Book Review: So Close to Home, James Blish (1961)

3/5 (collated rating: Average)

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve read James Blish. I’ve long been a fan of his Hugo-winning novel A Case of Conscience (1958) and individual stories in collections like The Seedling Stars (1957) and Galactic Cluster (1959). Unfortunately, So Close to Home (1961) is an uneven collection with more duds than hits. The three worthwhile stories–“The Oath” (1960), “Testament of Andros” (1953), and “The Masks” (1959)–can be found online at the links below. Almost all the stories in the collection are set in the near future and chart humanity’s fear of the end and how one might navigate the strange new worlds that emerge.

The collection is not a must buy unless you’re a James Blish completist or have an unnatural fascination with short stories on 50s/60s nuclear terror like myself.

Brief Plot Discussion and Analysis

“Struggle in the Womb” (1950), 2/5 (Bad) first appeared in Future Combined with Science Fiction Stories, ed. Robert W. Lowndes (May/June 1950). You can read it online here. One of many nuclear gloom short stories in the collection, “Struggle in the Womb” imagines a post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki future in which the genetic ramifications of America’s nuclear weapons reveal themselves.

In the U.N. Atomic Energy Control Commission building, looming over the “center of what had been ‘old’ Nagasaki” a new apocalyptic battle brews. The Mutation Control Board deliberates on the correct path of action to terrifying news — a new mutation among surviving humans yields the shocking pattern, “nearly ever mutant we have examined in the past eight months has been accused of one of only two crimes: murder, or infanticide” (9). Parents kill their children as a survival impulse or others they believe have the new mutation. Homo chaos, a new “true-breading” stable species distinct from Homo sapiens, seeks to assert itself over all others. Of course there’s a twist.

Like Judith Merril’s far superior “That Only a Mother” (1948), Blish was probably inspired to write this story “from a short article in the New York Herald-Tribune […] about the U.S. Army of Occupation of Japan denying rumors about infanticides occurring in the areas affected by the U.S. atomic bombs of 1945.” See Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont’s Judith Merril: A Critical Study (2012), 30-31 for more information. Despite the interesting historical context and fascinating location for the story, a modern architectural marvel looming above a wrecked Japan, the story itself is ineffective and minor.

“Sponge Dive” (1956), 2.5/5 (Bad) first appeared in Infinity Science Fiction, ed. Larry T. Shaw (June 1956). You can read it online here. According to David Ketterer’s Imprisoned in a Tesseract: The Life and Work of James Blish (1987), Blish and Alfred Bester worked on a television series called C.I. D.: Universe. Of Blish’s five scripts, four were rejected and he turned three of them into short stories (112-123). Two of the three are collected here. Neither are very good.

“Sponge Drive” follows an intelligence agent for the Civilian Intelligence Group and his immediate team–including his competent and strong boss Joan Hadamard–attempting to fight off the atomic threats of the near future world. The mystery? Someone in the world is buying large quantities of U.S. zirconium for a nuclear bomb. The culprit appears to be a Afrikaner ally to a black revolutionary movement in South Africa with visions of ending apartheid. Of course, the CIG can’t have a nuclear war on its hands regardless of how noble to revolutionary struggle must be. I find it interesting that Blish set his story in apartheid South Africa but he too resorts to an all too simple white savior model to tie up all the loose ends.

“One-Shot” (1955), 2/5 (Bad) first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (August 1955). You can read it online here. The second C.I.D.: Universe story is even more ridiculous as it relies on ESP to solve the crises. No wonder John W. Campbell, Jr. was all over this story…. Note: According to Ketterer, Blish had a very short flirtation in the early 50s with Dianetics before disillusionment set in (13).

In “One-Shot” the Civilian Intelligence Group team believes that a Polish freighter dropped an underwater bomb in New York City harbor. Our heroic agent has a ridiculous idea that non-traditional methods are needed to actually identify if the bomb is actually a bomb before it explodes. He tracks down Braun, a one-time insurance agent for a corrupt International Longshoreman’s Association union, who seems to have the most incredible luck. And yet again, Braun puts those skills to test. There’s nothing remotely interesting here.

