The Quincunx of Time by James Blish

Perhaps you’ve read some of James Blish’s more well-known works and not known it? If you spent any time either in your youth or adulthood reading Star Trek novels, then the chances are high. That’s because it was Blish wrote the many authorized short story collections based upon the 1960s TV series Star Trek - 11 volumes in all, adapting episodes of the series.

Blish died midway through writing Star Trek 12 and his wife, the literary agent, J. A. Lawrence, completed the book for him. Blish, it must always be recalled, also wrote in 1970 Spock Must Die! the first original novel for adult readers based upon the series. Subsequent to this publication, hundreds more have appeared.

Famous as Spock Must Die! is it still isn’t original Blish, although he made a great living this way, and also in 1970, Blish wrote this funky little novel, The Quincunx of Time. It’s very neat Sci-Fi: Late in the 21st century, a device called the Dirac Communicator promises instantaneous communication across interstellar distances, offering Earth security and peace. Before one of the devices can reach a far-away system however, someone starts producing predictions that suggest they have advance knowledge of Dirac communications. Eventually it is realized that the new technology incorporates a way of learning about future events and the result is an examination of free will versus determinism.

It is obvious throughout The Quincunx of Time that what we’re reading is a vastly expanded short story, but as this is all about ideas, ideas and more ideas I resisted the yawns and dutifully read to the end. The story in question was written in 1954, and although the novel is still short, it probably suffers from far too much explication and debate. The great trouble with 1950s SF today is that none of its writers that I am aware of predicted miniaturisation and digital or communication technology, which makes so much of the material seem stuffy.

On miniaturisation one must see Star Trek, which will always make you chuckle – especially when landing on a new planet the squad produce large and clunky machines like the Tricorder for taking their readings and what have you. The other great one is cassette tape, which is pretty much redundant today, but in the future generated by authors up until about 1990, was still recording and reproducing everything.  What Blish does predict here I reckon, is digital ‘zip’ technology, as the beep that Captain Robin Weinbaum of Earth Security receives turns out to contain all the messages sent and received by the Dirac Communicator, zipped as it were into one short signal.

The novel also contains the interesting slogan Mundus vult decipi (the world wishes to be deceived) which while being a very Twentieth Century view, isn’t ever really going to go out of fashion.