Jack of Eagles

Since I mentioned this book in my last post, you get this . . .

Raw Feed (2002): Jack of Eagles, James Blish, 1952. 

I looked at this book several times in the Lead High School Library, but I never read it then. 

First, the cover art and jacket blurb made it sound rather boring, and, second, I was less of a fan of psychic powers stories then. I read it now because it was mentioned by Damon Knight as bearing the influence of Charles Fort. 

Indeed, Charles Fort and his Wild Talents are mentioned explicitly in the novel as is the Fortean Society.  However, it’s unclear if Fort is brought in to dress out an idea Blish already had or if Fort inspired him. Protagonist Danny Caiden’s psychic powers are referred to as “wild talents”, and, of Fort, it is said,

He could see why writers loved the man. He wrote in a continuous and highly poetic display of verbal fireworks, superbly controlled, intricately balanced, witty and evocative at once,

So Blish seems to have admired Fort, and it’s quite possible was inspired by him. As Damon Knight notes in his Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained, the head of the Fortean society in the novel, Cartier Taylor, is a thinly disguised (the name certainly is) version of Tiffany Thayer. Both are given to iconoclastically encouraging cranks (including a mention of Dianetics) and attacking political and religious institutions. Taylor, however, actually has a small but significant role in the novel when, at novel’s end, he aids Caiden. 

What struck me most about the novel was that it seemed to be an attack on the notion of van Vogtian supermen and the sort of plots van Vogt would often feature. 

First, Carter, like all van Vogtian supermen, discovers a hidden power and quickly discovers secret organizations dedicating to using, suborning, developing, or extinguishing that power. However, there the similarity ends.  The novel explicitly rejects the idea of psychic powers being the product of genetic superiority or mutation. The Psychic Research Society dogmatically believes that not all of mankind is genetically suitable to develop psychic powers. Caiden regards this as akin to the master-race philosophy of Hitler, and the psi-men who aid him tell him that all people can develop their psychic talents. 

Second, Blish goes out of his way to build an elaborate scaffold of science and analogy to suspend disbelief as Caiden develops extreme powers of telekinesis, precognition, clairvoyance, levitation, teleportation, and pyrokinesis. He mentions equations of magnetic moment and gravitation which seem plausible, mentions Dirac’s work and Planck’s constant (redefining the constant helps Caiden jump across alternate timelines) and Heisenberg and quantum mechanics. 

The beginnings of Blish’s scaffold sound plausible as do Dr. Todd’s and the psi-men’s technological manipulation of psi-powers via electronics. Then the theories of J.W. Dunne and his An Experiment with Time are mentioned and the notion of “sequence” jumping. 

Blish does a skillful job of comparing Dunne’s notion of alternate realities to a series of overlapping films. Each time sequence we inhabit is a part of a series of total probabilities, each slightly different than the corresponding frame in the adjacent film. Viewing all the frames at once gives us a feeling of reality but each individual film is real and unreal. Furthermore, the films can get out of sequence just like a hand sliding the top film over the others. It’s unclear to me after reading this book and Piper’s Paratime whether Dunne himself came up with the notion that Piper used (and it’s not clear if Blish intends the same here) about a part of the unconscious viewing an entire life at once and free will altering a life at decision points which create alternate lives. 

I find it curious that Blish didn’t decide (perhaps he didn’t think his readers sophisticated enough but then why mention equations and Heisenberg and quantum mechanics) to use the analogy of probability states and collapses of wave function since he mentions clouds of probability. 

He carefully slips into more implausible territory with Caiden darting between sequences by starting to use the analogies of human behavior (both individually and en masse) being linked with quantum probability states. (He also throws in a neat, brief glimpse of a noble machine civilization as one of the six alternates Caiden visits.) He also justifies going between sequences by redefining Planck’s constant, but he never exactly explains (as he does with earlier instances of telekinesis) how this might be done psychically. 

Still, if you were reading the book fast and not paying attention (and it’s entirely possible I’ve misinterpreted or missed some of Blish’s scientific rationale) you wouldn’t notice this at the story’s climax. 

I also liked what this novel showed about the world of the 1950s. Caiden’s combat experience is casually mentioned. There is a great concern with insider trading and illegal gambling. Dianetics is mentioned as is the fad for Eastern mysticism. 

I thought the book’s only flaw was the relationship between Marla and Caiden. Caiden’s sexual attraction for her was understandable since he likes the Eastern European type. But the origin of his love and affection, and vice versa, was not at all clear though I liked the last bit where he unconsciously walked through a wall. 

Blish ends his novel on the optimistic note that humanity can learn to live profitably after developing its innate psychic powers just as Marla and Caiden can learn to live together while being intimately aware of each other’s thoughts and memories. This lack of privacy is, of course, a central concern in telepathic stories with authors coming down on both sides of the question as to whether telepathy is a blessing or a curse.

One thought on “Jack of Eagles

  1. Bookstooge July 25, 2022 / 2:47 pm

    Definitely a curse as far as I’m concerned!

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