anti-agathic: serving to prevent death; a drug that has this function

Original publications of Cities In Flight, Blish

This is a science fiction word. It was coined during the 1950s by James Blish as a key concept for his Cities in Flight series of novels, to designate the drugs that his characters took to give them potential immortality, allowing them to survive the long periods of time required for flights between the stars. I’ve discussed Blish’s writing style and his Cities in Flight novels in a previous post.

Anti-agathic drugs were such a useful concept that Blish’s word leaked into general science-fictional use, being picked up and reused over the years by such diverse talents as Harlan Ellison and Sheri S. Tepper. But there’s a puzzling problem with this word’s etymology, given that it was coined by a man as well-read as Blish. Agathos is Greek for “good”, and was also used to mean “noble”, “righteous” and “wise”, among other things—these are the pleasant connotations of the now-unfashionable girl’s name, Agatha. An agathodemon is a good spirit, and something that fosters goodness is agathopoietic. Agathism is the doctrine that all things tend toward goodness—to be contrasted with the technical meaning of optimism, which maintains that things are already as good as they can be (that is, optimal).

So in etymological terms, an anti-agathic drug would be one that opposed goodness, which is certainly not the literal meaning Blish offers. If Blish was looking for an etymologically sound name for an “anti-death” drug, he should have used the Greek word for death, thanatos. Something pertaining to death is thanatic; the study of death is thanatology; euthanasia is a gentle death; and athanasy is a state of immortality. Poul Anderson used the word antithanatic in his novel World Without Stars (1967), to designate the sort of drugs Blish was talking about. But by that time, Blish’s word anti-agathic had already enjoyed a decade of currency, so Anderson’s more etymologically defensible alternative never took hold.

So I’ve often puzzled over what led Blish to choose the word he did, and wondered if Blish was making some sort of sly joke with the name. It’s clear from the novels that he didn’t consider his anti-agathics to be an undiluted benefit to humankind, either at the individual level or at the societal level—individuals become bored and jaded with their over-long lives, society is split between the haves and have-nots because the anti-agathics are rare and expensive. Might the “not good” etymology have been an obscure little nod in that direction?

Or did Blish just get the word wrong through carelessness, haste or lack of interest? There’s certainly precedent for that. In The Triumph Of Time he consistently rendered the Norse mythological Ginnungagap as “Ginnangu-Gap”, giving it a vaguely Japanese feel. (And if you do an internet search on ginnangu-gap you’ll turn up almost nothing but Blish quotes and references.)

So during my recent rereading of Blish’s novels, I decided I’d dig a little more deeply into  Blish’s usage of the word, to see if I could tease out what he was up to when he coined it. But that turns out to less straightforward than you might think. Although the word anti-agathic appears throughout all the Cities in Flight novels, that’s no guide to when Blish first introduced the word and the concept, because the stories have a complicated publication history involving multiple layers of revision.

At the core of the series are the two earliest novels, Earthman, Come Home (1955) and They Shall Have Stars (1956). Each of these is constructed from a series of short stories—Earthman, Come Home is put together from “Okie” (1950), “Bindlestiff” (1950), “Sargasso of Lost Cities” (1953) and “Earthman Come Home” (1953); They Shall Have Stars is formed from the interleaving of “Bridge” (1952) and “At Death’s End” (1954). These original short stories were revised by Blish to form a more coherent and consistent structure when he assembled them into the novels. And then there was another round of revision when the first two novels were combined with two more, The Triumph of Time (1958)* and A Life For The Stars (1962), to form an omnibus edition entitled Cities in Flight (1970).

So the only way to judge exactly what Blish was up to when he coined this word is to go back to the six short stories in their original published form, and to read through them in order. That’s what I’ve just done. (My link from the title of each story, below, will take you directly to a copy of the magazine in which it was first published, held on the Internet Archive, and open at the title page of the story.)

The first story, “Okie”, appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1950. The original version contains no mention of anti-agathic drugs or of the characters’ long lifespans. Passages relating to anti-agathics and their effects, which appear in the corresponding section of Earthman, Come Home, were obviously added for internal consistency with later parts of the novel.

The second story, “Bindlestiff”, appeared in the December 1950 edition of Astounding. And it produces a surprise:

“Our assays show […] the presence of certain drugs in your jungle—drugs which are known to be anti-agapics—”
“Sorry, I mean that, used properly, they cure death.”

Blish’s first ever mention of anti-death drugs uses a different word from the one that he’s now remembered for! The term anti-agapic is used consistently throughout the short story, but was revised to anti-agathic for the novel. This is another etymologically inexplicable choice—agape is Greek for “brotherly love” (to be contrasted with eros, “erotic love”). But it may be the solution to a puzzle that I’ve only just become aware of, through the miracle of Google—why an “immortality serum” that featured in the “Deathwalker” episode of the science fiction TV series Babylon 5 was called an anti-agapic rather than an anti-agathic.

