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First publication of A Case of Conscience, September 1953

James Benjamin Blish (East Orangemarker, New Jerseymarker, May 23, 1921 – Henley-on-Thamesmarker, July 30, 1975) was an Americanmarker author of fantasy and science fiction. Blish also wrote literary criticism of science fiction using the pen-name William Atheling Jr.


In the late 1930s to the early 1940s, Blish was a member of the Futurians.

Blish trained as a biologist at Rutgersmarker and Columbia University, and spent 1942–1944 as a medical technician in the U.S. Army. After the war he became the science editor for the Pfizer pharmaceutical company. His first published story appeared in 1940, and his writing career progressed until he gave up his job to become a professional writer.

He is credited with coining the term gas giant, in the story "Solar Plexus" as it appeared in the anthology Beyond Human Ken, edited by Judith Merril. (The story was originally published in 1941, but that version did not contain the term; Blish apparently added it in a rewrite done for the anthology, which was first published in 1952.)

Blish was married to the literary agent Virginia Kidd from 1947 to 1963.

From 1962 to 1968, he worked for the Tobacco Institute.

Between 1967 and his death from lung cancer in 1975, Blish became the first author to write short story collections based upon the classic TV series Star Trek. In total, Blish wrote 11 volumes of short stories adapted from episodes of the 1960s TV series, as well as an original novel, Spock Must Die! in 1970 — the first original novel for adult readers based upon the series (since then hundreds more have been published). He died midway through writing Star Trek 12; his wife, J. A. Lawrence, completed the book, and later completed the adaptations in the volume Mudd's Angels.

Blish lived in Milford, Pennsylvania at Arrowhead until the mid-1960s. In 1968, Blish emigrated to Englandmarker, and lived in Oxfordmarker until his death in 1975. He is buried in Holywell Cemeterymarker, Oxfordmarker, near the grave of Kenneth Grahame.


Cities in Flight

Perhaps Blish's most famous works were the "Okies" stories, known collectively as Cities in Flight, published in the science-fiction digest magazine Astounding Science Fiction. The framework for these was set in the first of four novels, They Shall Have Stars, which introduces two essential features of the series. The first is the invention of the anti-aging drug ascomycin; Blish's employer Pfizer makes a thinly disguised appearance as Pfitzner in a section showing the screening of biological samples for interesting activity. (Pfizer also appears in disguise as one of the sponsors of the polar expedition in a subsequent book, Fallen Star). The second is the development of an antigravity device known as the "spindizzy". Since the device becomes more efficient when used to propel larger objects, entire cities leave an Earth in decline and rove the stars, looking for work among less-industrialized systems. The long life provided by ascomycin is necessary because the journeys between stars are time-consuming.

They Shall Have Stars is dystopian science fiction of a type common in the era of McCarthyism. The second, A Life For The Stars, is a coming of age story set amid flying cities. The third, Earthman, Come Home, is a series of loosely connected short stories detailing the adventures of a flying New York Citymarker; it was selected as one of the best novellas prior to 1965 by the Science Fiction Writers of America and as such, was reprinted in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two.

For his fourth and final installment, The Triumph of Time (UK title: A Clash of Cymbals), Blish set the end of his literature's universe in 4004 AD. (The chronology in early editions of They Shall Have Stars differed somewhat from the later reprints, indicating that Blish, or his editors, may not have planned this at the beginning of the series.) A film version of Cities in Flight was in pre-production by Spacefilms in 1979, but never materialized.

The Haertel Scholium

This term describes the background of a number of Blish's short-story science fiction. Three distinct technologies, their invention, and consequences are outlined. There is a modicum of overlap between The Cities in Flight saga and that of The Seedling Stars, mainly through one piece of technology : The Dirac Radio. Another unifying concept is the first trans-luminal drive - The Haertel Overdrive.