“The Box” (1949), 3/5 (Average) first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, ed. Sam Merwin, Jr. (April 1949). You can read it online here. “The Box” demonstrates a bit more interest in setting up theme and scene than some of the other stories in the collection. Our main character Meister, a German Jew who survived Concentration Camp Dora before arriving in the United States, attempts to apply his knowledge of resonance engineering to a new crisis of humankind’s own making. An anti-nuclear weapon shield somehow has been triggered cutting off New York City from its surroundings. Meinster must struggle with his own traumatic past–in the face of the new threat he’s plagued by renewed memories of entrapment in a Nazi concentration camp–and the suspicions Americans hold for his German name and accent.

“The Box” shows promise and an attempt to craft a sympathetic and intriguing main character. I’m not entirely sure that the story works as it is bogged down with technobabble and a lack of focus. Blish presents the new anti-nuclear weapon device as yet another technology that can be weaponized and used to destroy those it is meant to protect.

“First Strike” (1953), 3/5 (Average) first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas (June 1953). You can read it online here.

An unusual satire of a post-apocalyptic America about to achieve spaceflight, “First Strike” follows Wally and his wife Carol on the evening before launch. In this future, scientists are viewed with intense skepticism (a nuclear war occurred!) and are social pariahs. Wally, despite this prejudice, is enamored with his position as a rocket pilot and cannot wait to make the important step into the colonization of space. The story contains humorous jabs at the poor science and anti-scientific stance that Ray Bradbury had in his Martian stories. I am unsure as to Blish’s own stance as Wally’s demonstrates a comical inability view his profession as anything but positive: “Because there’s a place to go to. Because the whole process of increasing knowledge is irreversible. Because I personally want to know what it’s like out in space, and on the planets” (60). His friends scold his view as the same “irresponsible curiosity that gave us the atom bomb” (60). Considering stories like “Testament of Andros” (1953) that function as satires of science fictional delusions of grandeur, I can’t help think Blish is attempting to convey a similar message.

“The Abattoir Effect” (1961), 2/5 (Bad): First appeared in this collection. It is not available online. Joan Wrexham, “from Wyoming straight out of college ten tears ago, bearing with her a number of convictions of which perhaps the most harmless was that Herbert Hoover had been the last great president of the United States” (75), discovers a sinister plot. She writes the speeches for the director, J. Burton Wolverton, of the International Blood Rescue Trust. While reviewing the data for one of the speeches, she uncovers an alarming pattern in which men with a certain rare blood type are targeted with murder. With the aid of a kind office worker and ex-reporter, she discovers the political machinations surrounding the anti-Cold War politicians who want to end the conflict once and for all. I am intrigued by Blish’s female hero who must convince men around her of the veracity of her ideas. That said, I struggled to finish this banal near-future thriller.

“The Oath” (1960), 4/5 (Good) first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Robert P. Mills (October 1960). You can read it online here. The second best story in the collection places the reader in another near future post-apocalyptic environment. Here Dr. Frank Tucci spends his days journeying out on a motor scooter from The Vaults–a cluster of survival shelters in the Appalachians that want to be the center of a new political entity–to track down experts for the new society. And he’s heard about a poet who abandoned literature as nuclear war approached for a “practical profession”, medicine.

But Nathan Gottlieb doesn’t seem like your average doctor who has sworn to keep the interests of his patients in mind…. Instead, he adheres to a draconian notion that some genes are not suitable for the new world. And, of course, he enjoys his position of power in the community. He dolls out the pills, reads the instruction labels closely, and promotes his disturbing theories of eugenics in the wasteland. Tucci watches these medical exchanges with great dis-ease…. But even a charlatan like Gottlieb is needed in The Vaults. And can he appeal to a man who constantly reminds you that he does not follow the Hippocratic Oath?

“The Oath” fits neatly into the legion of 50s and 60s stories that explore the new morality of the apocalypse. It joins the ranks of Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” (1952) and  Richard Wilson’s “Mother to the World” (1968) as particularly disturbing examples.

