Tuesday, 24 April 2012

James Blish's After Such Knowledge Trilogy

(This article, with some slight textual alterations, was originally published in The New York Review of Science Fiction, No. 250, Vol. 21, No. 10, June 2009.)


James Blish claimed that one historical novel, one contemporary fantasy and one futuristic sf novel comprised his trilogy, After Such Knowledge. The three volumes are:

Doctor Mirabilis;
Black Easter
and its sequel, The Day After Judgement, considered as a single work;
A Case Of Conscience.

Black Easter/The Day After Judgement, hereinafter abbreviated as Black…Judgement, comprises Volumes IIa and IIb.

The trilogy is thematic, not linear, i. e., is three related works, not one three-volumed work, but how are the three works related? David Ketterer suggests that scientifically rationalized sf (Volume III) synthesizes the realism of historical fiction (I) with its antithesis, fantasy (II). 1

In Doctor Mirabilis, Roger Bacon believes that a gaseous explosion is demonic. In Black Easter, a scientist denies that a visible demon is real. Natural phenomena preexisted understanding of them. Supernatural beings would outlast belief in them. In both cases, reality transcends concepts. Conceptual breakthrough is a theme of the trilogy as of sf in general and of Blish’s in particular.

Thus, appropriately in Hegelian dialectics, the thesis, an accurately realized historical period, and its antithesis, a vividly imagined supernatural incursion, are interconnected. Also appropriately, they are connected by conceptual advance and resistance to it.

Historical events did occur. Historical fictions could have occurred. Bacon causes an explosion by natural means although his inner voice may be demonic.
Fantasy describes supernatural events that scientific rationalists believe cannot occur.
Scientists controlling natural forces can cause apparently miraculous events and might cause more in future. Futuristic sf writers must both describe fantastic events and realise future periods as effectively as historical novelists realize past periods.

This triadic formula explains why only Volume II treats the supernatural as unequivocally real. Volume III returns to the ambiguity of Volume I but at the higher synthetic level of rationalized fantasy (=sf).

Volume III also introduces an apparent contradiction between scientific discovery and religious belief. This conflict, already implicit, becomes explicit when the scientific achievement of interstellar travel enables Earthmen to meet aliens who do not conform to Christian preconceptions. A Jesuit priest-scientist finds an answer that satisfies him but ambiguity remains. The planet Lithia explodes when but not necessarily because Fr. Ruiz-Sanchez exorcises it from a safe distance. The explosion is also scientifically explicable.
It is also appropriate that a synthesis generates a further antithesis.

An Alternative Order

Blish’s suggested chronological reading order corresponds to Ketterer’s proposed dialectical order. However, I argue that another order is also valid: Volume II, written last, is the literary climax.

Reading the trilogy in chronological/dialectical order, we encounter the black magician, Theron Ware, in Volume II and a reference to a commentator on Finnegans Wake called “Fr. Ware” early in Volume III. Either “Fr. Ware” is real or Blish used the same fictitious surname twice. Either way, an unknowing reader might think that Theron Ware had been ordained after the events of The Day After Judgement whereas the writing order alone shows that Blish cannot have meant this.

More importantly, in Black…Judgement, demons defeat Heaven and their fortress of Dis rises to the Earth’s surface. It is therefore an anticlimax for the chronological reader when, near the end of Volume III, Ruiz-Sanchez thinks that:

“…Lithia transformed into a planet-wide fortress of Dis was a threat to Heaven itself.” 2

There is no such threat in this Volume but Ruiz-Sanchez’s heretical over-dramatization is a seed of Volume II. A Case Of Conscience could have been followed by a novel set later in which the Antichrist did appear. Instead, Blish next wrote a novel set earlier in which the Antichrist did not appear although Armageddon occurred.

Armageddon, anticipated in Volumes I and III, occurs, although with an unexpected outcome, demonic victory, at the end of IIa. IIb presents an unexpected, but logical, consequence of that outcome: Satan becomes God but unwillingly.

The ending of Black Easter had precluded any further secular events, yet A Case Of Conscience, set later, was regarded as a subsequent volume of the same trilogy. At the end of The Day After Judgement, Satan/God reverses the effects of a nuclear war so that perhaps the events of A Case Of Conscience can occur after all but this is not necessary for the unity of the trilogy.

