Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Forgotten SF Anthology: New Dreams This Morning, edited by James Blish

New Dreams This Morning, edited by James Blish

a review by Rich Horton

James Blish (1921-1975) was one of the most important writers (A Case of Conscience, Cities in Flight, "Common Time", "Surface Tension", "Beep", and many more) and critics (The Issue at Hand, significant work on James Branch Cabell) in SF's history. However, his footprint as an editor was much lighter: the only issue of Vanguard Science Fiction magazine (June 1958), and two reprint anthologies: Nebula Award Stories 5 and the book at hand, New Dreams This Morning.
(Cover by Richard Powers)

New Dreams This Morning is a very slim book -- only about 50,000 words worth of stories. Blish's introduction discusses the state of SF, and its growing self-consciousness as a (his words) "literary movement". After discussing the growing seriousness of critical attention to SF, and of the literary ambition of its writers, he suggests that one aspect of SF considering itself a serious literature is an interest in art per se -- especially, in this case, an interest in art from an SFnal perspective. Which is what the stories collected here do -- look at the future of art -- new art forms, or the survival of older art into the future, or the way conditions in the future will affect art or the perception of the value of art.

The stories are:

"Dreaming is a Private Thing", by Isaac Asimov (6100 words) (F&SF, December 1955)

This is one of Asimov's better known stories, and, I think, one of his best. The new art here is dreaming -- creating dreams that can be recorded for other people to experience. The story doesn't really turn on plot -- it examines dreaming as art, and its affect on a couple of talented dreamers -- a young boy just showing the ability, and a highly admired professional. He also considerd pornographic dreams, and low quality dreams, and their commercial effects. It's a smart and believable story.

"A Work of Art", by James Blish (6500 words) (Science Fiction Stories, July 1956, as "Art Work")

I think this is the best story in the book, except possibly for Knight's. It's about a resurrected Richard Strauss, and about his attempts to compose something new after his resurrection. Blish portrays Strauss plausibly, and gets in some licks at future music -- as well as at his fellow SF writers, with this little passage: "By far the largest body of work being produced fell into a category called, misleadingly, science-music. The term reflected nothing but the titles of the work, which dealt with space flight, time travel, or other subjects of a romantic or an unlikely nature. There was nothing in the least scientific about the music, which consisted of a melange of cliches ..." At any rate, Strauss's efforts come to nothing satisfying, as the work he produces is but an imitation of his work while first alive ... and at the premiere of his new piece we learn what  real "work of art", and  real artist, is here portrayed.

"The Dark Night of the Soul", by James Blish (5900 words) (Galaxy, August 1956, as "The Genius Heap")

Odd that Blish chose two of his own stories. This one is less well-known than "A Work of Art", despite having appeared in a more prominent magazine. It's about a group of artists in the future who have been taken to a colony on Callisto, where they in general act up. The thesis seems to be that artists are disruptive, and perhaps it is best to keep them away from the bulk of the population. I have to say I was quite unconvinced on numerous grounds.

"Portrait of the Artist", by Harry Harrison (3500 words) (F&SF, November 1964)

This is a fairly straightforward story of a comic book artist who is being replaced by a machine that can do the drawing automatically. Seemed a little, well, over-programmed to me.

"The Country of the Kind", by Damon Knight (5300 words) (F&SF, February 1956)

A classic story, certainly one of Knight's best, one of those anthologized in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I. The narrator is a murderer, and his punishment is a terrible smell that alerts everyone to his presence, and a conditioning that knocks him unconscious when he has violent impulses. He's also an artist, and he's convinced, and tries to convince as many people as he can, that the freedom to act violently and the freedom to create art are linked. I don't really believe that, but the story sells its point powerfully.

"With These Hands", by C. M. Kornbluth (6800 words) (Galaxy, December 1951)

Another story about a true artist facing replacement by less expensive machines. In this case Halvorsen ekes out a living by teaching, very occasionally selling something, and by the patronage of women who seem to hero worship him to some extent. In the dark conclusion, he finds this insupportable, and flees to a dangerous place to admire a true work of art, even if it means his life. Pretty good work.

"A Master of Babylon", by Edgar Pangborn (10,700 words) (Galaxy, November 1954, as "The Music Master of Babylon")

One of Pangborn's better known early stories, though not a story I've really taken to on a couple of readings. Brian Van Anda, a great pianist, is perhaps the only person to survive in flooded New York. He lives alone, of course, and every so often tries to play a great sonata to his satisfaction. Then he encounters a young, nearly savage, couple, who stay with him for a brief time, and ask him to marry them -- they are just civilized enough -- under the influence of the late leader of their colony -- to want their relationship sanctioned. But -- at least in Van Anda's eyes -- they are not civilized enough to appreciate his music.

"A Man of Talent", by Robert Silverberg (5300 words) (Future Science Fiction #31, Winter 1956-1957, as "The Man With Talent", this version much revised)

(Future's editor, Robert A. W. Lowndes, lumped this story with Blish's "Art-Work", which he had published just a couple of months earlier in Future's sister magazine Science Fiction Stories, in the blurb.) This is a somewhat sardonic tale of a poet on Earth in the 28th century, who has become convinced that decadent Earth is no place for a man of his talent. His one volume of poems received slightly puzzled praise, and he's published nothing since, so he emigrates to Rigel Seven, a colony planet, with the idea that a new environment might spur his creativity, and a less jaded audience might appreciate him. But instead he finds that the vigorous inhabitants of the planet all fancy themselves multi-talented -- artists, singers, and of course craftsmen and farmers and so on. But what they feel they really need is -- a knowledgeable audience. And that is all our protagonist can be to them. Amusing work. Silverberg rewrote the story for this appearance, and I compared it with the original magazine version. The two stories are the same as far as plot and message are concerned -- Silverberg just improved the prose, added a few paragraphs (perhaps up to 500 or so words), generally, I suppose, brought it up to the higher standards he had for his work by this time.
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller, image courtesy of Phil Stephenson-Payne's Galactic Central site)


  1. Part of what's so powerful about "The Country of the Kind" is that it's about creativity (and too often the behavior of creative people) as aberrant, and thus the protagonist is monstrous, but so, too, is the society he finds himself in, even in its Kindness. Creativity isn't just the province of those who are disturbed or viciously transgressive, but too often the capacities are seen together in artists of various a certain degree, non-conformity is likely to be at least seen as bad behavior. And creativity does at least demand a certain degree of nonconformity. I've never bought into the notion of the Must Be Indulged/Forgiven Artistic Temperament, not least due those who've been great artists and not asses or worse, but the tendencies can run parallel. And, sadly, the protagonist has a point...even if he can't use it on people (or, we hope, pets and other animals).

  2. Recall also the story its title harkens back to..."The Country of the Blind."