James Benjamin Blish was born on 23 May 1921 at East Orange, New Jersey. Blish later studied biology at Rutgers and Columbia University.
In the late 1930s to the early 1940s he was a member of the Futurians, an influential science fiction fan club. His first published stories appeared in Super Science Stories, "Emergency Refueling" in March and "Bequest of the Angel" in May 1940. At least ten more stories were published during 1941 and 1942, with two more over the next five years.
Blish spent 1942–1944 as a medical technician in the United States Army. After the war he became the science editor for the Pfizer pharmaceutical company. His writing career progressed until eventually he gave up his job to become a full-time writer.
He is credited with coining the term gas giant, in the story "Solar Plexus" as it appeared in the anthology Beyond Human Ken, edited by Judith Merril. (The story was originally published in 1941, but that version did not contain the term; Blish is thought to have added it in a rewrite done for the anthology, which was first published in 1952.)
From 1962 to 1968, Blish worked for the Tobacco Institute.
Then in 1968 Blish left his native United States and moved to Henley-on-Thames, England.
From 1967 to 1977, Blish worked on a series of books for the Star Trek franchise. He died before the series was completed and the final volume, Star Trek 12, was co-credited to his wife.
Blish died on 30 July 1975 and was buried in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford. The archive of Blish's books and papers is deposited at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
In his works of science fiction, James Blish developed many ideas and terms which have influenced other writers and on occasion have been adopted more widely.
The Haertel drive is a faster-than-light propulsion system developed through a number of Blish's science fiction short stories.
In the story Welcome to Mars! (1967), Adolph (Dolph) Haertel developed the drive in order to reach Mars rapidly. Haertel goes on to develop the drive further, to enable interstellar travel. In Common Time the drive is not yet fully developed but the destination is reached and alien contact made. The details of the story are seen as an early example of symbolism in Science Fiction. Many other short stores of interstellar travel and alien contact followed.
Other stories in which the Haertel drive appears include A Case of Conscience and the Pantropy series (see below).
In some later stories the Haertel drive is referred to as the "Imaginary drive".
The Dirac communicator provides instantaneous faster-than-light communication across space. Ursula K. Le Guin's ansible is often compared to it. It first appeared in his classic short story Beep (1955), which tells of its most remarkable property: every Dirac transmission ever made is repeated in a loud beep of noise at the beginning of every signal. Analysis of the beep reveals these messages from past, present and future.
Unlike any other SF story up to that point it is essentially plotless, being in the main a speculative take on the work of the physicist Paul Dirac. Blish also pointed out that the presence of communications from the future, implicit in Dirac's treatment of positrons as electrons travelling backwards in time, has philosophical implications for the debate over whether we have free will or the future is already determined. To Blish's surprise the story proved popular and even started a new subgenre of SF.
The story inspired the physicist Gerald Feinberg to develop the theory of tachyons.
Blish later expanded it into the full-length novel, The Quincunx of Time.
The Dirac communicator reappeared in many of Blish's subsequent works, including the Cities in Flight series.
Many thousands of years later, human civilization has gone through many Rebirths, or Renaissances. The chance infusion of a mentality from 1949 through a freak combination of the active mode of the Dirac within a radio telescope results in the formation, after many adventures and an ultimate resurgence of Man, of the Quint, the Autarch of Rebirth V. A computer of this far future time uses the Dirac as both a means of communication and infinite memory storage (Midsummer Century). Its existence was foretold at the time of Capt. Weinbaum (in The Quincunx of Time), though no-one could interpret it then.
The Cities in Flight quartet tells of the "Okie" cities which uprooted themselves from Earth and became itinerant workforces across the Galaxy. Much of the material was originally published in the science-fiction magazine Astounding Science Fiction, and was not written in the chronological order of the stories themselves.
They Shall Have Stars (first UK publication under the alternative title of Year 2018!) introduces two essential features of the series. The first is the invention of the first anti-aging drug, ascomycin, by a company called Pfitzner, echoing Blish's own employer Pfizer (Pfizer also appears in disguise as one of the sponsors of the polar expedition in a subsequent book, Fallen Star). The second is the development of an antigravity device known as the "spindizzy". Since the device becomes more efficient when used to propel larger objects, entire cities leave an Earth in decline and rove the stars, looking for work among less industrialized systems. The long life provided by ascomycin is necessary because the journeys between stars are time-consuming. A further feature of these stories is Blish's Dirac communicator. The chronology in early editions of They Shall Have Stars differed somewhat from the later reprints, indicating that Blish, or his editors, may not have planned this at the beginning of the series.
A Life For The Stars is a coming of age story set amid the flying cities. The third, Earthman, Come Home, is a series of loosely connected short stories detailing the adventures of a flying New York City; the title piece was selected as one of the best novellas prior to 1965 by the Science Fiction Writers of America and included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two.