What is clear is that the occurrence of Armageddon and the examination of its consequences make Black…Judgement the dramatic fulfillment of anticipations in both of the previously written volumes. Volume IIb reads like the culmination of a long literary sequence but is also a turning point: Satan, who fell at the beginning of Paradise Lost, in a prequel to Genesis, anticipates his far future transference of Godhood to man.

In the literary sequence from the Bible through Dante and Milton to Black…Judgement, the literary form has changed from scripture to epic to novel. At the end of The Day After Judgement, the text shifts from standard prose to indented paragraphs to Miltonic verse to dramatic dialogue, thus expressing ontological changes. The characters and their context have been transformed. A film director might show this by shifting from monochrome to color or from animation to live action. Blish progresses through the literary forms: prose, verse and drama.

Parallels and Influences

Black Easter belongs at the end when comparing Blish with his predecessor, C. S. Lewis. Lewis’s Ransom trilogy is a Christian reply to Wellsian-Stapledonian sf. Blish, a Wellsian sf writer and agnostic, refers to and quotes from Lewis in After Such Knowledge. I suggest that Blish’s Welcome to Mars and After Such Knowledge Volumes III and IIa constitute apost-Lewis” trilogy. Ransom visits Mars and a sinless planet, then demons manifest on Earth. In Blish’s works, Haertel visits Mars, his successors visit a sinless planet and demons manifest on Earth. 

Whereas Volumes II and III of After Such Knowledge are post-Lewis, Volumes I and II are post-Eddison. E. R. Eddison’s fantasy novel, The Worm Ouroboros, inspired Blish to write a novel about ceremonial magic. Mistakenly believing that Roger Bacon was a magician, Blish researched Bacon, learned that he was a scientist mistaken for a magician, wrote Doctor Mirabilis about him, then returned to magic in Black Easter. This common origin, although illuminating, is neither evident in the texts nor sufficient to link the novels directly to each other.
A Case Of Conscience originated separately. What became Book One of the novel was commissioned for a collection of stories set on a fictitious planet designed by two scientists. However, I agree with Blish that a common theme does link the three volumes.

A Trilogy?

The volumes are connected by:

a chronological sequence (past, present and future) culminating in Volume III;
a dialectical process (thesis, antithesis and synthesis) culminating in Volume III;
a dramatic progression (fears, prophecies and their fulfillment) culminating in Volume II;
a two-volume Eddison influence (demons, magicians and conjurations) culminating in Volume II;
a two-volume Lewis parallel (quotations, references and common themes) culminating in Volume II.

Thus, Volume II emerges as a focal point. But would we have called the three volumes a trilogy if Blish had not? 

We would at least have recognized common references to Bacon, Catholicism, Popes, supernatural evil, Antichrist, Armageddon and science. Each novel begins by assaulting the senses (a freezing stone corridor, a slammed stone door, a stink of demons), presents interactions between practicing scientists and supernaturalists and ends with transformations (deaths and realizations). Bacon is a scientist-monk mistaken for a magician. Ruiz-Sanchez is a scientist-priest who initially forgets that the office of exorcist remains open to him. In Black…Judgement, the black magician, the monk-magician and the scientist are different characters.

Even genre diversity connects the volumes. Fantasy and sf transcend existing experience. Historical fiction and futuristic sf present other periods. Blish wrote:

“…the historical novel is a natural second medium for the ‘hard’ SF writer.” 3

The Bacon of Doctor Mirabilis is a forerunner of modern science struggling against medievalism. Volume III describes a culmination of science: interstellar travel. Its aggressively atheist scientist character, Cleaver, regards Christianity as medieval and strives to thwart Ruiz-Sanchez. Thus, these two works might have been seen as a diptych. The Armaggedon and Dis references and Lewis parallels are enough to link Volumes II and III.

