James Blish

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Name: James Blish
Also Known As:
Occupation: writer
Medium: print
Works:
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Fan Website(s):
On Fanlore: Related pages

James Blish was a well-known science fiction writer.

Media fans know him mostly for his (by most accounts, terrible) Star Trek tie-in novel (Spock Must Die!) and his episode adaption books, some of whom were written while the show was still on the air.

The Star Trek episode adaptations were generally based on draft scripts, and because of this, they contained differing plot elements and situations present in the aired television episodes. Also, prior to 1969 and after several of the books had seen print, Blish himself had never seen the show. Adaptations released after 1970 were closer to the pacing and characterization of the actual show.

James Blish was credited as the adapter for Star Trek 1 through to Star Trek 11, although it was later acknowledged that releases after Star Trek 6 were written in collaboration with J.A. Lawrence (his wife) and his wife's mother, Muriel Lawrence. This was due, in part, to Blish's declining health. Supposedly, his editor at Bantam Books (Frederik Pohl) was unaware of the Lawrences' collaboration until sometime prior to publication of Star Trek 11. J.A. Lawrence was credited in the final volume, Star Trek 12, which was released after Blish's death in 1977.

Despite his extreme dislike for tie-in fiction, Blish credited his acceptance of the Star Trek contract work for Bantam Books for his financial stability later in life. [1]

From a fan shortly after Blish's death in 1975:
While he was a highly regarded SF writer, as well as a passionate medievalist, his STAR TREK adaptations were often a subject of controversy with STAR TREK fans. With these books Blish received more mail than for all of his previous work combined. Letters started pouring in to his study in 1967 and never let up. Unable to deal with each correspondence personally, Blish used the prefaces of his books to give a few personal reflections on the task of rewriting the tv scripts to another printed medium. In Star Trek 10. he said, "I am doing the equivalent of transposing some works of other composers to a different key, or at best making a piano version of works originally written for orchestra." He went on to say, "in this series it was obviously my duty to the originals to keep myself out of them as much as possible. [2]

Was Invited to a Con

A few days before his appearance at The British Star Trek Convention, Blish canceled due to medical reasons. A fan's con report said:
James Blish, author of the Star Trek books, was the third guest star but sadly couldn't make the engagement as he was in hospital at the time. From what I gathered, though, none of the Trekkies was too keen on his books anyway so perhaps it's just as well he didn't show up. [3]
Another fan wrote:
It was a great shame that James Blish was sent urgently into hospital only days before the convention. We all wish him well. [4]

Fan Reaction to the Star Trek Books

For many fans, Blish's books were their introduction to fanfiction:

From a fan in 1975:
...those who are so quick to say they are 'old ST fans,' may be interested to know that the Welcommittee is receiving literally hundreds of letters from NEW fans who are responding to the preface of Blish's STAR TREK 11. Many are 'old' in terms of liking ST, having watched it from the beginning, but are 'new' to fandom. And I, for one, WELCOME them! Why shouldn't they join in the fun? We were all new once -- think of it! There are probably lots of new writers and artists and prospective 'zine editors out there! [5]
From a fan in 2013:
What got me going there? I ran into a Blish book, I think in a used book store. And I had run into one of the ones I later found out was written by his wife, which started highlighting the relationship between Kirk and Spock more, sort of, than showing kind of the overall storylines. And I at that point really wasn't sure what it was that was kind of making me really focus on this, but I got back in a big way to wanting to watch Star Trek again. And reading about it. So I bought all the Blish books I ran into. Yeah, I think I read the Blish books and the New Voyages first. So I was introduced to the idea that there was fan fiction out there, and then I also bought Star Trek Lives... [6]

James Blish and Alan Dean Foster: Who Did It Better?

Both Blish and Alan Dean Foster were Trek tie-in authors.

About Foster's novelizations of the animated. Well, in Log 1, I think you have to give him credit for trying very hard to make one of the most ridiculous ST episodes halfway tolerable. I think he needed a novel length book to do it, though I'm really unsure as to whether I want to praise him for that effort, or scream at him for using what is basically a cop-out ending[snipped] However, I do think Foster is doing a much better job on a creative level than Blish did. He's done more with a lot less. Though I have found several times he seems to get out of character, I find the Logs more readable and enjoyable than Blish's efforts. Log 8 is now out, and this one, which is again one episode converted a novel, is not too good - he adapted "Eye of the Beholder," which was an enjoyable episode , and added on a lot of stuff unneeded, and also inaccurate - he has a life form, intelligent too, and claims it is the first one found by the Federation . WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THE HORTA? I mean, that was silicon , and intelligent , and to me, it was a lot interesting an episode - better done, too, dramawise, than Foster's ideas. [7]
I like Alan Dean of the already too short (1/2 hour) episodes : I mean , look at what Blish did. He hacked and shortened the live episodes down to mere synopses of what was shown on television. As for Log 7, Foster adapted the episode very skillfully, extending it 1/3 of a book to 1/2 of a book. I feel the original portion of Log 7 was rather plot-less. A pretty bad story this time. If Foster can write ST as well as he can write original sf, if tries, then we'll have some good reading ahead. [8]

Blish's Star Trek Stuff

Blish's Star Trek scripts were auctioned off at a con called TerraCon in 1976:

On Sunday (bank holiday) Dorothy got a call, Mrs. James Blish. She said that she had found Empathy's address from an old Welcommittee notice, so she called on the chance that Dorothy might want all her husband's Star Trek paraphernalia. Two whisky crates full!!! Mrs. Blish didn't know about the Convention, so Dorothy told her. Unfortunately, Mrs. Blish won't be able to come to the Convention because she will be out of the country at the time, but she consented to have her late husband's Star Trek stuff auctioned at the Convention. SO BRING PLENTY OF MONEY!!! [9]
A con report for this con stated that Blish's stuff brought in the bucks:
The auction was a great success; Mrs. Blish sent in 50 scripts that her husband had used for his adaptations, and these were auctioned. There wasn't time to auction them all during Sunday afternoon, so most were put in a 'paper' auction where we wrote down our bids. [10]

Fan Comments

Unknown Date

Star Trek: The Original Series, or Kirktrek as I sometimes call it, was one of the first TV shows to have serious commercial success with TV spinoff novels.

