Book review: James Blish – Galactic Cluster

UK edition of a selection of Blish’s short stories and novellas. This has somewhat different contents to the US edition under the same collection name.

Common Time
Short about a test pilot flight of a faster than light ship (using the Haertel overdrive, a common strand in Blish’s work). The two previous test flights left successfully but never came back, so this one is under total computer control and Garrard’s primary job is to stay alive long enough to report back. The opening sequence is a vivid description of the effect of drive on time perception, with the perceived time rate decoupled from the physical time rate. This section is very hard sf in tone. It then goes into a passage that feels very New Wave to me, even though the story predates the New Wave movement. The juxtaposition is rather disconcerting. I’ve always loved the opening sequence, but I seem to be getting old and cranky as regards the middle section.

A Work of Art
One of my favourite pieces by Blish. Richard Strauss finds himself alive again in 2161, the product of a mind sculptor. As is quickly explained to him, his personality and talent has been recreated in the body of a musically talentless volunteer. Strauss welcomes the chance to write new music, and adapts well if crankily to the changes in society over 200 years, but is not impressed by modern music. He gradually comes to realise what the true artform of this era is. A moving exploration of identity and personality.

To Pay the Piper
The survivors of an apocalyptic war have been living in deep bunkers for years. The war goes on, but one side develops a method to re-educate the population so they can survive on the plague-ridden surface. The hard part — it’s a slow process that for practical reasons is to be restricted to the troops who will be sent to do final battle, but the civilian population want *out*. A politician exploits popular sentiment to lean on the scientists to give him priority…

Nor Iron Bars
Set in the same sequence as Common Time, but somewhat further on in the development of the Haertel overdrive. Space colonisation has begun, but the Haertel overdrive is not yet fit for shipping large numbers of humans. This is an experimental flight of another ftl drive — and it too has strange effects, this time a disconnect between spatial dimensions. But this ship has passengers, giving the captain an added incentive to find a solution before the various side-effects kill people. Notable for showing an inter-racial couple in a story written in the 1950s.

Beep
Short story later expanded into a short novel, The Quincunx of Time. There’s a spreading interstellar culture, and the intelligence service is using the top-secret Dirac transmitter, a communication device that offers instantaneous transmission over unlimited distances. Any message sent on a Dirac device can be picked up by any other Dirac, anywhere. Blish explores the practical and philosophical implications of the technology. I like this a lot, but a lot of people don’t.

Beanstalk
Novella about a group of genetically engineered humans, and the problems they face in being accepted by standard issue humans. The group are tetraploids, with features common in polyploid life-forms — longevity, large size and low fertility. It’s an interesting way of looking at racial and cultural discrimination, as the group are of the same genetic stock and culture as the host culture, but are clearly differentiated by their much greater height, and have created their own sexual mores to deal with the twin problems of low fertility and the skewed gender ratio that has resulted from prospective parents being far more willing to use the treatment on male embryos than female. But it somehow falls a bit flat for me.

Overall, the collection’s worth reading, but some stories are definitely more interesting than others.

LibraryThing entry

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One Response to Book review: James Blish – Galactic Cluster

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Thanks for the reviews of the stories not in the US edition! I really wish he went back and rewrote Common time without those silly aliens…. And yes, as we agreed earlier, A Work of Art is VERY VERY good.

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