Jack of Eagles
by James Blish

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

expanded from —
"Let the Finder Beware", Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1949

Greenberg: New York, 1952

Faber: London, 1973
256 pages

collected in —
Flights of Eagles

November 2009

Slow reading on subtle minds

It's a pleasure to notice how steadily James Blish's Jack of Eagles has deepened its impression on me over a long time. It's a science-fiction novel: a treatment of mentality, of development of the furtive and evanescent mental powers we call collectively extra-sensory perception or ESP. It's a thoughtfully scientific speculation and a thoroughly imaginative adventure, both aspects remaining well grounded in a sensible landscape — workaday and exotic settings you can see and touch throughout — and a narrative powered by interesting and vivid characters. So Jack of Eagles is quite an achievement.

In the first reading, one is likely to be bowled along by the onrushing narrative, with the developing mix of semi-familiar ideas about mental potential, plus wholly unfamiliar ideas about the nature of time and fractional realities. It may require a second, slower reading (or more, in my case, over the years) to appreciate how carefully the novel is built of its component characters and ideas to make a compelling story, and one that lingers with you long afterwards.

Fractional realities

The analogy of spacetime as film (or filmstrip) in Jack of Eagles is all by itself worth the price of admission. I won't summarize it here.

It's also neat to bring in — as vivid fractions all contributing to the story: gypsy fortune-telling, Rhine cards, pop psychology, Fortean phenomena, psychical research, speculating in the stock market, playing the horses, dangers of war, and even gypsy loves and rivalries. Amazingly, all this works very well together.

Since Blish can be a vigorously thoughtful writer, as a bonus we glimpse what it might mean to actually understand a scientific equation. I'll contribute a humble example of my own here by way of illustration: if you want to apply "1/2" to an unsliced loaf of bread, it's not a matter of calculation to reach out and break it in half; it has become second nature that you split it by taking half in each hand: you know this. Blish's plot applies such knowledge to subtleties of spacetime.

The staircase scenes in which we "ascend the sigma-sequence" make a visual and conceptual climax which the reader is not likely to forget — I never have, no matter the interval between re-readings — and which surely deserves a place among the most striking of all science-fictional climaxes.

Characters that develop in time

James Blish doesn't always hit his target with characterizations, but in Jack of Eagles we have a fine set of eccentrics: good, bad, and/or mysterious. The protagonist, Danny Caiden, is an ordinary likable fellow, nothing apparently special; but as we come to see, it's as though he belongs essentially to another suit of cards outside the regular pack: call it Eagles. But if there really is a fifth suit in the game, the rules must be rather different than we've been accustomed to.

Besides the mentalists, scientists, cultists, ordinary folks, and other eccentrics, the gypsy girl Marla deserves special mention:

The girl was in the bare front room as Danny went out, sitting on the edge of the table and swinging idly one intensely feminine leg, which issued from the Puritanical skirt like the heresy which ends an era.

A beautifully crafted, enjoyable, and thought-provoking novel; Jack of Eagles is a science-fictional masterpiece.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

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