Testament of Andros—James Blish

fig.1. The cover of Future Science Fiction, January 1953, edited by Robert W. Lowndes. Cover illustration by Milton Luros, “symbolizing the distortions of ‘Testament of Andros’ ” (page 4).

Testament of Andros (1953) James Blish

‘Testament of Andros’ is a remarkable early example of SF that is self-consciously modernist. It joins works like Kornbluth’s ‘The Last Man Left in the Bar’ (1957) as an example of a formally “experimental” literature predating and pointing the way to the 1960s New Wave in SF.

Like many works of modernist fiction, the form of the story is, perhaps, the most important aspect of its content.

The explicit, science fictional content—an impending disaster that involves the sun and its impact upon Earth—is told in a succession of numbered parts. Following on the experimental discovery of the “disturbed sun” in the first part, the following sections make up so many fragmented testaments of an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic world that results from a solar disaster.

Or do they?

Blish anchors the story with a final reveal that calls into question the previous accounts—a reveal that is, nonetheless, appropriately ambiguous.

Joachim Boaz of Suspect Ruminations writes that “an organizing principle [for the story] is suggested by the ending”, such that the final testament but one (#5) could be read to say that the entire tale constitutes the delusions of T. V. Andros, criminal, rapist, and reader of “those magazines that tell about going to other planets and stuff like that” (p. 83). This certainly helps to explain the way such diverse testaments like those of “Andrew” (#2) and “Admiral Universe” (#4) relate to each other—the latter of which is a wonderful pastiche of SF pulps. Joachim further speculates that perhaps the first “four visions are fragments of what [Andros] read as a child […] manifest[ing] themselves after psychiatric treatment”.

But then, in the final paragraph of his testament, does Andros write himself into his own fantasy while sitting in prison, or is the world rather on the verge of destruction by errant solar flares?

“Outside the cell the sun is bigger […] there is something wrong with the air. […] Maybe something is going to happen.” (p. 84)

The divide between reality and fiction is finally dispensed with. Was it even there in the first place?

Unfortunately, immediately after the chilling conclusion to Andros’ testament, Blish provides a superfluous final testament. Superfluous in the sense that it seems to me that the author is tacking on a science fictional twist to try and make his story less threatening to the average 1950s SF nerd:

It was Man all along!

Or maybe I am being too ungenerous. The final fragmentary testament (#6)—Man’s Testament as it were—really doesn’t detract from the overall effect of the piece. And despite this, Blish rescues his story from a dread twist by going full ouroboros. And so, the narrative devours itself, the first and last lines making a neat couplet:

Beside the dying fire lie the ashes. There are voices in them. Listen: […]
Here the ashes blow away. The voices die. [pp. 70, 84]

Could this be the final testament? The final, inescapable, absurd twist?

The total effect of ‘Testament of Andros’ is to undermine the sense of a coherent and reliable narrative, even at its most “realist”. Not only is the testament of T. V. Andros (#5) itself ultimately called into question, the “realism” of other parts of the story is also attacked from within—and not just by way of the possibility that they are aspects of a deluded imagination. Thus, the first numbered part of the story, the somewhat “realist” testament of Dr. Andresson’s, is also seeded with striking touches of surrealism.  For instance, Andresson’s ageless wife, Marguerita, who reappears in the later parts of the story under different guises: Margo, Margaret, St Margaret, Margy II, the Margies, Maggy. The role of this spectral woman bears comparison to the surrealists’ somewhat questionable evocation of woman as dreamlike muse. It is, for all that, one of the most effective moments of the modernist styles on display here.

In part, Blish also anticipates Ballard’s metamorphic Travis/Traven/etc—in ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1966-1970)—deploying the trope of anti-realist, fantastic repetition borrowed from the modernist avant-gardes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A more apt comparison, perhaps, would be with contemporaries like Jorge Louis Borges, or the writers of the French Nouveau roman, then most of his SF contemporaries. Which is not to say that Blish is alone in the SF ghettoes of the 1950s. Philip K. Dick, Damon Knight, C. M. Kornbluth, Judith Merril, Walter M. Miller, Robert Sheckley, and William Tenn, among others, were also experimenting with form and content. But such experimentation made up a small and marginal part of what passed for SF at the time.

Highly recommended for fans of literary modernism in SF.

Note that all references to section and page numbers refers to the version of the story as it appears in Future Science Fiction, January 1953. It can be found online here and here.

And thanks to Joachim for bringing yet another story to my attention.

fig. 2. Robert W. Lowndes perceptive, if somewhat defensive comments, accompanying ‘Testament of Andros’ in its appearance in Future Science Fiction, January 1953, p. 71.

4 thoughts on “Testament of Andros—James Blish”

    1. I do like The Atrocity Exhibition, though I am unsure if “like” truly captures the effect it once had on me. Impressed, overwhelmed, outraged, etc. Though in the intervening 30 years or so I’ve read a lot more of the surrealists and others that Ballard was influenced by so I’m not sure how it would strike me now.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is great. I struggled a bit with the ending as well. It makes the interpretation that Andros is the generator of all the various sections a bit more nebulous. But perhaps there really is an impending doom (the final portion) and Andros’ visions are triggered by the approaching fear. The classic man in the asylum knows the truth scenario…

    I’m not sure if you saw my comment to Rich but some of the characters line up with figures in SF — for example, Admiral Universe is supposed to be a pastiche of Sam Moskowitz!

    Like

    1. Thanks.

      I agree that it could be both, and Blish seems to leave that possibility open. I just wish he hadn’t tacked on that last fragmentary fragment!

      That’s interesting about the target of the pastiche. I’m still not sure what to make of Sam Moskowitz. I’ve read a few of his pieces over the years, but know him more by repute than exposure.

      Like

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