It started with James Blish's Spock Must Die! which was read by almost all the ST fen I knew at that time. And not one person I knew had any respect for that novel.

I too found it ludicrous beyond belief and lost respect for Bantam because of it. But then I found out the story behind that novel, and the subsequent Blish ST titles.

The SF writer community is small -- was even smaller in the 1970's. People knew who needed money and why -- and when they could, editors gave work to those who needed it so that they would still be there when the editor needed a book written. Because James Blish needed money at the time the first ST book's contract came up, he got the job.

Everyone knew his work. He was just one terrific writer/artist/craftsman and a dynamite wordsmith who had written some of my own favorite novels. And he could work to deadline. So he got the job even though he'd never seen a Star Trek episode! [11]

1972

I sometimes think that it's harder for an established writer to write someone else's characters than it is for a new writer. Blish said to an audience at Lunacon, some years ago, before the first book came out, that the reason he was writing these books was that they offered him too large a contract; he couldn't afford to turn it down. I think that he has become more interested in it as time went on and he got so many, many letters, enthusiastic letters, about the books. He doesn't handle the characters right; on the other hand, he knows his science. And he has corrected a few faults, and I think that it's a good idea to take what is available in his stories and just not worry about the characterizations. [12]

1974

...Then one night while I was re-re-re-reading "The Immunity Syndrome" (One of the few stories that Blish adapted decently... [13]

1975

Trash in trekfiction isn't a criterion; fanzines publish perfectly horrible SF trash every year. There is NO WAY to avoid it. Some fanzine editors won't touch fan fiction and some seem to dote on the worst kind. Nobody in fandom has the right to put down ST fandom for that!...Trekfiction, per se, is probably not going to become acceptable to SF fandom, simply because it is still basically a copy of someone else's universe, and copying the scripts and story ideas of someone else. Originality counts, remember. No matter how good the Log One stories get (and they show no signs of it, yet) or the Menagerie #6 </ref>

1979

There is starting to be (is?) an awful lot of snobbery on fandom by a few self-righteous fans who maintain that their alternate universes are as valid as Roddenberry's original, and that you cannot call yourself a Trek-fan if you do not know the people they have created. Perhaps for those people, their own universes are valid, but I do not want them inflicted on me. To distort the established characters, or to inflict on an innocent reader a barrage of extraneous beings without explaining their origin is enough to cause any fan to gafiate from established fandom back to the safety of reruns, Blish, and the movie.

[reply]: I can't imagine anyone calling the Blish adaptations "safe." So many times those stories bear only a passing relation to what was aired. [14]

1980

Even a 9-year-old rerun watcher could do a better job! Since you are dead, I think I can safely criticize your work... The fact of the matter is that I got so absolutely nauseated with your books that I have rewritten every single story!... P.S. Your wife doesn't know how to write, either! [15]

1981

Once upon a time, there was a sweet, young, innocent, naive, squeeky-clean neofan. Oh, all right. It was me, and so only two of the above apply (take your choice). But there I was, stranded in Smallville, Missouri, with nothing but a few battered copies of the early Blish novels and a couple of Gold Key comics to sustain me. I'd heard rumors of large Trekcons in magical, far-away places like New York, but the realities of everyday life for me mere that the local TV stations shouted Trek reruns only on Thanksgiving and New Years (I kid you not). With a heavy heart, I tried to make do by reading mystery-novels and having children (two, and remember this fact — it will figure heavily later in this editorial), but life was never quite the same as it had been back in 1966-1969. [16]

1993

I was about 12 when The Making of Star Trek came out. I damn near memorized the thing. Reading about was suddenly more fun than reading fiction. (Remember, at that time all that was out as pro-novels were several of the Blish novelizations with which I was not overwhelmingly impressed, and Spock Must Die, a book I considered truly regrettable and certainly not Star Trek. [17]

References

  1. from "Imprisoned in a Tesseract : The Life and Work of James Blish" by David Ketterer, 1987, Kent State University Press
  2. from A Piece of the Action #30 (September 1975)
  3. comments from a much longer report by Hellie Vintner, from a amateur publication called "Star Trek Lives?" (date unknown, but refers to a Star Trek con in Los Angeles that had 85,000 attendees)
  4. Jenny Elson, from Star Trek Action Group #10
  5. from The Halkan Council #7 (June 1975)
  6. from Caren Parnes in Media Fandom Oral History Project Interview with Gayle F and Caren P (2013)
  7. from The Halkan Council #22 (September 1976)
  8. from The Halkan Council #22 (September 1976)
  9. from Empathy News #11 (June/July/August 1976)
  10. from STAG #20
  11. comments by Jacqueline Lichtenberg at The Connection to Star Trek Lives!
  12. comments by Sherna Burley at the 1972 Star Trek Lives! panel called Fan Writing Panel OR Don't Make Him Say THAT!
  13. from Probe #1 (February 1974)
  14. from Interstat #23 (September 1979)and a follow-up comment from Interstat #24 (October 1979)
  15. from "Dear James Blish, Why Didn't You Die Sooner? or, The Trouble With Star Trek Books 1-12", an article by Linda M. Bartlett in Beta Antares Four#2 (Spring 1980)
  16. from Sublight Reading #2 (January 1981)
  17. from Strange Bedfellows #3 (November 1993)