“The man code-named Josef Faber—and after ten years he no longer cared about his birth name—lowered his bulky newsfac slightly. Finding the softly pretty young girl on the park bench looking his way, he smiled an agonizingly embarrassed smile and ducked back into the paper again.”
What you have here may possibly be the worst opening lines of every story ever written, or close to it. It has all the recipes of bilge: a parenthetical statement interjected in the first sentence, and the sentence ends in an adverb. That’s a double infraction. And in the next sentence, he describes the young girl as ‘softly pretty.’ That tells me nothing. It would have been sufficient to say the girl is pretty and young. That his descriptor is an adverb makes it even worse. And then, in the second clause of the second sentence, we have Faber being ‘agonizingly’ embarrassed. Firstly, we haven’t yet received a picture of Faber that would paint him as so emasculated that his embarrassment would plummet into the depths of agony if confronted by the wandering gaze of a coquette across the park. His ‘agonizing’ embarrassment here is unconvincing and, again, adverbial. What the fuck, Blish?
I’m talking about The Quincunx of Time, a science fiction novella by James Blish, published in 1973 by Dell. I picked up the book merely based on the title, curious how Blish would use the geometric pattern of a quincunx to establish some kind of conflict. I was curious to see how far Blish would go to make his narrative meet up to the geometric allegory. It’s surely a small-time book, published as a novelization of what I imagine to be a more efficient short story, ‘Beep,’ which was first printed in Galaxy Magazine in 1953.
I might have been more receptive to Blish’s cosmology if he wasn’t so ready to establish his pomposity from the get-go. The 128-page book begins with a ‘Critical Preface’ titled, ‘To Be Skipped By Friends of Fiction.’ In it, Blish delineates his doubts about the effectiveness of padding out a short story to fill the space of a book. Not exactly a confidence booster. But he does what he can to regain the rapport he destroys out of the gate, claiming that this book is no run-of-the-mill SF; it’s bona fide philosophical speculation. He even includes a page-long quote from William James for some reason.
And I suppose there is some philosophy happening here. The Dirac Transmitter is something of a recurring character, allowing for faster-than-lightspeed transmission of information between planets. He discusses a ‘laser beam’ bridge between two planets, or a light bridge, along which—utilizing the momentum of the waves on the beam—particles can be accelerated faster than the speed of light. The problem is that someone is somehow receiving information before it is sent. An interesting, Minority Report-style dilemma.
The problem is that, by his own admission, Blish is trying to speculate. Rather than letting the story tell itself, he is letting the story serve his own ideological devices, and as such, it’s a shitty book. On top of that, there’s no quincunx, which is the biggest let down.
Above this, I wonder if Blish and Quincunx get at what is the fundamental problem with so-called speculative literature. As a book of Philosophy-Lite, Quincunx succeeds by asking some good questions, but when speculation is driving your narrative, you no longer have a narrative. Thus, it renders all of the different devices, characters, inventions, etc. as superfluous. If you want to write philosophy, write philosophy. If you want to write fiction, write fiction. Think of court jester Ayn Rand—a horrible fiction writer, but a somewhat hard-nosed, but accomplished-in-her-own-way writer of philosophy.
So, The Quincunx of Time: dime a dozen. Pick it up if only for the rare word on cover and to get an idea of that often endearing Sci-Fi-Writer-Pretense. We can’t all be P.K. Dick.