“F Y I” (1953), 2/5 (Bad) first appeared in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 2, ed. Frederik Pohl (1953). It is not available online. I struggled to finish this one. A group of wealthy men sit in the Orchid club debating political debacle–conflict in India over Kashmir and its alliance with China–and impending doom (111). Another member, who appears to be a mathematician and interested in the occult, ranks on about the transfinite mathematics: “Well, that’s the way the transfinite numbers work. The first one is Aleph-null, which as I said before is the cardinal number of all denumerably infinite classes. If you multiple it by itself, you get aleph-one. Aleph-one to the Aleph-first equals Aleph 2. Do you follow me?” (113). No, I don’t. And I don’t want to. And maybe the impending doom isn’t so much doom but rebirth.

More conceptual stories about the existential dread of the end, like “Testament of Andros” (1953), function because of an inventive use of structure, intriguing images, and a more meta-satire of science fiction. Nothing like that appears here.

“The Masks” (1959), 4/5 (Good) first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Robert P. Mills (November 1959). You can read it online here. Almost a flash story, “The Masks” plunges the reader into the thick of things. In an oppressive future a young woman is interrogated about her highly decorated fingernails. The interrogator appears to believe that they carry messages about an underground revolutionary group. And as Margret Noland doesn’t have an employment license, how could she afford such complex art? She begs “No. No. Please, it’s only a design, only a design” (119). As the interrogator’s light changes color, the nature of the messages shines through…. There’s the sense that all of this is common. A society so oppressive that even the act of beatification takes on a political message, a new medium of revolt. Short. Powerful. Original.

“Testament of Andros” (1953), 4.25/5 (Good) first appeared in Future Science Fiction, ed. Robert W. Lowndes (January 1953). You can read it online here. This is a story that is bound to be polarizing. It’s a story that relies on structure as a key storytelling technique. Connection between the sections does not entirely mesh but an organizing principle is suggested by the ending. “Testament of Andros” also relies on meaning constructed by the association of material–seemingly distinct–placed in proximity to each other. I am reminded of the jarring shifts of perspective between the contemporary world and the far future in Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X (1960). These types of storytelling experiments would be honed and explored in the New Wave movement. Caveat aside, let’s dive in…

“Testament” is comprised of five short sections from distinct viewpoints–the names are similar, characters seem to flit in and out under new guises. They might be delusions of the same character. The first four delusions (?) appear to satirize a theme or mentality of science fiction–the pulp hero in his spaceship, the brilliant scientist alone in his temple of science, a new religious creed as the end approaches, the man who survive a nuclear blast. All four of these delusions appear to revolve around the figure of T. V. Andros, the son of an immigrant doomed to spend his days in a coal mine. Despite his best intentions Andros, traumatized by his horrific childhood, can’t help but repeat the sins of his youth. He attempted to escape it all by reading the pulps–“for a while I read those magazines that tell about going to other planets and stuff like that. I didn’t learn anything, except that to learn good you need a teacher, and the last one of those had been run out by the company cops. They said he was a Red” (141). Perhaps the four visions are fragments of what he read as a child that manifest themselves after psychiatric treatment.

All the sections resonate with the deep existential terror of the end and infinitesimal power that humanity holds over its own fate.

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24 thoughts on “Book Review: So Close to Home, James Blish (1961)

  1. As for the discussion of transfinite numbers in “F Y I”, it looks like nonsense to me, and I took a graduate level course in Metric Spaces and Topology. For one thing, it is not even strictly proven (though probably generally believed) that Aleph One is the cardinality of the real numbers (Aleph Null being the cardinality of the rational numbers (which is the same as the cardinality of the integers). But it is known that the cardinality of the set of reals is 2 to the power Aleph Null — certainly not Aleph Null times Aleph Null.

    At any rate, Blish either totally misunderstood the math (easy to do) or was just bullshitting.

