James Blish

James Blish books and biography


James Blish

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Pseudonym: William Atheling Jr.
Born: May 23, 1921(1921-05-23)
East Orange, New Jersey
Died: July 30, 1975 (aged 54)
Henley-on-Thames, England
Occupation: Science Fiction Writer, Fantasy Writer, Science Fiction Critic
Nationality: USA
Writing period: 1956 - 1975
Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Debut works: They Shall Have Stars
Influences: James Branch Cabell

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


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Blish trained as a biologist at Rutgers 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.

Between 1967 and his death 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, as well as two additional volumes of Star Trek episode adaptations.

Blish lived in Milford, Pennsylvania at Arrowhead until the mid-1960s. In 1968, Blish emigrated to England, and lived in Oxford until his death from lung cancer in 1975. He is buried in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford, near the grave of Kenneth Grahame.


A Life For The Stars, Analog Science Fact Science Fiction, September, 1962
A Life For The Stars, Analog Science Fact Science Fiction, September, 1962

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 eventual novels, They Shall Have Stars, which shows two essential features of the series. The first was 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 was the development of an antigravity device known as the "spindizzy". Since the device became more efficient as its field of influence was increased, entire cities were lifted from Earth and sent roving amongst the stars.

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 City; 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.[1] (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.[2]

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.

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. 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 in tiny 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.)


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.

James Blish's grave marker.
James Blish's grave marker.

Selected bibliography

Cities in Flight

  • They Shall Have Stars (1956) (also published under the title Year 2017!)
  • 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 0-380-00998-6 and later in the UK by Arrow (1981), ISBN 0-09-926440-4, 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.

After Such Knowledge

  • A Case of Conscience (first section published in If magazine, 1953, expanded version published 1958)
  • Doctor Mirabilis (1964)
  • Black Easter or Faust Aleph-null (serialised as Faust aleph-null in If magazine, 1968)
  • The Day After Judgment (published in Galaxy magazine in 1970, book publication 1971)

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


  • The Warriors of Day (1951}
  • Jack of Eagles (1952}
  • The Seedling Stars (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 meterorite containing fossil life forms.
  • VOR (1958) Avon Publications, Inc., New York, in wrappers (paperback).
  • Galactic Cluster (stories, 1959)
  • So Close to Home (stories, 1961)
  • The Star Dwellers (1961}
  • 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)
  • Mission to the Heart Stars (1965}
  • Welcome to Mars! (1967}
  • A Torrent of Faces (with Norman L. Knight, 1967)
  • The Vanished Jet (1968)
  • Midsummer Century (1972)
  • 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) An original Star Trek novel, the first such to be published.


  • 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

  • Imprisoned in a Tesseract, the life and work of James Blish by David Ketterer ISBN 0-87338-334-6
  • April 1972 issue of Fantasy and Science FictionSpecial James Blish Issue

Honors, Awards and Recognition

  • 1959 Hugo Award for A Case of Conscience "Best Novel"
  • 1960 Guest of Honor, World Science Fiction Convention
  • 1965 Nebula Award nomination for "The Shipwrecked Hotel" "Best Novelette" (with Norman L. Knight)
  • 1968 Nebula Award nomination for Black Easter "Best Novel"
  • 1969 Hugo Award nomination for "We All Die Naked" "Best Novella"
  • 1970 Nebula Award nomination for "A Style in Treason" "Best Novella"
  • 1970 Guest of honor, British Eastercon
  • 1976 BSFA Special Award for Best British SF
  • 1977 Creation of the James Blish award for Criticism (first winner, Brian Aldiss)
  • 1950/2001 Retro-Hugo Award nomination for "Okie" "Best Novelette"
  • 2002 Elected to Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame
  • 1953/2004 Retro-Hugo Award for "Earthman Come Home" "Best Novelette"
  • 1953/2004 Retro-Hugo Award for "A Case of Conscience" "Best Novella"

See also

  • List of science fiction authors
  • List of science fiction novels
  • List of science fiction short stories
  • List of science fiction television programs


  1. ^ Choosing 4004 AD is a satirical reference to the year "4004 BC", inferred by Bishop James Ussher to be the year of the creation of the universe, based on his study of the Book of Genesis.
  2. ^ Perakos, Peter S. (June 1979). "John Flory's Monument: An SF Saga in the Works". Starlog (23). 


  • Tuck, Donald H. (1974). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Chicago: Advent, 51-53. ISBN 0-911682-20-1. 
  • Tymn, Marshall B.; Kenneth J. Zahorski and Robert H. Boyer (1979). Fantasy Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide. New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 52-54. ISBN 0-8352-1431-1. 

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