Sunday, 18 July 2010

"Anywhen" by James Blish

I was very fortunate on my recent trip through San Fransisco to stumble on a treasure trove of books by James Blish, whose "Cities in Flight" and "After Such Knowledge" series I heartily enjoyed. Over the next few months, I'll be reviewing the books I found in between a few of the remaining books from the SF Masterworks series.

What I love about Blish is that his characters are driven by their morals and philosophies. The critical turning point in his stories is far more likely to be a change of heart or key realization than a deus ex machina or twist of fate. His stories are a stage on which principles and ideas are given life and pitted against one another.

In "Anywhen", Blish wrestles with grand ideas such as attitudes towards death ("A Dusk of Idols"), whether deception in service of truth is permissable and sustainable ("A Style in Treason"), and how our expansionist nature might be tested when humanity finds its way to the stars ("Writing of the Rat" and "Some Were Savages").

I've been thinking a lot about Blish in comparison with Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon's focus in "Last and First Men" and "Star Maker" is so broad that there is barely room for recognizable human drama. Blish, on the other hand, is more successful in presenting the higher concerns of individuals in the context of their daily lives. The main character of his most famous series ("Cities in Flight") John Amalfi reminds me of Gino Molinari from Philip K. Dick's "Now Wait for Last Year" (one of my favorite books). Both are the types of great (but conflicted) men that see humanity through times of testing. They make hard choices, and although they bend their morals, ultimately they hold themselves to the ideals of their conscience.

"Anywhen" is short, but enjoyable, in that it gives us vignettes of a few of these principled characters, and makes us care about their choices and principles. Highly recommended. Stay tuned for a review of "VOR", also by Blish.

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