Book Review: Galactic Cluster, James Blish (1959) — collected short stories from 1953-59

3.25/5 (Good — collated rating)

James Blish, famous for his Hugo winning novel, A Case of Conscience, early Star Trek novelizations, and the Cities in Flight series also wrote some interesting short shorties.  This volume includes a selection of his work from the 1950s: ‘Tomb Tappers’, ‘King of the Hill’, ‘Common Time’, ‘A Work of Art’, ‘To Pay the Piper’, ‘Nor Iron Bars’, ‘Beep’, and ‘This Earth of Hours.

(4/5) ‘Tomb Tappers’ (1956) is a wonderful and haunting story set sometime during Cold War with a spine chilling twist.  McDonough, a member of the Air Intelligence arm of the CAP (Civil Air Patrol) has the unfortunate job of reading the minds of recently dead Russian pilots who crash during bombing runs over the United States.  A mysterious rocket/plane is found in a train tunnel somewhere in the Northwest USA and McDonough is sent to investigate….

(3/5) ‘King of the Hill’ (1955) is another tale set during the Cold War.  The culmination of the US government’s foreign policy is a weapons satellite which has the ability to drop atomic bombs at precise parts of the world at a moment’s notice.  However, in an effort to save cost, the lone officer in charge of the platform stays over his allotted time with grave consequences.  ‘King of the Hill’ is an interesting study of a man under stress but rather banal.

(3/5) ‘Common Time’ (1953) describes early attempts at faster-than-light interstellar travel.  Here, Blish explores a bizarre formulation of time dilation.  The main character Garrard slowly figures out that time around him is moving infinitesimally slow in comparison to his mind.  Also, his body functions are also infinitesimally slow…  As a result Garrard has to control his his emotions (since the glandular reactions last hours) and movements (which exert extreme force).  Blish is fantastic in ploting Garrard’s slow realization of his surroundings.  However, the story is weakened by a rather timid/silly introduction of aliens into a fascinating example of early hard science fiction.

(5/5) ‘A Work of Art’ (1956) is by far the best story in the collection.  Mind sculptors sculpt famous human minds on otherwise talentless individuals in an attempt to one-up each other.  The mentality and ability of the famous composer Strauss is sculpted on the mind of a musically ignorant individual.  The story is actually quite touching and sad as this new Strauss realizes his fate and the circumstances of his creation when he is unable to compose anything but a hollow shell of his previous works — likewise, the music produced is only well received since it shows the expertize of the mind sculptors.  This fascinating story reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s works which explore the mind, consciousness, and individuality.

(4/5) ‘To Pay the Piper’ (1956) is another gem.  I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi stories about humans retreating to fallout shelters and other underground installations because of various apocalyptic events.  This particularly disturbing take develops the problems that arrive when the survivors get wind the potentially of returning to the surface.  The most disturbing aspect is the continued hatred of the enemy despite the virtual annihilation of the two parties.

(3/5) ‘Nor Iron Bars’ (1956 and 1957) is one of the weaker stories in the collection.  Blish describes Earth’s continued attempts at faster-than-light interstellar travel.  Here, time dilation doesn’t occur, instead matter becomes expanded and more porous.  The most interested section is definitely Blish’s inclusion of interracial relations.  One of the passengers is a super famous white explorer whom all the other female characters fawn over.  We eventually learn that his fiance is a young African-American woman who is dieing.  Even the main characters have to question their own racial prejudices (which they thought they had expunged years before).  Other than that, the story is forgettable.

(2/5) ‘Beep’ (1954) is by far the worst of the the bunch.  The Service has developed a way to look into the future using an instantaneous interstellar communication device (here, once again, time dilation makes this possible).  A new recruit uncovers this secret and as a result is promoted.  Boring and just plain silly.

(2/5) ‘This Earth of Hours’ (1959) is another poor entry.  Interstellar travel is finally become a practicality and an unintelligent telepathic alien race in the core planets of the galaxy is discovered.  Blish tries to make this premise interesting by interjecting randomly some tidbits of the Matriarchy government on earth an its colonies created as a result of the ability to chose the sex of one’s children.  This story is forced and unexciting and its conclusion is anti-climatic.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Galactic Cluster, James Blish (1959) — collected short stories from 1953-59

  1. A correction in a matter of fact. “Tomb Tapper” may have been written during the Cold War but it is set during a very hot war, a war as hot a nuclear explosions. No soviet pilots ever made bombing runs over the USA during the Cold War, or it would have instantly become the Hot War, World War III.

  2. I think you underrate “Common Time” seriously, a really striking story using Joycean language to try to portray the experience of FTL travel and the encoutner with aliens. And I found “Beep” striking, with the (likely actually bats) central concept quite intriguing. It was novelized as THE QUINCUNX OF TIME, a very short “novel”, no more than 30,000 words.

    • Please keep in mind that In 2010 I was 22 going on 23 and pretty new to writing about SF… who knows what I would think now! This must have been one of my first reviews on the site. I remember nothing from the collection unfortunately.

    • I assume you’re thinking about it for your Hugo ballot series? Look, at some point I might use your posts as a jumping off point to either read or reread some of the gems from those years. I’m happy to be wrong in my more youthful years. Now, not as much! haha.

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