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James Blish: Haertel Histories

Dr. Paul Shackley

In A Case Of Conscience by James Blish, four terrestrial scientists visit a newly discovered and inhabited extrasolar planet called Lithia. They must recommend to the UN whether Lithia ought to be studied, exploited or quarantined. One of the scientists is a Jesuit, Fr. Ruiz-Sanchez. The Lithians contradict his Christian preconceptions so he regards them as diabolical and recommends quarantine.

David Ketterer writes:

“Somewhat startlingly, in view of the issue being confronted, the novel contains no references to other alien civilizations for purposes of comparison. But equally there are no references to the Lithians as the first alien civilization contacted. The reader is, however, left with the implication that other aliens have been encountered…by eliminating any direct allusion to this matter Blish might be said to have skewed the evidence by not presenting everything that is the case.”1

However, Ruiz’s colleague, Agronski, says:

“There aren’t any other planets. I mean, none with intelligent life on them that we’ve hit so far.”2

So Ruiz faces the problem of first contact without comparisons even though he refers to Garrard who, in “Common Time”, had encountered incomprehensible aliens on the first successful interstellar flight but perhaps the UN had suppressed this information.3 In Mission to the Heart Stars, Garrard’s aliens, the beadmungen, will join an interstellar federation but that is in the future of a different history. Blish, like the more prolific Poul Anderson, gives the impression of considering every possibility along divergent timelines.

Agronski does refer to extraterrestrial animals. He continues:

“You can’t enslave a Martian sand crab.”2

Agronski does not mention, because Blish had not written this yet, that Garrard’s mentor, Haertel, found on Mars not sand crabs but tool- and language-using “dune-cats”, which had been domesticated by a dying dominant race.4 Later, some Earthmen, regarding the cats as animals, fatally exploited them so that, by Agronski’s time, they might be either extinct or hiding.5 Thus, we can harmonise disparate stories.

On the other hand, Welcome to Mars, about Haertel on Mars, explains the Martian “canals” as faults or cracks caused by meteor impacts whereas “No Jokes on Mars”, about exploited “dune cats”, returns to the common sf idea of extinct Martian canal-builders, here called “Canal Masons”. In Mission to the Heart Stars (a Haertel overdrive novel) and They Shall Have Stars (an Okie novel), the extinct Martians had tried to halt their planet’s decline by covering its surface with a “Diagram of Power”, perceived as “canals” from Earth.6,7

This Martian “magic” not only did not work but also diverted resources from any effective survival efforts. In the Haertel history, the Heart Stars federation had dispassionately watched the construction of the Diagram of Power whereas, in the Okie history, there probably were no galactic observers that far back. In any case, the timelines diverge.

In Blish’s Fallen Star, Elvers claims to be a Martian but is probably a psychotic in which case his explanation of the “canals” as volcanic faults, caused when the Martians applied the force that destroyed the asteroidal protoplanets, is a fiction within the fiction.8 Blish, like Wells, Lewis and others, has more than one version of Mars and, as with Wells, one of the versions exists only in a character’s mind.

However, Blish maintains ambiguity:

his Doctor Mirabilis remains ambiguous as to whether its central character’s inner voice is psychological or demonic;
A Case of Conscience
remains ambiguous as to whether the Lithians’ origin and destruction are natural or supernatural;
Fallen Star,
midway between mainstream fiction and sf, ends with an exploratory space fleet about to be launched towards Mars but does not go on to tell us whether the fleet will find the expected lifeless planet or will instead confirm Elvers’ account.

If, as Ketterer suggests, it is the narrator, Julian Cole, who is insane so that:

“…Elvers the Martian is part of Julian’s delusion…”9

then Elvers’ devastated Mars with its genocidal inhabitants is a fiction within the fiction within the fiction: we read a novel in which Julian imagines that Elvers claims to be a  Martian.

Although A Case of Conscience presents the Lithian expedition as the first contact with alien intelligences, its references to Haertel and Garrard evoke the rich history of Blish’s other fictions about aliens. Dune-cats, beadmungen, Lithians and “Angels” (space-dwelling energy beings), originally appearing in different stories or novels, each became background material for later works. If we read related Blish stories and novels in publication order, then we first encounter the elderly Haertel and his experimental overdrive in “Common Time”.

We then see the Haertel overdrive in regular use in A Case of Conscience, in the “Angels” novels and in The Quincunx of Time although it was replaced by the Arpe Drive in “Nor Iron Bars”, then by the Standing Wave in “This Earth of Hours” and possibly by the Imaginary Drive in “A Style in Treason”.10 We first see a Martian dune-cat in “No Jokes on Mars”. Finally, we learn, in Welcome to Mars, that the young Haertel had discovered antigravity and a Martian paw print.

There are other connections between works:

Lithia provides background material for “Watershed”;11
Angels and Heart Stars provide background material for “A Dusk of Idols”;12 
Dirac messages link The Quincunx of Time to “A Style in Treason” and to Midsummer Century;13
the explorer who seeks protoplanet fragments at the North Pole in Fallen Star had previously sought the legendary mokele-mbembe in Africa although Blish readers know that those surviving dinosaurs had died fifty years earlier in The Night Shapes.14

Thus, Blish’s works provide substantial background material for each other without necessarily forming a linear series although he wrote those as well.

  1. David Ketterer, Imprisoned In A Tesseract: the life and work of James Blish (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1987), pp. 99-100.
  2. James Blish, A Case Of Conscience (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1963), p. 67.
  3. James Blish, “Common Time” in Blish, Galactic Cluster (London: The New English Library Limited, 1963), pp. 7-28.
  4. James Blish, Welcome To Mars (London: Sphere Books Limited, 1978).
  5. James Blish, “No Jokes On Mars” in Blish, Anywhen (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1970), pp. 143-168.
  6. James Blish, Mission To The Heart Stars (London: Granada Publishing Limited, 1908).
  7. James Blish, They Shall Have Stars in Blish, Cities In Flight (London: Arrow Books Limited, 1981), pp. 7-129.
  8. James Blish, Fallen Star (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), p. 186.
  9. Ketterer, op. cit., p. 122.
  10. James Blish, The Star Dwellers (London: Sphere Books Limited, 1979); Mission To The Heart Stars; The Quincunx Of Time (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc, 1973); “Nor Iron Bars” in Galactic Cluster, pp. 61-92.; “This Earth Of Hours” and “A Style In Treason” in Blish, The Best Of James Blish (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979), pp. 257-280 and 313-348.
  11. James Blish, “Watershed” in Blish, The Seedling Stars (London: Arrow Books, 1972), pp. 182-192.
  12. James Blish, “A Dusk Of Idols” in Anywhen, pp. 105-135.
  13. James Blish, Midsummer Century (London: Arrow Books Ltd, 1975).
  14. James Blish, The Night Shapes (London: The New English Library Limited, 1965).
 

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Email address: paulshackley@gmail.com