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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Surface Tension -- James Blish

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James Blish (1921-1975) saw his novelette "Surface Tension" published in the August 1952 issue of Galaxy. It has been reprinted dozens of times in various collections and histories of the field, and in 1970 was voted for inclusion in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame (ed. Robert Silverberg, 1970) by the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) as the 12th "Greatest Science Fiction Story of All Time."

His most critically acclaimed works are the Cities in Flight and After Such Knowledge tetralogies. The Cities in Flight novels, in chronological order, not published order, are:  They Shall Have Stars (1957), A Life for the Stars (1962), Earthman, Come Home (1955), and The Triumph of Time (1958, in the UK as A Clash of Cymbals). Due to the invention of an anti-aging drug and an anti-gravity drive (the "spindizzy"), Mankind is able to leave an Earth that has seen better days in giant, domed, flying cities to travel the universe. The novels span thousands of years and travel to the end of Time and the Universe as we know it. The novella version of Earthman, Come Home from which the novel was born, appeared in Astounding in 1953 and was reprinted in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume II-B, the Greatest Science Fiction Novellas of All Time (ed. Ben Bova, 1973).

The After Such Knowledge books are (again in chronological rather than published order): Doctor Mirabilis (1964), Black Easter, or Faust aleph-null, (1968, first serialized in If, 1968), The Day After Judgment (1971, first serialized in Galaxy, 1970), and A Case of Conscience (1958). A Case of Conscience won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1959, and Black Easter was a nominee for the Hugo as Best Novel in 1969. In these novels and in various fashion Blish deals primarily with social, scientific, and religious issues regarding the nature of faith, and the uneasy relationship between science and religion (most pronounced perhaps in Doctor Mirabilis, which is a fascinating reconstruction of the life of Roger Bacon), and in A Case of Conscience (which examines the role of faith via an extra-planetary priest). The middle pair of novels (which Blish considers a single work comprising the second third of what he calls a trilogy) are more directly concerned with biblical Evil, and the Devil and his minions as real entities, and we see them brought forth onto Earth from Man's folly in dark and frightening depictions in a war unlike any other.

Blish's most highly regarded non-fiction work is his two volume set of genre criticism. Written as by William Atheling, Jr., The Issue at Hand (1964) and More Issues at Hand (1970) are classics, and marked Blish as one of the premiere critics of the field (along with, to that time, Damon Knight).

(The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1972, "Special James Blish Issue.")

As to the story at hand, "Surface Tension," as it was first published, deals with a mission to the Tau Ceti star system, its goal to spread humanity's seed in its expansion into the galaxy. The ship becomes wrecked on the surface of one of the star's water worlds, and just how human ingenuity provides for survival marks it as one of the all-time great "hard SF" tales, for Blish was not only a man of letters but a trained biologist. "Surface Tension" was adapted for radio and aired on X Minus One on August 28, 1956, but was altered substantially. Instead of following the setup of the original story, we now have a cosmic event threatening Earth which provides the drama, whereby humankind survives employing the same method used in the story. While different, this adaptation increases the stakes considerably. From the possible loss of a starship we are now confronted with the impending annihilation of the human race along with its home planet. This change also alters another aspect of the original story. The print version has one of the prime characters voicing his view that it is Man's hubris in thinking he could go from planet to planet, "seeding" the galaxy with humanity that has brought them to the dire fix in which they find themselves. The radio version, by having the calamity about to befall humanity arrive via a cosmic event, removes the theme of hubris and makes it, rather, something over which we have no control and is therefore not something of our own making.

Whichever version you prefer, "Surface Tension" is an exciting, thought-provoking tale, as Blish's cleverness, and philosophical take on mankind's destiny, remains front and center.

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