Midsummer Century (James Blish)

The average quality of this work perhaps can be excused by the fact that during the early 70s Blish was chronically ill (he died in 1975 from lung cancer). But unless you are a dedicated fan of Mr Blish, ‘Midsummer’ is best passed over by those looking for memorable works from this era. This book actually contains one novella-length story, “Midsummer Century,” and two short stories: “Skysign” and “A Style in Treason.” In “Midsummer Century,” a scientist troubleshooting a radio telescope, falls (what a surprise!) into the antenna and, due to a construction error, has his consciousness projected 23,000 years into the future.

(This used to be a serious hazard for characters in science fiction/fantasy stories) He finds birds have evolved intelligence and now dominate most of the planet, and he’s now a disembodied mind in an artificial system that has become an oracle to the last remnants of humanity. The world this story is set in is inventive, and the plot takes some surprisingly philosophical turns, although it does get a bit rushed towards the end. Blish’s writing is occasionally a bit overwrought, but not enough to be distracting. On the whole this isn’t at all the sort of cynical, political science fiction I normally associate with the 1970s.

Of the two short stories, “Skysign” is the lesser work. Written in 1968, it’s a short story about a Tolkien-obsessed hippie who is abducted by aliens and attempts to take over their ship. It reads like a collection of 1960s tropes, and the lack of any sympathetic characters made it rather uninteresting to me. “A Style in Treason,” about a professional traitor, is more successful; it’s creative and suspenseful and reminded me vaguely of Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” character. Surreal, beautiful and often very creepy, this book manages to fit into 110 pages what most novels take three or four hundred to achieve.

Stemming from the era in science fiction which produced such surrealism as Moorcock’s The Shores of Death, and such post-apocalyptic films as “Logan’s Run” and “The Omega Man”, “Midsummer Century” provides a view into a world so far in the future, and so changed as to be unrecognizable. Blish’s matter-of-fact, event-driven writing bleaches emotional context from the prose: this technique serves only to highlight it in the mind of the reader. The book achieves maximum impact through its minimalist style; the images it generates are profound, and not easily forgotten. But it lacks any spark of greatness so I wouldn’t recommend this.

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