Midsummer Century
by James Blish

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

complete in —
Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1972

Doubleday: New York, 1972
106 pages

Faber: London, 1973
106 pages

October 2013

Dystopia unawares?

One may be pardoned for assuming that James Blish's title for this science fiction novella, Midsummer Century, conveys its nature as a pleasant fable of futurity. One would be correct, except for the pleasant, for its aspect is that of personal futility capped by triumphant nastiness.

How does Blish manage this? Well, the midsummer refers to the far-future climatic era rather than to any general summery happiness for humanity; this future humanity for long has dwindled, and now is writ small, few in numbers and almost entirely mired in darkness and superstition.

The story opens with an accident catapulting a contemporary scientist, John Martels, or at least his mental awareness, 23,000 years into the future: where he finds his mind sharing the brain of Qvant, a fellow who for long has been a sort of a static idol or immobile dictator or twilit god to the fearful local tribesmen. The scientist spends a weary period in a kind of imprisonment alongside the mentality of this long-lived (if that is the word) dictator. Blish has set an interesting intellectual challenge here for his protagonist, with some insights and twists on how two minds might co-exist in one brain. Yet as with almost all stories of imprisonment, unless there not only are active efforts to escape, but also progress visible to the reader, it grows frustrating before the protagonist and reader escape this section.

The magazine editor's lead-in to Midsummer Century quotes Blish as calling this a "pure adventure story, which one doesn't see often in these over-earnest days." What? The novella is heavily over-earnest, with its adventures of an entombed awareness alongside the mind of a hostile and laconic immobile dictator —! After a few more-physical but still unpleasant jungle adventures among the somewhat intelligent, loathsome, and rapacious Birds, more plot annoyance than plot furtherance, we approach with relief the wrap-up and climax of Midsummer Century.

But perhaps not relief, after all these depressing struggles. The story picks up again the earlier theme of dictatorship, and now posits and embraces an eternal world dictatorship. Not one individual after another from thence onward, but in essence and mentality the same entity, an eternal immortal dictator over mankind for its own good. James Blish seems satisfied, even pleased, with this outcome. I don't know why.


© 2013 Robert Wilfred Franson

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