Adolph (Dolph) Haertel developed the drive in order to reach Mars rapidly(Welcome to Mars!). Haertel Cosmology, the result of Haertel's science, in Blish's words, "swallowed Einstein the way Einstein swallowed Newton - that is to say, alive." Haertel goes on to develop the drive to allow the entry of men into interstellar space. The DFC-3, piloted by Garrard, reaches Alpha Centauri, where extraterrestrial first contact is made with the Clinesterton Beademung (Short Story : Common Time). The Drive at this stage is not well developed, and initially suffers from dramatic chrono-swings from almost complete time-freeze to the hyper-time of pseudo-death. With refinement, the drive becomes a valid method of interstellar travel, though not without mishap and adventure as other forms of travel are tried, such as the near-useless (though fascinating and instructive for the quantum physicist) Arpe Drive (Nor Iron Bars)

Refinement of the drive allows the exploration of the near-stars, as well as the Coal-Sack Nebula, wherein the beings known as Angels are first encountered by the hero Jack Loftus, Sylvia McCrary and Dr. Challenger, as well as a long lived and powerful civilisation, the Hegemony of Malis (The Star Dwellers). Ultimately deduction, and a first hand experience of a planet deliberately maintained in a state of genocidal savagery (A Dusk of Idols), coupled with expert reasoning reveals that the Hegemony is malignant, and Humanity rebels. The Journey to the Heart Stars reveals the true nature of the Hegemony, and with the help of a stowaway Angel, Hesperus, humanity is freed of its bondage, and made companions of the Angels (Journey to the Heart Stars)

The stories considered part of the Haertel Scholium include 'A Case of Conscience', and the Pantropy series (see below). Both are anomalous in that they do not appear to have the Dirac Radio, though it is plausible to assume that 'A Case of Conscience' takes place before the development of the Dirac.

A unifying force of galactic civilisation is the Dirac Radio, developed by Dr. Thor Wald. This radio is able to permit FTL radio transmission. It has an additional and unsettling ability - within every transmission, is the sum total of all transmissions from the device, throughout all of time and space. The Department of Intelligence, headed by Captain Robert Weinbaum, and aided by the beautiful video reporter Dana Lje, make this shattering discovery. Three hundred years later, the Service is the dominant government of the Galaxy, and Dirac is the centre of their power, with a network built from Haertel Overdrive spacelanes. (Beep).

4000 years in the future, Human civilisation has met its first full antagonist - the Green Exarchy. A system of many civilisations ruled by a non-human emperor, The Green Exarch, this represents a significant threat to High Earth. The Green Exarch has at his emply the extremely dangerous shapeshifting (protean) agents known as Vombis, who will appear human, but do not revert to their true shape when killed, giving them an air of great mystery and menace.The Haertel Overdrive is now referred to as the Imaginary Drive, and the Dirac is still in common use. High Earth remains the centre of Human civilisation. That civilisation is remarkably advanced - for all practical intents, humans are now immortal. A memory cleanse known as Baptism permits those filled with ennui to begin lives anew, though there are side effects from subconscious recall. A quasi-religious group known as Sagittarians also play a part. The most important financial force in the empire of High Earth is the Traitor's Guild, who permit money to flow from system to system in reward of treachery to system governments, producing a Feudatory system between worlds, though not at the expense of internal stability. Traitors skillfully employ advanced biotechnology to further their aims, and are known to employ fungal cytotoxins, DNA reverse transcription mutation agents (to inject false memories and appearances in order to forestall recognition and testimony during interrogations), as well as technology to petrify dead bodies in order to make up wall fortifications in far offworld planets. The Traitors Guild may be found on all planets. (A Traitor of Quality, Section in The Quincunx of Time with a lecture about the Traitor's Guild, and the Green Exarchy)

Over 5000 years later, Human civilisation has gone through many Rebirths, or Renaissances. The chance infusion of a mentality from 1949 through a freak combination of the active mode of the Dirac within a Radio Telescope results in the formation, after many adventures and an ultimate resurgence of Man, the Quint, the Autarch of Rebirth V. A computer of this far future time uses the Dirac as both a means of communication and infinite memory storage. (Midsummer Century). Its existence was foretold at the time of Capt. Weinbaum, though no-one could interpret its messages then (The Quincunx of Time, novella expansion of Beep)

After Such Knowledge

Blish declared that another group of novels was a trilogy, each dealing with an aspect of the price of knowledge, and given the overall name of "After Such Knowledge" (the title taken from a T. S. Eliot quote). The first published, A Case of Conscience (a winner of the 1959 Hugo Award as well as 2004/1953 Retrospective Hugo Award for Best Novella), showed a Jesuit priest confronted with an alien intelligent race, apparently unfallen, which he eventually concludes must be a Satanic fabrication. The second, Doctor Mirabilis, is a historical novel about the medieval proto-scientist Roger Bacon. The third, actually two very short novels, Black Easter and The Day after Judgement, was written using the assumption that the ritual magic for summoning demons as described in grimoires actually worked. In that book, a powerful industrialist and arms merchant arranges to call up demons in the midst of a modern world crisis, resulting in nuclear war and the destruction of civilization. Black Easter is devoted to that element of the plot; The Day After Judgment is devoted to exploring the consequences of the destruction of the world, with an extraordinary ending in both narrative and theological terms that should not be given away.

