‘Beep’ by James Blish
Turns out I was right to skip ‘Beep’ the first time round because it is a bizarrely dreadful story.
Unusually, H&C include some criticism in their introduction when they say that “it is worth noting Blish expanded this story later in his career into the novel, The Quincunx of Time (1973), and that the longer version is disappointingly discursive.” It is not the first time this happened either; ‘A Case Of Conscience’ was similarly unfortunately over-extended. Apparently this is all Larry Shaw’s fault. We can’t give Shaw all the blame though, Blish just doesn’t know when to stop. Cities In Flight was tedious for one volume, let alone four. Even here he manages to give us two stupid stories for the price of one.
I really don’t know where to start on this. ‘Beep’ is driven by two idea: firstly, the universe is remorselessly deterministic; secondly, FTL communication is possible and, in fact, all such communication occurs simultaneously. These are intriguing ideas but need to be treated with care. Instead, they are expressed through a frankly mad story which I will try to summarise here.
A journalist goes to the government and tells them they’ve got a leak. As proof she tells them she knows about their top secret ansible device. The government track the leak to an old man who runs a consultancy. They spy on him but can’t discover any evidence. Time passes. It turns out the old man is the journalist in disguise (?). She has a copy of the ansible too because a distant relative left it to her in their will (??). Her price for revealing all her secrets is to join the security agency and marry the boss (?!?). Every one lives happily ever after in a thousand year reich. It is just fucking ridiculous but of course Blish gets to whip out his trump card: “don’t blame me if it is nonsensical, blame the deterministic universe!”
Is it meant to be humourous? Blish has a reputation for wit but it isn’t present in this finickety, unfunny prose and a screwball comedy is more than just a mismatched man and woman not having sex. He is not particularly good with social mores either; as with the second half of A Case Of Conscience, the story gives the impression that Blish has got his nose pressed up against the glass, looking in on something he doesn’t really understand.
This is all framed by an entirely unnecessary secondary story which introduces us to an agent in the all encompassing security apparatus the revelations of the main story has engendered. It adds nothing but it does manage to undermine the main story whilst simultaneously hammering home the fact Blish doesn’t care for niceties like plausibility.
As for ‘Beep’s supposed hardness: ansible, FTL, galactic empire, time travel? Not very hard really, is it?
By the way, although I’ve refered to H&C throughout, this introduction refers to “me” and others have mentioned that, in fact, they are all written by Hartwell so it seems like a polite fiction that The Ascent Of Wonder is co-edited.