Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: 'Midsummer Century' by James Blish

1 / 5 Stars

Few SF writers of the 50s and 60s were as consistently over-rated as James Blish. In his entry for Blish in 'The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction' (1995, St. Martin’s Griffin Press), Peter Nicholls describes him as ‘…an SF writer of unusual depth’. But I’ve always been unimpressed with those few Blish novels and stories that I have read (starting in the mid 70s with ‘Spock Must Die’, which was remarkably boring).

‘Midsummer Century’ (DAW book No. 89, February 1974, 159 pp., cover art by Josh Kirby) doesn’t do much to dissuade me of my convictions about Blish. First published in 1972, the novelette takes as its starting point an accident which befalls contemporary British astronomer John Martels. He awakens from a coma to discover that his consciousness has been lodged within a computer located in a moldering temple in the year 25,000 AD. 

Sharing the computer is a prickly AI known as ‘Qvant’. Together, Martels and Qvant serve as oracles to petitioning tribesmen, who are under some duress from The Birds; it seems that by 25,000 AD, avians have evolved into larger, and more intelligent, creatures who are determined to eradicate Homo sapiens from the earth. Human civilization has been reduced to the presence of some stone-age tribes that eke out an existence in those places not yet conquered by the Birds.

The story concerns itself with Martel’s efforts to escape his computer prison and find some surviving technological outpost, where he can make arrangements to return to his own time and place. But, while ‘Century’ has an interesting premise, Blish fails to do much with this premise. His prose is overly wordy and meandering and the narrative never achieves much in the way of momentum. A climactic sequence, which in the hands of a more capable writer would have dominated the novel,  instead is relegated to half of a page, providing an underwhelming ending to the novelette.

Rounding out this DAW volume are two short stories:

 In ‘Skysign’ (1968) an immense spaceship appears over San Francisco; the humanoid aliens piloting the craft invite some Earthlings to come aboard for purposes unknown, but presumably involving amiable inter-species relations. An affectless hippie named Carl Wade volunteers, and once aboard ship finds himself a prisoner. Can a disheveled stoner hope to defeat advanced alien technology and gain freedom for himself and his unlucky companions ? 

‘A Style in Treason’ (1971) is an effort to write a Jack Vance-inspired story (the use of the phrases ‘russet breeches’ and ‘a tabard of deeper violet’ are sure tip-offs), albeit an effort  beleaguered with Blish’s attempts at using New Wave prose stylings. The plot is barely coherent, and involves the efforts of one Simon de Kuyl, a courier of state secrets, to foment an alliance between High Earth and the polities ruling the colony world Boadacea. ‘Style’ is very poorly written, featuring clumsy sentence structure and inane metaphors (‘autumn cannibalism’ ???). 

The mediocre quality of ‘Midsummer Century’ perhaps could be excused by the fact that during the early 70s Blish was chronically ill (he died in 1975 from lung cancer). But unless you are a dedicated Blish fan, ‘Midsummer’ is best passed over by those looking for memorable works of the New Wave era.


Todd T Castillo said...

I'm not really a Blish fan, but I was hoping to read more of his stuff. Have you read his short story, "A Work of Art"? It was pretty damn good--enough for me to start hunting his other works down.

I think I have something else of his floating around here somewhere...

tarbandu said...

Todd, I have not read 'A Work of Art', but maybe I'll keep an eye out for it.

If I turn out liking 'Work', then maybe I'll make an effort to start in on Blish's 'Cities in Flight' omnibus, which I am otherwise very reluctant to do...


MPorcius said...

I read two of Blish's novels, Vor and The Stardwellers some years ago.

Vor was pretty forgettable, I think an alien monster crashes on Earth and scientists sit around and talk about how to stop it.

For The Stardwellers I wrote a review of on Amazon, which goes...

"I bought the 1961 Berkley paperback for its lovely red/purple cover. The novel, which is short by today's standards, 128 pages, is weak. The plot consists of an interesting trip through space to meet some interesting aliens, but also some boring diplomacy which Blish tries to make more interesting by piling on lots of silly melodramatic moments, including what amounts to a courtroom scene in which the star witness climbs out of his sickbed to provide crucial testimony. Worst of all the first half of the book consists of stereotypical cardboard characters sitting around yakking away.

You might like this if you are interested in pacifistic SF in which aliens have to keep us violent humans in line, or were wondering about James Blish's theories on education, popular music and censorship, but otherwise I have to advise that you steer clear."

Brian said...

While I think Midsummer Century is pretty good, Blish is clearly emulating Poul Anderson, especially the author of "The Man Who Counts", which is very good.

Blish isn't everybody's cup of tea, but "Dr. Mirabilis" - a biography of Roger Bacon in the form of a novel - is a book *every* fan of science fiction should read. Blish makes a very plausible case for Bacon as the father of science as we now understand it, even more important than Sir Francis Bacon (who came much later).

I don't recommend "Cities in Flight," but "Black Easter" and "The Day After Judgment" are satires of magic and witchcraft that are just excellent.