And if we compare a passage from “Bindlestiff” with the corresponding section of the novel, we also see how Blish’s ideas are still evolving. Here’s the original short story:

Less than a two-thousandth of one percent of our present population can get the treatment now, and an ampoule of any anti-agapic, even the most inefficient ones, can be sold for the price the seller asks.

And the revised version in the omnibus edition of Cities in Flight:

Less than a two-thousandth of one per cent of our present population can get the treatment now, and most of the legitimate trade goes to the people who need life-extension the most—in other words, to people who make their living by traveling long distances in space. The result is that an ampule [sic] of any anti-agathic, even the least efficient ones, that a spaceman thinks he can spare can be sold for the price the seller asks.

At the time he wrote “Bindlestiff”, Blish was obviously still feeling his way towards the central role that his anti-agathics would play for his space-travelling characters.

Bridge” (Astounding Science Fiction, February 1952) contains no mention of anti-death drugs—it’s concerned with the very early days of Blish’s imagined future history, and concentrates on the development of his fictional star-drive.

Sargasso of Lost Cities” appeared in a short-lived, luridly covered, large-format magazine, Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, in the Spring 1953 edition, and picked up the story of “Okie” and “Bindlestiff”. And, once again, Blish uses the word anti-agapic rather than anti-agathic:

“[…] our stock of anti-agapics is […] adequate for the city, but with little left over to sell to someone else.”

So this is the story in which Blish establishes that his longevity drugs are an essential resource for the inhabitants of his space-faring cities.

Earthman Come Home” (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1953), which follows on from the events of “Sargasso of Lost Cities”, brings another surprise:

But when death yielded to the anti-athapic drugs, there was no longer any such thing as a “lifetime” in the old sense.

Anti-athapic! This new variant seems to lack any sense at all. The nearest I can find in my Classical Greek dictionary is athaptos, “unburied”, but an “anti-athaptic” would be something that countered the state of being unburied.

Finally, in “At Death’s End” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1954), Blish uses the word anti-agathic:

So what we’re look for now is not an antibiotic—an anti-life drug—but an anti-agathic, an anti-death drug.

Cover of Earthman Come Home, James BlishAnd it’s this third and final variant that Blish adopted, for reasons known only to himself, as the definitive term for his anti-death drugs, when he came to combine and revise four of these short stories (none of which had originally used the word in this form) into the novel Earthman, Come Home.

So I have to throw my hands in the air and acknowledge that Blish just seems to have plain made up some vaguely Greek-sounding names for his anti-death drugs, and evidently didn’t try to keep track of his coinings from one story to the next. But at the time of revision, Blish must have noticed that he’d used three different words in four different stories, and presumably he was aware that he had no sensible etymology to defend even his final choice. He seems to have left us a hint to that effect, in a couple of lines of dialogue he added to the ending of They Shall Have Stars when it was first published in 1956. The lines don’t appear in either of the original short stories that were combined to make the novel:

“[…] Do you also know what an anti-agathic is?”
“No,” Helmuth said. “I don’t even recognize the root of the word.”

And that seems a perfect note to end on.

(But for even more on the vexed origins of “anti-agathic”, see this later post.)

* The publication history is further complicated by the fact that The Triumph of Time was entitled A Clash of Cymbals in its British edition.

8 thoughts on “Anti-agathic”

  1. I ended up here after trying to find out if anti-agapic was a term used outside B5’s “Deathwalker” episode or if JMS made it up out of whole cloth. Have to say, it’s one of the more interesting linguistic articles I’ve read for a while. Excellent work!

  2. “The Expanse: Tiamat’s Wrath” brought me here. Alas, the misuse of etymological roots continues. My only theory would be how in Agatha Christie’s novels someone always dies but then, there it’s usually via unnatural causes…

  3. Ah, I hadn’t noticed it being used in Tiamat’s Wrath.
    I like your “origin story” for the word. There are a couple of other hypotheses floating around, which I’ll write about some time soon, but the trouble with anything that “explains” anti-agathic is that it doesn’t explain why Blish started with anti-agapic and only found his way to anti-agathic over the course of several years and stories.

  4. “Agathic” could be interpreted as being derived from the ancient Greek “agathís” (ἀγᾰθῐ́ς), meaning “ball of thread,” a reference, perhaps, to the threads of fate. “Anti-agathic” would thus be “against the thread of fate,” countering the inevitability of aging.

    1. Ah, that’s an interesting one. Thanks!
      Did the Fates ever have a ball of thread, though? Clotho spun the thread of your life while you were still in the womb, Lachesis made sure it was the right length, and Atropos chopped it off. As told, the myth doesn’t seem like a process that involved storing thread for later use, but maybe there’s an … um … narrative strand I’m not aware of?

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