    I’ll reread “Testament of Andros” and discuss it later …

    • I declare zero math knowledge. I have deliberately forgotten it. But even if I did I can tell it’s included not so much for what it means as for the idea that mathematics can be used by a character to justify higher powers and re-mystify a world that seems to be so scientific and cold and brutal in its formulations….

      I look forward to your thoughts on “Testament”! It’s an odd one and reminded me a bit of later New Wave visions… at least in its construction. And apparently one of the characters (the pulp hero with delusions of grandeur) is supposed to be a rendering of Sam Moskowitz.

    • So, the story ” F Y I.” I’ve been reading Jad Smith’s monograph on Alfred Bester and he describes Bester’s story “Hell Is Forever” (1942) in a way that I can’t help but think Blish is referencing….

      • It’s been, er, forever since I read “Hell is Forever”! 🙂

        I’ll have to reread it. I do remember thinking that only two early Bester stories really hint at how good he became a decade or so later — “Hell is Forever” and “Adam and No Eve”. There is no doubt that Blish knew the earlier Bester story, however.

        • According to the summary Smith provides (I haven’t read it — yet), “Hell is Forever” follows the conversations of a group of jaded English socialites (who think of themselves as the last descendants of Nero) who relentlessly search for new sensations and experiences with a backdrop of a global WWIII. It seems to go in far more fantastic directions than the Blish story though… with pocket universes etc.

  2. Pingback: Testament of Andros—James Blish | the sinister science

  3. I thought I had already posted about “Testament of Andros” last night but nothing has shown up — likely I messed something up.

    I reread the story, and found it fascinating. I would not say I understand it fully, but I have some ideas. I read the five (or 6!) sections as parallel universe (sort of) replications of a singular apocalyptic event — the end of the world — or at least the End of Man (remember that Andros, in Greek, means “man”). In each case there is a man (Andros) who is somehow spurred by anger at a woman (Margaret — which means “pearl”, not sure if that’s important — maybe instead there’s a Faust reference?) to terrible acts after discovering the imminent catastrophe.

    The different framings of the story are fascinating. The dark view of male/female relationships is interesting (in my reading, the men are rather “toxic” — I’m not sure what Blish meant, however.)

    I still feel I’m not quite there, however.

    (By the way, I think the reference to the astronomer Richardson in the first section is a sly nod to R. S. Richardson, an astronomer who wrote some decent short SF as “Philip Latham”, and also science articles for Astounding under his real name.)

    • I checked my spam and it doesn’t look like an earlier version of this comment was caught in the filter.

      How do you fit the character named Andros (vs. a version of the name) that connects directly to the title into the explanation? Is he the source of the different versions? Considering Andros is committed to an asylum (right?), I can’t help but think that somehow the other delusions are connected to him. But like you I’m not sure I’m there either. Anthony wrote about the story on his site as well if you missed his link in the comments:

  4. “The Masks” sounds like a story I need to read, especially in these days of where EVERYTHING is politicalized, whether it be Trump eating pizza with a fork, or the Obama’s terrorist fist bump, to so much other virtue signalizing. Liked all of the covers, although I wq amused by the sexist cheescake of the apocalyptic Luros cover.

    • It’s a good one! Flash (albeit a few pages) SF at its best. I look forward to what you think about it. It definitely plunges you in medias res. The cover does evocate the weird/uneasy/lurid core that underpins “Testament to Andros.”

  5. I just read “Sponge Dive” in the original magazine publication. Not Blish’s best work at all. The setup is dry and really rather boring. As you note, the resolution has aspects of a “white savior” narrative, but I think it was a decent message to avoid nuclear war. However, the story really falls on its face in the last page, with a clumsy and unnecessary bit of racist stereotyping.

    • Some of the problems (more the plot I suspect) might be due to the fact that “Sponge Drive” was conceived as a script for a TV show called C.I.D. Universe (I can’t figure out if it was a real show or not or just planned). According to David Ketterer’s Imprisoned in a Tesseract: The Life and Work of James Blish (1987), Blish and Alfred Bester wrote the scripts and when some were rejected Blish turned them into stories.

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