The Triumph of Time (UK title: A Clash of Cymbals) is the closing work, in which the Universe comes to an end. Blish set the date at AD 4004, possibly in a satirical reference to the year "4004 BC" which had been inferred by Bishop James Ussher to be the year of the creation of the universe.
Four thousand years in the future, Human civilization has met its first full antagonist — the Green Exarchy. A system of many civilizations ruled by a non-human emperor, the Green Exarch, represents a significant threat to High Earth. The Green Exarch has at his employ the extremely dangerous shapeshifting (protean) agents known as Vombis. The Dirac is still in common use. High Earth remains the center of Human civilization. That civilization is remarkably advanced — for all practical intents, humans are now immortal. A memory cleanse known as Baptism permits those filled with ennui to begin lives anew, though there are side effects from subconscious recall. A quasi-religious group known as Sagittarians also play a part. The most important financial force in the empire of High Earth is the Traitor's Guild, who permit money to flow from system to system in reward of treachery to system governments, producing a Feudatory system between worlds, though not at the expense of internal stability. Traitors skilfully employ advanced biotechnology to further their aims, and are known to employ fungal cytotoxins, DNA reverse transcription mutation agents (to inject false memories and appearances in order to forestall recognition and testimony during interrogations), as well as technology to petrify dead bodies in order to make up wall fortifications in far offworld planets. The Traitors Guild may be found on all planets (A Traitor of Quality, Section in The Quincunx of Time with a lecture about the Traitor's Guild, and The Green Exarchy).
Blish coined the term "pantropy" in 1955, to describe the practice of modifying the human form so that it could live in an alien environment. The word has since become the accepted term for the practice.
Blish wrote several short stories on the theme, treating it as vastly cheaper than terraforming. They were later collected in the book The Seedling Stars. The story "Seeding Program" tells of the beginnings of Pantropy. Another story, "Watershed", makes reference to the planet Lithia, which is the centerpiece of the full-length novel A Case of Conscience in the After Such Knowledge trilogy.
Blish later collaborated with Norman L. Knight on a series of stories, collected in one volume as A Torrent of Faces. The collection includes Blish's Nebula-nominated novella "The Shipwrecked Hotel". The stories also provide an example of pantropy, in the modification of humans into a sea-dwelling form known as "Tritons".
After Such Knowledge, a group of two novels and two short novels in three volumes, took its title from a T. S. Eliot quote. Despite being written some years apart, the three books all explore aspects of the price of knowledge,
The first of the four, A Case of Conscience, was a winner of the 1959 Hugo Award as well as the 2004/1953 Retrospective Hugo Award for Best Novella, It follows a Jesuit priest confronted with an alien intelligent race, at first sight unfallen and in a state of grace, in which he struggles to interpret its theological manifestation while those around him decide whether to exploit it as a bomb factory. The second, Doctor Mirabilis, is a historical novel about the medieval proto-scientist Roger Bacon. The remaining two short novels, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment, involve ritual magic for summoning demons. In Black Easter, a powerful industrialist and arms merchant arranges to call up demons and set them free in the world for a night, resulting in nuclear war and the destruction of civilization. The Day After Judgment is devoted to exploring the military and theological consequences.
Blish adapted several episodes of Star Trek for Bantam Books. They were collected into twelve volumes, and published as a title series of the same name from 1967 to 1977. The adaptations were generally based on draft scripts, often containing additional plot elements or differing situations from the televised episodes. He also wrote an original novel, Spock Must Die!, which was released by Bantam in 1970. His success with the Star Trek titles brought him financial stability for the rest of his life. It has been suggested that volumes after Star Trek 6 were written in collaboration with his wife Judith Lawrence, and her mother, Muriel Lawrence. Blish died before the series was completed. The final volume, Star Trek 12, was co-credited to his wife, J. A. Lawrence. She continued the series with Mudd's Angels in 1978.
Soon after his death there was a 1976 BSFA Special Award to Blish for Best British SF.
The British Science Fiction Foundation inaugurated the James Blish Award for SF criticism in 1977, recognizing Brian W. Aldiss, "but it then lapsed for lack of funds".
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted him in 2002.1959 Hugo Award for A Case of Conscience "Best Novel"
1960 Guest of Honor, World Science Fiction Convention
1965 Nebula Award nomination for "The Shipwrecked Hotel" "Best Novelette" (with Norman L. Knight)
1968 Nebula Award nomination for Black Easter "Best Novel"
1969 Hugo Award nomination for "We All Die Naked" "Best Novella"
1970 Nebula Award nomination for "A Style in Treason" "Best Novella"
1970 Guest of honor, British Eastercon
1950/2001 Retro-Hugo Award nomination for "Okie" "Best Novelette"
1953/2004 Retro-Hugo Award for "Earthman Come Home" "Best Novelette"
1953/2004 Retro-Hugo Award for "A Case of Conscience" "Best Novella"