Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Star Dwellers and And All the Stars a Stage by James Blish

Years ago I read James Blish's VOR and The Star Dwellers and didn't care for either one.  I remember nothing about VOR (a giant overheated alien lands on Earth?) but I have my February 18, 2007 Amazon review to refresh my memory about The Star Dwellers (text below edited to rectify error regarding publication date):
I bought the 1970 Berkley paperback of this 1961 novel for its lovely red/purple cover. The novel, which is short by today's standards, 128 pages, is weak. The plot consists of an interesting trip through space to meet some interesting aliens, but also some boring diplomacy which Blish tries to make more interesting by piling on lots of silly melodramatic moments, including what amounts to a courtroom scene in which the star witness climbs out of his sickbed to provide crucial testimony. Worst of all the first half of the book consists of stereotypical cardboard characters sitting around yakking away.

You might like this if you are interested in pacifistic SF in which aliens have to keep us violent humans in line, or were wondering about James Blish's theories on education, popular music and censorship, but otherwise I have to advise that you steer clear.
This week I gave Blish another shot, reading his And All the Stars a Stage, a 1971 novel (revised from a 1960 magazine version, published in two parts), in its 1974 Avon printing.

Jorn Birn lives in a society dominated by women and plagued by severe (male) unemployment.  It wasn't always this way; a few hundred years ago the invention of an efficient energy source, easy birth control, and a means to select the sex of babies prior to birth, has lead to a population in which there are far more men than women.  Nowadays women have harems of male husbands, gay men are conspicuously "out" and conspicuously more successful in business than straight men, and many men live on the dole in government housing, clad in government-issued clothes.  Women have all the big government offices, and the executive of the world is "The Matriarch."

By dint of passing a bunch of mental and physical tests, Jorn becomes an astronaut in the new program to launch the first interstellar ship.  He's lucky to land this job, because even before the ship is finished it is learned that the sun will go nova soon, and all life on the planet will be extinct in five or six years!  Less than one person out of ten million is going to fit in the spaceships the Matriarch's government begins feverishly building.   

We achieve blast off on page 80 of this 191 page book, Jorn and co leaving the screaming mobs behind to be burned to a cinder by solar radiation.  For months the overcrowded ships hunt the galaxy for a suitable landing place.  Feminists may bristle to learn that, once away from the planetary surface, men begin to reassert their natural role as leaders.  The characters, and the omniscient narrator, assert that women make poor mathematicians, engineers, and composers of serious music.  On page 111 Jorn and friends land on a planet, but are defeated by the native wildlife.  Years, then decades, go by without finding a colonizable world.  Finally, when most of the characters are dead and Jorn is an elderly arthritic man, the ship lands on the ancient Earth, year 3900 B.C.  In what I guess is an expression of religious faith on the part of Blish we are told that Jorn's people and the Earth people are built on the same "Model" and can interbreed.  Alien genes enter the Earth gene pool, and alien myths based on Jorn's adventures enter Earth legend and religion.

And All the Stars a Stage is not very good.  It reads more like a dry history of a major historical event, told from a bird's eye view, than an adventure story or drama about individuals.  There are boring science and economics lectures.  Odd and interesting details are introduced and then abandoned; the idea that homosexuals form a powerful class within the matriarchal society is mentioned once and then forgotten, for example.  Back on the home planet most men had little laboratory-grown semi-parasitic pets called familiars that look like two foot long snakes or worms and live inside the men's clothes.  (Maybe these are a symbolic representation of masturbation... it seems that married men give up their familiars.  It also seems like the familiar is the prototype of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.)  Blish makes a big deal about these familiars, and then doesn't mention them for 100 pages until dramatically one of them becomes central to the story for a few pages.  (It grows to huge size and has to be killed with a flamethrower.) 

It is not clear what And All the Stars a Stage is "about," what it is trying to be.  It is not a fast paced adventure story, or a detailed depiction of an alien society, or a study or satire of gender roles, though it has half-baked aspects of all those SF templates.  Blish's pedestrian writing style doesn't elevate the material, and the whole thing feels flat.     

I'm on the fence over this one; it is not offensively bad (female mathematicians and composers may disagree on that score), just limp, with interesting flickers here and there.  I guess I'll be awarding it the famous "barely acceptable" rating.  Don't be surprised if it takes me another seven years to get back to James Blish's oeuvre.


  1. I've been sorely underwhelmed by Blish. I'm pretty sure I enjoyed A Case of Conscience as a kid, but not sure what I'd think of it now. The religious angle might be rather clunky now that I think about it. Although, no one was doing stuff like that at the time...

    But, do you want a copy of The Seedling Stars? I have a duplicate.

    1. Thanks for the offer, but I have way too many books waiting to be read already; it would just collect dust.