The Seedling Stars (Pantropy)

Blish's most famous short stories are the "Pantropy" tales, collected in the book The Seedling Stars. In these stories, humans are modified to live in various alien environments, this being easier and vastly cheaper than terraforming.

  • Book One (Seeding Program) is about the inception of Pantropy, when the Pantropy program appears to have deteriorated into hideous genetic experimenting and has been outlawed. It describes Sweeney, a modified ("adapted") human whose metabolism is based on liquid ammonia and sulphur bonds and whose bones are made from ice IV, who is inserted into a colony on Ganymede by the Terran Port Authority (a para-military organization) to capture a renegade scientist and end his plans to seed modified humans on distant worlds. However, the government really only tries to derail pantropy because it will cut their profits from terraforming attempts. Sweeney is surprised to find a well established, functioning community on Ganymede and eventually realizes that he was just used as an expendable agent and that he has been fed false hopes about the possibility of being changed into a normal human being who could live on earth. Having found a real home, he switches sides and with his help the Ganymede colony manages to launch their seed ships to secret destinations, beyond the reach of the corrupt government.

  • Book Two (The Thing in the Attic) depicts a very successful seeding project. It tells the story of a small group of intellectuals from a primitive culture of modified monkey-like humans living in the trees of their jungle world. Having openly voiced the opinion that the godly giants do not literally exist as put down in the book of laws, they are banished from the treetops for heresy. In their exile on the ground they have to adapt to vastly different circumstances, fight monsters resembling dinosaurs, and finally happen upon the godly giants - who turn out to be human scientists who have just arrived on the world to monitor the progress of the local adapted humans. The protagonists are told by the scientists that their whole race must eventually leave the treetops to conquer their world and that they have become pioneers of some sort for accomplishing survival.

  • Book Three (Surface Tension) gives another example of a culture of adapted humans: A pantropy starship crashes on an ocean world, Hydrot, which is on orbit around Tau Ceti. With no hope for rescue, the few survivors modify their own genetic material to seed microscopic aquatic "humans" into the lakes and puddles of the world and leave them a message engraved equally scaled metal plates. The story then tells how over many seasons, the adapted human newcomers explore their aquatic environment, make alliances, invent tools, fight wars with hostile beings and finally gain dominance over the sentient beings of their world. They develop new technologies and manage to decipher some of the message on the metal plates. Finally they build a wooden "space ship" (which turns out to be two inches long) to overcome the surface tension and travel to "other worlds" - the next puddle - in search of their ancestry, as they have come to realize that they are not native to their world.

  • Book Four (Watershed) takes a look at the more distant future. A very long time after the beginning of the Pantropy program, a starship crewed by "standard" humans is enroute to some unimportant backwater planet to deliver a pantropy team who are "adapted" humans resembling seals more than humans. Due to racial prejudices, tension mounts between the crew and the passengers onboard. When the captain decides to restrict the passengers to their cabins to prevent the situation from escalating, the leader of the adapted humans informs him that the planet ahead is Earth, where the "normal" human form once developed. He challenges the "normal" humans to follow him onto the surface of their ancestral home planet and prove that they are superior to the "adapted" seal people who will now be seeded there - or admit that they were beaten on their own grounds. The story concludes as the captain and his lieutenant silently ponder the possibility that they, being "standard" humans, are just a minority, and an obsolete species.

(The German title of the anthology is Auch sie sind Menschen..., literally "They, too, are humans". The stories' titles are Aussaatplan, Himmel und Hölle, Oberflächenspannung and Rückkehr respectively, which would literally translate back into English as "Seeding plan", "Heaven and Hell", "Surface tension" and "Return" or "Homecoming". However, except for Surface Tension the original English titles seem to be different.)

