Duncan Lawie continues his voyage through science fiction worth reading, reviewing this week James Blish's Cites in Flight. The book itself is a compilation of: They Shall Have Stars, A Life for the Stars, Earthman, Come Home and A Clash of Cymbals (aka The Triumph of Time), all stories by Blish. Click below to read more about the good, and the not-so good in this collection.The name of James Blish may be familiar to some readers from his Star Trek novelisations in the sixties and seventies. These are a minor part of the late work of a writer important in the development of science fiction out of the pulp era. Blish was an early science fiction critic and the author of a number of significant novels. Much of his work considers religious, moral and metaphysical questions.
Cities in Flight is an important part of science fiction's increase in breadth and complexity through the 1950s. Much of the plotting, particularly in the parts first published, displays the pulp antecedent but the ideas are grand and fully worked through. The glorious central image of Manhattan lifting from the Earth and sailing through the stars is backed by sufficient technological breakthrough and human history to be as convincing as it is wonderful.
The work is episodic and occasionally contrary as a result of its publication history. Much was originally published as short stories and the internal chronology does not closely relate to the order of book publication. Its final publication as a single work - an omnibus, strictly - occurred twenty years after the first publication of the initial short story. Despite, or perhaps because of, this, Cities in Flight manages to cover the next two thousand years of human history in a complex patchwork.
The first book, They Shall Have Stars, is a prologue. It is a short, sharp look at the development of the technology necessary for the society present in the later books. Set early in the next century, this book develops directly from the world of the 1950s. It is a powerful manifesto for the space movement and a convincing, well written, coherent novel.
A Life for the Stars, the second book, steps forward over a thousand years to a time when the exodus of cities from the solar system is almost complete. Aimed at a younger audience, it details the struggles of an Earth boy for acceptance in Manhattan. Many cities have reached a position equivalent to itinerant workers, travelling from planet to planet and taking jobs such as mining or complex manufacturing in exchange for supplies, repairs or money. These cities are referred to as "Okies", reflecting the effects of the dustbowl years of the 1930s on the Midwestern USA. While this is a central plot device it also reflects Blish's interest in the cyclical nature of history.
The next book, Earthman, Come Home, was the first to be published. It is the hub of the saga, covering the height of the freedom of the flying cities and the nature of the end of that lifestyle. In its episodic nature and action-oriented adventures the book displays its origin in science fiction magazines of the early fifties. In its overarching plot and philosophy, Earthman, Come Home shows considerable depth. This book returns to consideration of the importance of the greater good over the individual first discussed in They Shall Have Stars. Other abiding themes of the series are also present - the passage of time and the obtaining of (or failing to reach for) wisdom.
The final book in the internal chronology, A Clash of Cymbals, is more directly concerned with these philosophical questions. It continues the story of Manhattan and its inhabitants, though the city has come to the end of its journey through space. This new circumstance affects the characters as does the inevitability of the triumph of time. The book has little action and much thought but is a tense, and intense, farewell to an amazing universe.
Cities in Flight forms part of the texture of science fiction, both in standing apart from earlier works and through becoming part of the canon, influencing much of what followed. It is filled with the classic science fiction "sense of wonder". There are powerful images and ideas, many of which have been used time and again in subsequent decades; the "spindizzy", the engine of the Flying Cities, may sound almost antiquated but the concept of confusing atomic particles to do the impossible is a standard in many novels using faster than light travel; longevity as a method of carrying a single group of protagonists through an extensive history is another example. Blish uses this immunity to age to explore the nature of history. He appears to believe that only the best of humanity is capable of learning from the past and that as a result we are destined to repeat our own mistakes. The heroes are brave, strong, clever and prepared to do whatever is necessary for good to triumph. Yet, they develop. They become more rounded people, more prepared to defend their territory than their ideals and are barely able to admit the mistakes they are forced to live with. This imparts great depth to an adventure as large as the galaxy.
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