So Close to Home, by James Blish: A Review

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So Close to Home, by James Blish (Ballantine Books, 1961)

Some of the first science fiction that I read, in my youth, consisted of the twelve volumes of adaptations of the original series of Star Trek, as written, almost exclusively, by American science fiction writer James Blish. So while I didn’t know Blish’s own writing until much later, I was familiar with his odd adaptations of original Trek (the story behind these, as I recall, was that Blish was living in England, had never seen the series, and adapted the stories directly from early versions of the scripts, which is why the episodes in the books sometimes differ so much from the transmitted versions). Eventually, I decided that I really should read something that Blish had written in his own right. About that time, I happened to find a nice, but over-priced copy of So Close to Home in a bookshop.

The result, I regret to report, was less than magical. So Close to Home is a slow-moving and oft-times confusion-laden collection of short tales by Blish. They are full of the usual concerns of 1950s science fiction, and I’ve included short capusle reviews of each:

* Struggle in the Womb – mutants versus normals. Mutants win. Exit stage right, sinisterly.
* Sponge Dive – the fear of nuclear proliferation. Disaster averted – for now.
* One-Shot – more fear of bombs. Dull.
* The Box – New York City is covered with an impenetrable energy shield, and it is up to a single scientist to devise a way to break through. The third best tale in the book, after “The Oath” and “The Masks”.
* First Strike – the perils of early, fantastic rocket flight. Sigh.
* The Abattoir Effect – mysterious deaths finally put paid to by punch cards. This is the story that stalled my reading of this book for six months.
* The Oath – a doctor seeks out other medical practitioners in a post-nuclear wasteland. One of three genuinely interesting stories in the book.
* FYI – a peculiar tale mixing higher mathematics, spirit mediums, extra-dimensional being, and bombers bringing the end of the world. Either I’m an incredibly dim bulb, or this story is not clever at all. It does get bonus points for mentioning the Third Programme, a result of Blish’s time living in England.
* The Masks – the shortest – and probably most successful – story in the book. A woman paints masks on her fingernails which carry secrets in a future oppressive America. Fascinating, and wonderfully brief.
* Testament of Andros – either I don’t know as much astronomy as I think, or the first part of this story suffers greatly from fifty years of astronomical development. Then it devolves into weird one or two page “testaments” from different, vaguely connected sources. Could have stood to be edited, or once again, I’m not clever enough to get it (although I don’t honestly think that’s the case).

Don’t get me wrong, I love reading old Ballantine and Berkley and Ace science fiction books – the smell, the feel of the paper… it’s like Sunday afternoons when I was a kid all over again, sitting outside, breathing in freshly mown warm grass scents, thirty years later. But this one also left me with a headache, which I don’t appreciate. So Close to Home may be good for hard-core Blish fans (if there be such animals), but I wasn’t impressed, except in the few cases that I noted. Which is sad, because I really wanted to be impressed.

Originally reviewed 3 January 2013.

Find your copy of So Close to Home, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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