Because the trilogy was not preconceived, Blish was unable, for example, to incorporate into Bacon’s apocalyptic vision, in Volume I, prophetic images of the Lithian explosion (Vol. III), the Black Easter conjuration (Vol. IIa) or the SAC attack on Dis in Death Valley (Vol. IIb). However, this would have been inappropriate in any case. The historical Bacon did anticipate flying machines and submarines so it is legitimate for a novelist to present him visualizing them. However, Doctor Mirabilis is otherwise a straightforward historical novel which would arguably be marred by intrusions from a fantastic present or a technological future. Later volumes refer to Bacon but he cannot refer to them.

Knowledge As Evil

Blish tells us that, as its title suggests, After Such Knowledge dramatizes the question whether the desire for secular knowledge is evil. Each volume does address this question, thus validating the thematic unity of the trilogy whatever its reading order.

Volume 1:

Bacon’s inner voice claims:

I am the raven of Elias," 4

a source of food in the desert (1 Kings 17.6) but Bacon rejects this claim as “blasphemous and untrue." 6 Since Elias’ raven was from God, the claim may be blasphemous. Food in the desert, wealth where there was poverty, would be good unless it were gained at the expense of a greater evil: exploitation or pollution – or blasphemy or untruth.

The voice continues:

Thou art the man shalt bring back into the world the scientia universalis.” 4

To medieval Christians, all discovery was rediscovery because:

“…God revealed all wisdom to his holy patriarchs and prophets from the beginning of the world…” 5

Bacon (fore)sees Antichrist leading an army, sees aircraft, submarines and subterrenes and hears an anagrammic formula for gunpowder. If science did only destroy, then it would be evil. But it doesn’t. Aircraft are not used only in warfare. Armies preexisted Bacon’s conceptual revolution. Wealth, once produced, was fought for as Doctor Mirabilis, opening with the seizure of the Bacon estate, reminds us.

“…men began to abuse science, turning to evil what God granted in full measure for the safety and advantage of man…” 6

Later, Bacon challenges authority with the scientia experimentalis, knowledge from experience. Although this science is not prima facie evil, it was safer to practice it secretly in Latin Christendom. Even a Pope who does not want to offend the powerful religious Orders must ask Bacon to send his major work “in secret." 7 Bacon attributes experimental science not only to God and Socrates but also to his own “…imprisoned demon self." 8 Thus, he champions science but remains ambivalent about his role in it.

Bacon’s legend requires a “…deathbed renunciation of his whole life and purpose…” 9 In Doctor Mirabilis, he says:

“ ‘Now bitterly do I regret, that I spent mine wholle lyf in the lists against the ignorant. Enough! Lord Christ, enough!’ ” 10

Ketterer comments:

“…because this renunciation is not prepared for and is quickly passed over, it is highly likely that the reader will not even notice it…There is, then, little doubt that Roger’s act of renunciation is not endorsed by Blish.” 11

I did notice Bacon’s powerful statement but did not recognize it as a renunciation. I thought that he regretted that he had had to oppose the ignorant. Thus, he would have preferred a life in which there were no “ignorant” authorities for him to oppose, not a life in which he himself avoided the conflict. While writing this article, I quoted Bacon’s “last words” to someone who did recognize them as a renunciation so perhaps I have been alone in misunderstanding them.

Of the two men present at Bacon’s death, one says:

“ ‘…he was so perverse…forever at hares and hounds after matters men are forbidden to know.’ ” 12

The other replies:

“ ‘…there can be nothing that is forbidden for man to know since we ate of that Apple; for it states in the Proverbs that knowledge is good and beautiful for its own sake.’ ” 13

This conclusion remains ambiguous. Knowledge is inherently good in Proverbs but eating its fruit was sinful in Genesis.

Bacon knows Simon de Montfort and hears of “Robin of Sherwood”. We inherit experimental science, parliamentary democracy and popular resistance. Ketterer thinks that Blish imparts insufficient historical information, e.g., about why the French were then so influential. I suggest that readers may either consult reference works or accept that historical fictions have wider contexts and that what matters here are the effects of contemporary conflicts on Bacon.

Volume III:

Ruiz-Sanchez’s scientific discoveries on Lithia seem to him to contradict Catholicism. If the Lithians are apparently good without divine help, then they are really created by Satan to mislead mankind even though Catholics deny that Satan can create. Pope Hadrian VIII helps Ruiz to resolve this conflict by regarding the Lithians as a demonically-induced hallucination but how plausible is that? If Satan does not, we think, induce planet-wide hallucinations on Earth, why should he be able to do so fifty light years away? But, in any case, mere contradiction of Catholicism would not make the desire for secular knowledge evil.

