Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, April 24, 2020


Jack of Eagles by James Blish (1952) [also published as ESPer]

Blish (1921-1975) was an early science fiction fan and member of the Futurians who began his writing career with less than stellar short stories in the low budget science fiction magazines of the time.  His major work began in the Fifties and included such classics as A Case of Conscience, the Cities in Flight sequences of four novels (They Shall Have the Stars [Year 2018!], Earthman, Come Home, The Triumph of Time [A Clash of Cymbals], and the later juvenile A Life for the Stars], and the fix-up collection The Seedling Stars.  A perceptive critic, Blish was one of two critics (Damon Knight was the other) who helped bring science fiction to a more mature stage, emphasising literary quality and decrying shoddy writing and editing.  Ironically, his most popular work (and that which gave him a comfortable living) was the adaptations of the original Star Trek episodes which he published in twelve volumes; these were adaptations of the original scripts and not the revised episodes eventually shown on television.  (Blish's poor health led to his second wife, Judith Ann Lawrence, to collaborate -- sometimes anonymously -- one the later stories.)

Blish's interests were many -- philosophical, scientific, literary, historical, musical, among others -- and all found a way into his writing.  That he was often ascerbic led some to falsely believe he had little humor or warmth, something far from the truth.  Blish was a man obsessed with ideas, something that proved to be of great benefit as well as great detriment to his work.  He had a talent for literary invention and would often pepper his stories with scientific rationale to prop up his main ideas.  As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction put it:  "[H]e was not a naturally easy or harmonious writer; his style was often awkward, and in its sometimes anomalous displays of erudition could appear cold.  On the other hand, there was a visionary, romantic side to Blish which, though carefully controlled, is often visible below the surface."  Blish, with his many plusses and despite his few minuses, help bring science fiction out of the pulp ghetto and into the wider light.

Jack of Eagles was Blish's first published book and was exapnded from his story "Let the Finder Beware" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1949).  It concerns a young reporter for a food-industry trade magazine, Danny Caiden, who one day inserted a line about a major food company about to be hit with a price-fixing charge -- an assertion that appeared to come out of thin air and/or Danny's fertile imagination.  Danny could not  explain why he write that line but he somehow felt that it was true -- by the coming Friday International wheat would be charged with price-fixing.  since International Wheat was a major advertiser of the food magazine, Danny was fired.

Earlier that day while walking to work, Danny heard a squeal of brakes and a loud crash coming from around the corner.  The week before he had heard the same sounds and, ruching, around the corner, found nothing there, with no indication anyone else had heard the noise.  This time however, there was a bloody crash as passersby stood in horror.

When he was young, Danny had a neat trick.  He could find lost objects.  Every time.  He didn't have to be near the objects; someone could call him on a phone and say they had misolaced sometime and Danny would immediately tell them where the item was.

Danny is a bright guy but for the purpose of this tale he's a little slow on the uptake.  He's beginning to wonder if he has some sort of extra-sensory ability.  He decides to investigate.  First he visits a professional medium/psychic whose neice later latches onto Danny in hopes of finding out how he manages his "tricks."  Then he visits a psychic investigation society and has little luck there.  Finally he visits a college parapsychology researcher who seems to be interested in his case.  Along the way, Danny has been noticed by two opposing factions:  a secret group determined to use psi powers for their own ends and an opposing groups hoping to thwart the first.  Needless to say, Danny finds himself in danger.

Blish spends some time providing a scientific rationale for psychic powers and how they can be awakened.  Then he takes the plot one step further and introduces alternate realities.  Reality is not quite fixed and the "true" reality is actually an amalgamation of a number of overlapping realities.  Try wrapping your head around that one.  The bad buys want to maneuver things so that this reality is the true one and that they can have complete control over it.

And in the middle of all this is poor Danny who has to somehow save the world.

Jack of Eagles is a great example of Blish-itis Blish-ism.  Powerful ideas, a strong scientific background, free-wheeling imagination, pulp sensibilities, generally solid writing, and a fast-moving tale occasionally seasoned with drearily didactic interruptions.  Certainly not his best book but far from being his worst.

This one is worth checking out.   To quote someone in the news, "What have you got to lose?"  At least it's not an unproven drug with dangerous side effects.