Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Blish, James

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(1921-1975) US writer, in the UK from 1969. The bulk of his varied and uneven output is sf – including the bravura Eschatology of The Triumph of Time (1958; vt A Clash of Cymbals UK), which ends his Cities in Flight sf sequence with the destruction of our Universe and one character's imposition of his own will on the following cycle of Creation. The minor The Warriors of Day (1951 Two Complete Science Adventure Books as "Sword of Xota"; 1953) offers a rationalized God who is a collective planetary consciousness, and who after using and absorbing his human Avatar is finally, ironically, seen shaping a worthier tool: a bear.

JB's prime fantasy contribution is the patchwork sequence After Such Knowledge, comprising the sf-religious (see Religion) A Case of Conscience (part 1 in If 1953; 1958), the fictional biography Doctor Mirabilis (1964 UK; rev 1971 US), the fantasy Black Easter, or Faust Aleph-Null (1968) and The Day After Judgment (1971). The last two were regarded by JB as one novel and were republished as Black Easter and The Day After Judgment (omni 1980 US; vt The Devil's Day 1990 US); the full set was assembled as After Such Knowledge (omni 1991 UK). Taking its overall title from T S Eliot's line "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?", the sequence is supposedly linked by an old question of theology (see Religion), expressed in The Day After Judgment as "[whether] the possession and use of secular knowledge – or even the desire for it – is in itself evil".

This seems least relevant in A Case of Conscience, except in that the secular physics of spaceflight brings humanity into contact with Lithia, an alien Eden whose "unfallen" inhabitants have adopted a Christian ethos without any concept of God. The Jesuit priest-hero reasons that this must be a trap created by Satan – which is heresy, since Satan cannot create. As an alien Antichrist figure disrupts Earth society, the priest finds an orthodox explanation: that Lithia is a diabolical Illusion. When he pronounces a formal Exorcism the planet is destroyed, ambiguously, through the "accidental" detonation of a thermonuclear bomb factory. This book won the Hugo Award.

Roger Bacon (circa 1214-1292), whose life is persuasively imagined in Doctor Mirabilis, engages more directly with the question. The part of his nature which dreams of universal Scientific Method appears as a Secret Sharer, whispering ideas at odds with Church discipline. In a delirious, Alchemy-inspired Dream – his own monkish figure opposes the Antichrist's forces with spyglasses and explosions – Bacon hears himself pronounce the formula for gunpowder as an anagrammatic puzzle which he must then decipher. The Church does not treat him kindly.

Black Easter offers two versions of the dangerous seeker. Theron Ware, a black magician, has entered into numerous Pacts with Demons whose powers – along with money derived from hiring out their services – he employs to gain knowledge of such scientific enigmas as quasars. Baines, an armaments tycoon, is bored with secular wars and commissions Ware to release 48 major demons from Hell for one night, merely to see what will happen. Incidental effects include Transmutation, supernatural killing and a Succubus. JB's bleak, spare descriptions convincingly establish Black Magic as a scholium having the same unforgiving precision as physics: the clinical tone heightens the horror of the long conjuration Ritual in which the demons are summoned. The results escalate through nuclear war to Armageddon, with Hell victorious since one factor even Ware has tacitly relied upon seems absent: as the Sabbath Goat remarks at the finale, God is dead. The less potent continuation, The Day After Judgment, cannot top this, instead making some satirical play with US military efforts to analyse and counter a presumed invasion, including a wonderfully self-indulgent moment of Recursive Fantasy as a US general identifies a glimpsed demon as Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu; but the City of Dis, now manifest in Death Valley, proves resistant to multiple nuclear strikes and is defended by the head of Medusa. In verse which is a pastiche of John Milton's, it emerges that the death or withdrawal of God has forced Satan to take his place and rule benignly.

JB was a professed agnostic who enjoyed applying his formidable intellect to theology, which he treated as a Playground. A similar scholarly interest drew him to the language-puzzles of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939) – a theological poser from which he examined in A Case of Conscience – and to the erudite allusiveness of James Branch Cabell: JB was one editor of the Cabell Society magazine Kalki. His best fantasies have a chilly, compulsive fascination. [DRL]

other works: "Cathedrals in Space" in The Issue At Hand (coll 1964) discusses religion in sf/fantasy; some of the poems in With All of Love: Selected Poems (coll 1995) are fantasy, including "Scenario: The Edifice", which neatly defines Edifice as that term is used in this encyclopedia.

see also: Books.

James Benjamin Blish


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.