easter and The Day After Judgement (considered as a single work that, for convenience, I shall sometimes call Black . . . Judgement) completed a thematic trilogy begun by A Case of Conscience. In a biographical piece, "The Development of a Science Fiction Writer," he explains how all this came about. Wishing to write a book about ceremonial magic similar to The Worm Ouroboros, Blish set out to write a story around what he assumed to be the magician figure Roger Bacon, an assumption derived primarily from Robert Greene's play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1589). But Blish soon discovered that the historical Bacon was vehemently opposed to magic and out of a consuming interest in Bacon the scientist he wrote Doctor Mirabilis—leaving "unscratched the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 243-263
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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