Watershed makes reference to the planet, Lithia, which is the centrepiece of A Case of Conscience, and it must be assumed that the Pantropy stories take place in a slightly different Universe, given the respective fates of the planet within each Universe.


Blish collaborated with Norman L. Knight on a series of stories set in a world with a population a thousand times that of today, and followed the efforts of those keeping the system running, collected in one volume as A Torrent of Faces.

Included in this collection is Blish's Nebula-nominated novella 'The Shipwrecked Hotel' - a story about a semi-submerged hotel with approximately a million guests which experiences a massive computer failure (a result of escaped silverfish) and begins to sink.

Running parallel to all the side-plots is the inevitable catastrophe of the mile-wide asteroid 'Flavia' striking near the east coast of the USA.

The stories are also notable for including a form of pantropy that has been used to modify humans into a sea-dwelling form known as 'Tritons'.
James Blish's grave marker.

Selected bibliography

Cities in Flight

  • They Shall Have Stars (1956) (also published under the title Year 2018!)
  • A Life for the Stars (1962)
  • Earthman Come Home (1955) G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York.
  • A Clash of Cymbals, (published in the US as The Triumph of Time) (1959)

A one-volume collection of all four Cities in Flight books exists, first published in the US by Avon (1970), (ISBN 0380009986) and later in the UK by Arrow (1981), (ISBN 0099264404), which includes an analysis of the work (pp. 597 onwards) as an Afterword by Richard D. Mullen, derived from an original article by Leland Shapiro in the publication Riverside Quarterly. It is now available in hardcover and trade paperback from Overlook Press.Outside the US, a single volume collecting all four books is available from Gollancz as part of its SF Masterworks series. This edition includes a new (2006) introduction by Stephen Baxter; and uses the original US title The Triumph of Time for A Clash of Cymbals.

After Such Knowledge

(Black Easter and The Day After Judgment were combined in The Devil's Day, first Baen printing, 1990)

The Haertel Scholium

  • Galactic Cluster (stories, 1959) - Containing Beep, Common Time and Nor Iron Bars.
  • So Close to Home (stories, 1961)
  • The Star Dwellers (1961)
  • Mission to the Heart Stars (1965) - A sequel to The Star Dwellers
  • Welcome to Mars! (1967) - Dolph Haertel's seminal first flight to Mars.
  • Anywhen (1968) - Contains the Novella A Traitor of Quality and the short story A Dusk of Idols
  • Midsummer Century (1972) - The Far Future, at the time of Rebirth V.
  • A Case of Conscience - Technically part of the Scholium, thanks to presence of the drive (see above)


  • There Shall Be No Darkness (1950) -- horror story where guests at a remote country estate discover that one of them is a werewolf.
  • The Warriors of Day (1951)
  • Jack of Eagles (1952)
  • The Seedling Stars (1957)
  • Get Out of My Sky (1957)
  • Fallen Star (1957) — Set in the International Geophysical Year of 1958, it tells the story of a disaster-ridden polar expedition that finds a meteorite containing fossil life forms.
  • VOR (1958) Avon Publications, Inc., New York, in wrappers (paperback).
  • Titans' Daughter (also under the title Beanstalk) (1961)
  • The Night Shapes (1962)
  • The Duplicated Man (with R. W. Lowndes, 1959)
  • Best Science Fiction Stories of James Blish (stories, 1965)
  • A Torrent of Faces (with Norman L. Knight, 1967)
  • The Vanished Jet (1968)
  • And All the Stars a Stage (1971)
  • The Quincunx of Time (1973)
  • Star Trek 1-12 (1967-1975) Novelizations of the scripts of the well-known TV series.
  • Spock Must Die! (1970) The first original Star Trek novel.


  • New Dreams This Morning (1966)


Blish wrote criticism of science fiction (some quite scathing) under the name of William Atheling Jr, as well as reviewing under his own name.: the Atheling articles were reprinted in two collections, The Issue at Hand (1964) and More Issues at Hand (1970), and the posthumous The Tale That Wags The God 1987 collects Blish essays.

He was a fan of the works of James Branch Cabell, and for a time edited Kalki, the journal of the Cabell Society.

More on James Blish

Honors, Awards and Recognition

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External links

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