The Quincunx of Time
by James Blish

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

expanded from —
"Beep", Galaxy, February 1954

A Critical Preface by the author, 1970

Dell: New York, 1973
128 pages

Faber: London, 1975

112 pages

May 2009

A quincunx of a title

All right, first the title. There are two extremes here. Quincunx is a word that I'm sure I first saw in the title of James Blish's short science fiction book The Quincunx of Time, and since then I haven't seen it too often elsewhere, scarcely at all outside the Oxford English Dictionary. For definitions the OED offers, basically:

  1. Astrology. An aspect of planets in which these are at a distance of 5 signs or 150 degrees from each other.
  2. An arrangement or disposition of five objects so placed that four occupy the corners, and the fifth the centre, or a square or other rectangle; a set of five things arranged in this fashion.
    specifically as a basis in planting trees ...
  3. A cruciform reliquary having five equal parts, which can be closed up by folding the outer parts over the central one.

Blish says in his "Critical Preface" that the book is about "time, knowledge, and free will". Knowing a little about the way James Blish thinks, we may guess that the novella concerns an arrangement of time and space, or a way of looking at space-time which is five-fold, or resembles a plantation of branching trees, or resembles a reliquary containing a compact holiness. Most likely all of these. But if you want to think of Blish's meditations on time as tightened here into a Gordian Knot, I wouldn't argue with you.

There's also a very nice splash of color in the characterizations, with five main characters in the central part of the story, principally: Earth's Chief of Security, Captain Robin Weinbaum; physicist Thor Wald, inventor of the interstellar Dirac communicator; and Dana Lje, a video columnist.

The Song of the Beep

Still working with the title, at the other extreme. The original 1954 novelet in Galaxy was titled "Beep", which in terms of titular magnificence is about at the opposite end of the communications spectrum from The Quincunx of Time; although in communicatory significance to the man in the temporal street, it conveys about the same amount of information: that is to say, not much.

There is some meaning conveyed, and not contradictory. The Quincunx of Time at least suggests that the story is about the nature of time; while the humble "Beep" is clearly a sound, and as Blish develops it, a warning.

Incidentally, for the book Blish has added an amusing and enticing set of chapter titles, like "The Courtship of Posi and Nega" and "Weinbaum on Sinai"; as well as deploying "The Song of the Beep" as a section title.

Where the beep meets the plot

Since the little book The Quincunx of Time doesn't contain a whole lot more wordage than the novelet "Beep" — which itself is not over-burdened with action — I'm not going to discuss its plot. I read the novelet long before I read the book, without it then making much impression on me. Blish's "Critical Preface" asserts, or pleads, that the story is "about something", and expanding the story a bit, putting it in book form, and adding an exotic title certainly helps us notice it.

Since first reading "Beep", I've encountered considerably more about time, non-fiction as well as fiction; and a little about knowledge and free will. Blish's take here is thoughtful and interesting, but really needs more development. Even though the reader may consider the Dirac beep to be counterfactual, it still may lead you to some enlightening speculations, much as (for instance) Friedrich Nietzsche's eternal recurrence may prove educational even for those who don't care to defend it as an axiom of space-time physics. Aside from the brevity of his story, Blish of course lacks Nietzsche's rhetorical power; yet I can imagine Nietzsche himself revealing a twinkling in his eyes as he unfolds The Quincunx of Time.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

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