1970s, 1972, Chris Foss, DAW Books, James Blish, Josh Kirby, mind switching, New Wave SF, organic computer, psionics, science fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, time travel
Here’s a leftover from Vintage Sci-Fi Month; I almost managed to finish it in January, but fell short by a day or two. James Blish is best known for Cities in Flight and A Case of Conscience, two watershed novels that appear on numerous “best SF” lists. The rest of Blish’s bibliography isn’t as famous or well-regarded; his career started with the digest magazines of the ’50s and ended writing Star Trek novelizations for the money in the late ’60s and ’70s. Blish is one of those authors I’ve meant to read based on his two masterwork novels’ reputations; my buying habits being what they are, I got that chance after finding some of his books at a library sale. I admit, I started with Midsummer Century because it’s short; Cities in Flight is a tome (compared to other 1960s SF books) composed of four smaller novels.
Some 25,000 years hence, the earth has become a tropical paradise, overrun by rainforest. Humanity has evolved—or devolved—into tribes of death-obsessed atavists capable of communicating with their ancestors by means of latent psychic powers. Too obsessed with the afterlife, they ignore the rise of their evolutionary adversaries, the Birds—intelligent forms of today’s hawks and sparrows, whose primary goal is to eradicate their human competitors.
Due to a freak accident, modern-day astrophysicist John Martels slides down a radio-telescope into the 26th-mellenium mind of the immortal Qvant, an organic computer-brain of an Autarch from the previous age, surviving in an abandoned museum-temple as counselor and oracle to the tribesman. The Qvant is none too pleased by Martels’ intrusion, and the out-of-place Martels would prefer one mind per body. As the tension mounts between the two minds, Martels decides to try his hand at rallying the tribesmen against their Bird adversaries before it’s too late by seeking out a group of humans entrusted with guarding technology from the Qvant’s earlier time. This includes a relay computer that could enhance the Qvant’s abilities—but it could also have the technology for Martels, in a stolen tribesman body, to return back to his own time.
Blish’s prose is loquacious and baroque—a vain attempt on my part to emulate his prose style, which is more easily summed up as “wordy,” with vocabulary choices that leans too cerebral. I love the imagination behind the novel; there’s a lot of great elements in there that makes the plot overview damn enticing to me. Yet it’s like Blish wasn’t sure what to do with the great ideas or impressive world-building, so the novel meanders around without making too much of a point or being an electric read. Part of the problem was that Blish was terminally ill with cancer, and would die just three years later in 1975.
My favorite science fiction stories either romping good action yarns or philosophical mind-benders, but Midsummer Century avoided both those categories. It’s also unbalanced: meanders around for a long first section, displays some interesting world-building in the second, and closes with a rushed last third. The slow build-up of the first two sections is tossed aside with the finale; the Man vs. Birds plot gets resolved in a matter of pages, tying up most of the loose ends without much depth or explanation, while burying it under a stream of mental state pscyhobabble. (There’s a surprising amount of psychic theories and spiritual reverence in the novel, but presented with a scientific eye.)
While I did enjoy the conclusion, I found it too unsubstantial to be fulfilling. Midsummer Century was originally a novella in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but it wasn’t until the last chapters that it felt like one. Brevity works fine when you have a word limit; it’s annoying when fascinating plot elements have their climax glossed over. Again, it feels like Blish was working hard to expand the short novel into a full one, but ran out of steam by the end, the cancer taking the wind out of his sails.
While I love the ideas behind it, Midsummer Century reads like it’s either too short (to be a real novel) or too long (to be an effective short story/novella). It misses both greatness and suckitude to fall into the wide gap of “average” novels, lacking any real spark that would make it extraordinary. It’s a relic of the New Wave era slush pile, a few neat ideas jammed into a basic and under-refined story. Which is a shame, because Blish writes well enough, has plenty of creativity on display, and pens a story offering much potential. There are better, more important works from the era to pay attention to—maybe I’m missing something but I found Midsummer Century just plain average, a decent novel but one that I would otherwise forget save for the fact I can come back and read this review.
I remember reading the UK Arrow edition with the Foss cover when it came out… don’t remember much about it now except that I quite liked it, but didn’t think it was up there with his best work.
Cities in Flight was fun, although the 4th volume was a bit of a plod – my favourites were the middle two – but the first three would be considered fairly standard YA sort of books these days I think. Jack of Eagles wasn’t bad either.
A Case of Conscience and his other ‘theological’ titles like Doctor Mirabilis and Black Easter were all better but his best fiction was his short stories like Common Time and Surface Tension, imho.
And I just remembered he wrote a book about a safari looking for the Mokele-mbembe in central Africa! That was fun! The Night Shapes.
He also wrote some of the first serious critical pieces about sf, which are sill worth checking out, I’d say.
I’ve read some of Blish’s commentary on SF, very informative and usually spot-on. That’s where I’m most familiar with Blish; one of these days I’ll try to track down the Issues at Hand books that collect his articles and criticism.
The Night Shapes, for some reason really caught my interest. I’ll have to track it down as well. (I’ve heard the same thing about Cities in Flight, that the best volumes are in the middle.)
My copies of the 2 William Athling jr. books were about A5 size, with big staples to hold them together! No idea what I did with them…
Just come across this review of The Night Shapes – major spoilers in it, btw:
eh, too bad this one didn’t work out as well as you’d hoped, even more so with an annoyingly rushed ending. I’ve never read Blish, so when i do get to him, I’ll stick with his well known and well regarded titles.
I’ve definitely read worse, but yeah, having all the major plot elements resolved in a few pages was a big letdown.
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Joachim Boaz said:
I picked up a copy. I remembered you review but thought I’d give it shot. But I don’t have high hopes and suspect your assessment is on point.
Let me know what you think. In hindsight I may have been a bit harsh on it, but I don’t think it’s a good sign when, a year later, most of what I remember was the disappointment over those great but underdeveloped ideas.
Joachim Boaz said:
…well at least there were nascent good ideas. It’s worse when you read a year old review and can’t remember anything about the book because it was so incredibly “average.”
Very true, and I’ve read enough of those…