An atheist defeats Ruiz by influencing UN policy on Lithia. A lapsed Catholic inspires awe in Ruiz by communicating instantaneously with Lithia. Thus, secular scientists dominate Ruiz’s period for both good and evil, communication and destruction.

Volume II:

Ware and his client, Baines, an arms merchant, seek knowledge that can be gained only by causing immense suffering. The scientific equivalent of “let’s see what the demons ‘…would do if they were left on their own hooks…’ ” would be “let’s see what this chemical weapon does to an entire population." 14 The desire for such knowledge would be evil. If, at the end of The Day After Judgement, the last magicians do begin to move away from their destructive motivations, then I think that they will have to deal with a great deal of guilt. Lewis’ morality, if not his theology, remains relevant.

(Incidentally, surely it was predictable that unrestrained demons + nuclear stockpiles = nuclear war. When Ware releases forty eight major demons all night without restraint, he is confident that this will not unleash Armageddon because there is no Antichrist. He is also confident that the demons will harm no one inside his magic circle because he is a skilled magician. However, neither he nor Baines would have wanted to emerge into a nuclear wasteland. “Deterrence” should have prevented the Last Conjuration as it had, until then, prevented World War III. Self-interest, if not morality, would have prevented Ware’s “experiment”.)
After writing two and a half volumes, Blish recognized the common theme and named the trilogy accordingly.

The Volumes resemble not three panels of sequential art but three paintings with a common theme, the middle painting, a sequential diptych, hanging slightly above the others.
Possible covers: I, Antichrist’s giant army; IIa, the crowned and immensely horned Goat, seated on an altar; IIb, Satan cut off at the breast by the floor of the great hall in Pandemonium; III, a twelve foot Lithian. In each picture, the main figure(s) dwarf human characters in the foreground.

Other Volumes?

An expanded After Such Knowledge sequence could incorporate other works by Blish.
Doctor Mirabilis was to have been the first in a series of historical novels about important scientists and crucial ideas in the history of science. Blish had started the second novel, “…set in the Venetian Republic during the Borgia pontificate…”, focusing on “…the invention of the security system for technical information”. 15 Here, not religious authority but political control threatens scientific knowledge.

The adverse effect of “security” on science is central to Blish’s They Shall Have Stars:
“…scientific method…depends on freedom of information, and we deliberately killed that.” 16

It also occurs in Black Easter when Baines asks Ware to arrange the death of a scientist who might otherwise make discoveries that Baines’ company wants, temporarily, to monpolize.
Blish’s Fallen Star is sf if Elvers’ claim to be a Martian is genuine but mainstream if he is psychotic. As Volumes I and III of After Such Knowledge remain ambiguous about the supernatural, Fallen Star remains ambiguous about the extraterrestrial. 17

Elvers destroys scientific evidence of extraterrestrial life because, he says, it includes forensic evidence of Martian genocide. They destroyed an inhabited planet. Elvers’ action suggests an inversion of the T. S. Eliot quotation:

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” 18

from which Blish named his trilogy. Elvers does not seek knowledge that may be evil but suppresses knowledge of an evil act. He thinks that, after knowledge of this crime, there will be no forgiveness. Like a terrestrial dictator, he suppresses knowledge of an atrocity. The next step for dictatorships is to control what counts as knowledge and therefore to suppress the search for knowledge in any objective sense. Genuine science and scholarship become unforgivable offenses. Elvers, killing explorers and destroying evidence, personifies the worst aspects of medievalism and dictatorship.

