Quite possibly one of the strangest books that I’ve ever come across – and this from a man who has spent more than half a lifetime poring over Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and The Book of Urizen, R. F. “Ray” Nelson’s Blake’s Progress is a science fiction from 1975 that follows the progress of one William Blake – and, more importantly, his wife Catherine – in their struggle against the time traveller Urizen throughout alternate universes.
While I let that sentence sink in, Radell Faraday Nelson is worthy of attention. Born in 1931 and 86 years young, Nelson began writing and drawing in the 1940s and 1950s. I had jokingly tweeted on first beginning Blake’s Progress that it read like a Philip K. Dick take on Blake – not realising at that point that Nelson’s first novel, The Ganymede Takeover, was written in collaboration with Dick and that he had been with the writer in the last few days before his death in 1982 (which you can read about on his web site). Most famous for the short story that was turned into John Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live, Nelson himself considers Blake’s Progress to be his most successful novel.
The book is bizarre but extremely entertaining – and terribly written in parts, which does add to its charm. After a very brief prologue which introduces the League of the Zoa (more on which below), the story proper begins with Catherine Boucher in 1782 as she meets her future husband. It is Kate who is the hero of the novel – not only does it begin and end with her, but Nelson suggests that she was the real talent behind the partnership: as her husband worked on crazy illuminated books that no one wished to read, Catherine produced the more commercially viable prints that kept body and soul together. It is also William who is the husband in distress, saved by his wife when seduced and taken captive by Urizen and Vala.
The relationship between William and Catherine is one of the most fascinating elements of the book – and Bill does not come out of the comparison well. Throughout the novel he is portrayed as sexually repressed, stubborn to the point of stupidity and selfish through and through – a thoroughly Urizenic figure who, it turns out, fathered Urizen on Vala while travelling through time.
Nelson clearly knows a fair amount about both Blake’s works and life, though there are some bizarre gaps (such as his insistence that Blake had to find a new way to print because he didn’t own a printing press). The Four Zoas and The Book of Urizen provide, perhaps, the strongest guides to the plot: Urizen is a member of the League of the Zoa, a group of time travellers, and frustrated with the progress of history he constantly travels backwards in time, attempting to change reality (with Los and the other Zoas constantly seeking to revert the universe to its more usual order). William, through his visions, makes contact with Urizen and passes on the Zoa’s power of time and dimension travel; in one such alternate universe (created when Catherine and Blake sabotage biological weapons that the empire of Albion seeks to use against the Americas – in a twist on the events of America a Prophecy) they encounter Urizen and Vala (who is both Urizen’s mother and William’s lover) leading a race of malevolent serpent people who have replaced humanity.
At its best, the writing has a certain brio but Nelson really can’t do dialogue (William, Catherine and even Urizen converse in an ersatz Mary Poppins-esque “London-ese”), yet the following passage will give a taste of the bizarre settings that, ultimately, could have no other source than in the works of William Blake:
A moment later they turned a corner and came in sight of where they might have expected to look over downtown London. Kate gasped. “Look!”
On the opposite bank of the Thames, towering over the other structures, was William’s giant statue of Urizen, unchanged except that it was no longer stepping on the serpent god of Oothoon.
“He’s done it again,” William groaned, then added, more cheerfully, “But he must have liked my statue to have gone to the trouble of including it in this new reality.”
Blake’s Progress by R. F. Nelson, published by Laser Books, 1975.