Fallen Star and The Night Shapes are an “Expeditions” diptych with Arctic and African antitheses. The Polar explorer of Fallen Star had previously sought the African “night-shapes," not knowing that these surviving dinosaurs had been wiped out fifty years earlier in the other novel. The hero of The Night Shapes, an American alienated from Western civilization, identifies the real night-shapes as the ideas of evil inside us but does not go as far as to identify secular knowledge with evil. 19


Ketterer argues:

“From a strictly human point of view, the major events which take place in Black Easter’s fourth-dimensional rendition of our world do not, strictly speaking, happen…To a three-dimensional perception Earth has not been destroyed. None of the major events described are part of recorded human history. They amount to some kind of Blakean vision of what is really going on behind the scenes…The preponderance of internal settings and the complementary, almost allegorical characterization accentuates the feel of a stage set for inner vision; the outside setting with which The Day After Judgment concludes marks a return to everyday reality…there are no references to the general public.” 20

I suspect that when Satan=God starts Man on a new path by undoing the effects of nuclear war, he also revises the memories of everyone except the main protagonists. Thus, the war did occur but will not be recorded. Allegorical characterization could be an extra level overlying the novel’s literal level.

Ketterer backs up his dimensional metaphor by arguing that Black Easter emphasizes threes whereas:

The Day After Judgment ends with four statements indicative of improvement…a threefold vision has been transformed into a fourfold vision…” 21

and the concluding “…four literary modes…might somehow approximate a completed fourfold vision.” 21

The diptych does end with a fourfold vision (Domenico’s thought, Baines’ belief, Ware’s hope, Ginsberg’s love) but the evidence offered for an earlier threefold vision is more diffuse (the three word phrase, “God is dead," the “Three Sleeps” Station, three-headed demons, World War III). 21 I think that the four literary modes express changes in reality although they could, of course, have more than one meaning.

Volume II (antithesis), unlike I (thesis) and III (synthesis), presents not only believers in demons but also literal demons. It deals:

“…with what real sorcery actually had to be like if it existed…” 22

Baines wants to know what the major demons would do if they were “‘…loose in the world…’” and Blish’s “…aim in the sequel was to pursue the literal-mindedness of the first book to still greater absurdities.” 14, 23

Ketterer quotes the scientist, Hess:

“‘Couldn’t all this be a hallucination…?’” 

But Hess is swallowed by the Goat. 24, 25 Before that, Baines had reminded him:

“‘…you and I have seen a demon.’” 26

Baines affirms the reality of the Black Easter event whether caused by demons or electrons but his remaining skepticism about demons flounders when Hess is swallowed.

If, at the end, Domenico alone had emerged from a trance, then we could have located Armageddon in his inner landscape. However, demons interact, sometimes fatally, with people who did not previously believe in them: a succubus visits Ginsberg; airmen photograph Dis; demons slaughter soldiers; General McKnight sees the Goat on TV.

Ketterer observes that the world population, the magicians, the military and the demons successively experience defeat, thus acknowledging that the events do occur for the general public. He points out that it is hypothesized that perhaps in some sense Dis had never been in Death Valley. But perhaps, in some other sense, it had, as the SAC computer concluded.
Televised pictures of devastation looked:

“…like scenes from an early surrealist film, where one could not tell whether the director was trying to portray a story or only a state of mind.” 27

but they were televised pictures of the results of a war. Later, can the SAC attack on Dis be “behind the scenes”?

Brian Stableford writes: 

“…demons are released from the mind of the characters…this is difficult to take. Demons in the mind are much more credible than demons at large.” 28

I agree that demons are “at large” but find this acceptable in fiction. They are released not from the mind but from Hell where, in Christian belief and Blish’s fiction, they preexisted human minds.

There may be some textual evidence that the demons are not really at large. When Domenico wondered why an angel conjured by the white magicians appeared headless:
“The leaden skies returned him no answer.” 29

And when Hess suggests that they are all insane, he does so “…in a leaden monotone.” 30
Does Hess’ leaden monotone confirm that Domenico’s leaden skies are part of a collective hallucination? The word “leaden” seems significant. Blish would have known that he used it twice and that, by doing so, he linked an inner state, insanity, to an outer appearance, an unanswering sky. However, the Goat’s swallowing of the hysterically incredulous Hess seems even more significant, a decisive statement that demons are real.

Ketterer calls McKnight’s identification of the Goat with “‘…the insidious Doctor Fu Manchu!’” “corny”; Stableford calls it flippant. 31, 32, 28 McKnight needs to identify an enemy, can think only in terms of national or racial stereotypes, has watched all his weapons fail and now sees an “immense Face” on a Cinerama-sized screen so he loses his grip on reality and retreats into fiction. 33

Others also apply old concepts to new experiences: Domenico sees a demon Pope as the Antichrist, not as the new divine appointee; Ginsberg lives on “company time” after Armageddon; Hess denies his senses.34

Blish on Knowledge

Although Blish addressed the question whether the desire for secular knowledge is evil, there is no doubt about his answer to it, as expressed through other characters.
In another work, an alien says:

“This organism dies now. It dies in confidence of knowledge, as an intelligent creature dies. Man has taught us this. There is nothing. That knowledge. Cannot do. With it…men…have crossed…have crossed space…” 35

Blish’s major character, Amalfi, says:

“That’s the priceless coin, gentlemen, the universal coin: human knowledge.” 36

When the universe ends, a scientist pronounces the:

“…epitaph for Man: We did not have time to learn everything that we wanted to know.” 37

And that is a fitting epitaph for James Blish.


  David Ketterer’s book provides a framework for discussing Blish’s works. I am grateful to Ketterer for both writing the book and sending me a copy and am sorry that my response is so late and slight.

1. David Ketterer, Imprisoned in a Tesseract: the Life and Work of James Blish (Kent, Ohio: the Kent State University Press, 1987), pp. 318-319.
2. James Blish, A Case Of Conscience (New York: Ballantine Books, 1958; Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1963), p. 180.
3. James Blish, “The Strange Career of Doctor Mirabilis” (Australian SF Review, no. 6, January 1967), quoted in Ketterer, op. cit., p. 195.
4. James Blish, Doctor Mirabilis (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971), p. 157.
5. ibid, p. 155.
6. ibid, p. 156.
7. ibid, p. 255.
8. ibid, p. 254.
9. James Blish, letter to Lois Dwight Cole, quoted in Ketterer, op. cit., p. 214.
10. Blish, DoctorMirabilis, p. 330.
11. Ketterer, op. cit., p. 214.
12. Blish, Doctor Mirabilis, p. 329.
13. ibid, pp. 329-330.
14. James Blish, Black Easter (New York: Doubleday, 1968), reprinted in Black Easter and The Day After Judgement (London: Arrow Books Ltd, 1981), p. 73.
15. James Blish, letter to Philip K. Dick, 13 June 1964, quoted in Ketterer, op. cit., pp. 192, 349.
16. James Blish, They Shall Have Stars (New York: Avon, 1957; London: Faber & Faber, 1956), reprinted in James Blish, Cities in Flight (London: Arrow Books Ltd, 1974), pp. 7-129, at p. 14.
17. James Blish, Fallen Star (Signet/New American Library, 1977; London: Faber & Faber, 1957).
18. T. S. Eliot, “Gerontion”, www.bartleby.com.
19. James Blish, The Night Shapes (Ballantine Books, 1962; London: The New English Library, 1963).
20. Ketterer, op. cit., p. 312.
21. ibid, p. 313.
22. Blish, Black Easter, p. 11.
23. James Blish, letter to Paul Shackley, quoted in Ketterer, op. cit., p. 303.
24. Blish, Black Easter, p. 107, quoted in Ketterer, op. cit., p. 312.
25. ibid, p. 111.
26. ibid, p. 106.
27. Blish, The Day After Judgement, p. 131.
28. Brian Stableford, “The Science Fiction of James Blish” (Foundation 13, 1971), p. 41.
29. Blish, Black Easter, p. 86.
30. ibid, p. 107.
31. Blish, The Day After Judgement, p. 192.
32. Ketterer, op. cit., p. 306.
33. Blish, The Day After Judgement, pp. 191, 185.
34. ibid, pp. 125, 182.
35. Blish, The Seedling Stars (Gnome Press, 1957; London: Arrow Books Ltd, 1972), p. 180.
36. James Blish, Earthman, Come Home (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1955), reprinted in Cities in Flight, pp. 235-465, at p. 376.
37. Blish, The Triumph of Time (New York: Avon, 1958), reprinted in Cities in Flight, pp. 466-596, at p. 596.

Email address: paulshackley@gmail.com

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