Cities in Flight (They shall have stars; A life for the stars; Earthman, come home; A clash of cymbals) by James Blish

Cities in Flight is the collective title given to four novels written by James Blish in the 1950s. Their most recent incarnation has been as a single volume, but when I first read them (in reverse order!) in the early 1970s, they were published as four separate volumes. My reviews are based on the Arrow paperbacks issued in the UK in the late 1970s.

They shall have stars

I recently got the urge to re-read James Blish’s Cities in Flight, a sequence that I enjoyed greatly when I was first discovering science fiction in the 1970s and which I re-read fairly regularly up to my twenties. When I first came across the novels, I read them almost in reverse order; this time, I have started with the first novel in the sequence, They shall have stars.

Anyway, I hope the rest of my re-read of Cities in Flight comes up better than this. It wasn’t just that the writing was so very 1950s; it wasn’t just that the science – especially in light of what we now know about Jupiter – now comes up so very badly wrong. It wasn’t even that the setting of the novel, which in 1954 was the impossibly distant year of 2018, had so very few matches with the reality of the early 21st century, either in technology, society or international politics (although interestingly, the two female characters in the novel are neither ciphers nor do they conform 100% to traditional male stereotypes of women) (more like about 45%, I’d reckon). It was the way in which so much of the novel – about 2/3rds – is characters sat in offices or restaurants doing the “Now tell me, Professor” thing. Most of the novel is just two big expository lumps. And whilst the science sounds plausible – Blish’s day job was as a biologist for the Pfizer company, thinly disguised as ‘Pfitzner’ in the novel – it’s only really good for what he knew. His planetary science was pretty shaky, even for the state of knowledge of the day. I can stand science fiction becoming out-of-date – after all, despite what a lot of people think, SF isn’t prediction – but when the whole story hinges on a number of different scientific scenarios, all of which turned out to be wrong, it rather impacts the tale.

The political landscape of the book is interesting; the USA and the Soviet Union have become more like each other as the Cold War dragged on, to the extent that the USA is now an almost totalitarian state, in the interests of loyalty. Those with a bent for political commentary will smile a bit at this, because many believe that is rapidly coming true; but Blish’s idea of how this might happen and what it could look like is pretty heavy-handed, and so really didn’t work for me.

Having said that, the imagery of the Bridge on Jupiter is quite effective, even though even some of the characters recognise that it’s one huge McGuffin; and one of the main character’s surprise at encountering the first spindizzy-powered ship is effectively conveyed. But this only lasts for the duration of the (now short) voyage from Earth to Ganymede; then we’re back to the talking heads. And the final message – abandon Earth to the Soviets and Take Freedom to the Stars – seems pretty clunky. I’d always thought Blish was more sophisticated than that.

And quite why Blish thought he needed to tell the story about how his future technology got invented in the first place is a bit beyond me. This novel, after all, was written second in the sequence, after the work that became (in its UK incarnation) Earthman, come home. It’s as if Frank Herbert had written a whole Dune novel about how someone first discovered the qualities of spice, and then told everyone exactly how they’d refined it, tested it in the laboratory, and then done clinical trials. All very interesting for biologists if it was a scientific paper, but it doesn’t make for great reading. It’s not even as if the story in the next novel, A Life for the Stars then carries on from where this novel leaves off; there is, as far as I recollect, no narrative connection, even a slight one, between this and the next book in the sequence, not even a reference to the characters or events of the first book as history.

So, not a propitious start to my re-read. I’m hoping for better.

A life for the stars

After I’d been highly disappointed with They have have stars in this re-read of Cities in Flight, I approached this book with trepidation. I needn’t have worried. The writing, although of its time, was acceptable; and the setting and plot delivered just what was needed to bring a new reader into the Okie universe. I had forgotten a lot about this book since I last read it, so I was surprised to see the central character being transferred to New York as early as he was – I thought it happened a lot later in the novel. I’d also forgotten that we got a direct introduction to Mayor Amalfi. (The pov character didn’t make it into the next novel, though.)

What did surprise me was that about three-quarters of the way through the book, I realised it was a ‘Mary Sue Ellen’ story! Now, for the uninitiated, “a ‘Mary Sue Ellen’ story” is a term from Star Trek fandom, and in particular from fan fiction, where the writer produces a wish-fulfillment fantasy wherein new Ensign Mary Sue Ellen (usually a thinly disguised version of the writer) joins the USS Enterprise and achieves all the things that fans would wish to do in her relations with the major cast characters, and finally ends up saving the day when no-one else can. I was surprised to see this becoming the crux of the plot in this case, though I suppose that in writing this novel in part for a juvenile audience, Blish might well have decided to help introduce his themes by getting the reader to identify with the protagonist. How ironic, then, that Blish went on to write Star Trek tie-on novelisations of the tv show episodes?

I possibly think that the scene setting is better in this book than in the later volumes, but they were concerned much more with plot. By and large, though, a welcome relief from the first novel in the series.

Earthman, come home

I really don’t quite know what to make of this book, now. Earthman come home was, as far as I recollect, the fifth sf novel I ever read (don’t worry, I don’t list them all in the order of reading! It’s just that the first five sf novels I read are fairly fixed in my memory for a number of reasons…). This means that I first read it at the age of about 13 and then re-read it fairly regularly up to the age of 21, since when I haven’t picked it up at all – so that’s at least 37 years that have gone by since I last looked at it, until I started a re-read of the whole Cities in flight sequence earlier this year.

I found the first two novels uneven going, to say the least. I was relieved when I got onto this book, which I note was written the year before I was born. The odd thing was that I went straight back into the story, with the text proceeding as though I was re-acquainting myself with an old friend – but a friend whose motives I thought I understood once but now no longer do. The events of the book flowed past, with plot milestones passing by with great regularity. Yet it had exactly the same resonance as driving a familiar road;. no shocks, no surprises but no excitement either.

Along the way, I noticed odd things. The dialogue is very 1950s; the one major female character is sort of well-drawn for the time but plays the role of the newcomer to the Okie city who needs everything explained to her. I had completely missed the fact that a black character is introduced towards the end of the book, and he is moderately well done, although the plot requires him to play the role of stupid serf, though Amalfi, the main protagonist, knows that this is deliberate, so we might let the author off a bit there. (But what happened to New York’s black population between 1956 and the distant future?) I still have the images I had of the main characters from my youth, but there were a lot of expository lumps (though not as bad as in the first volume of the series), and some surprisingly cyberpunkish dropping of trade names (although they are all future trade names and so mean nothing to us – Dinwiddie pickups and Bethé blasters). Amalfi seems to take a cavalier attitude to loss of life, whether it’s his own citizens or others. And a lot of the plot seems to happen because Mayor Amalfi guesses lucky, or even just plucks the right answer out of thin air.

The technology is badly out of date, of course – one minute, we’re talking about anti-gravity devices and instantaneous Dirac transmitters, the next Amalfi is putting down what sounds like a very 1950s Bakelite telephone whilst his navigators are picking up their slide rules. Yet there’s a bidding session for a work contract that is done by video link which was very easy to visualise in 2015 terms, and by and large the obsolete tech didn’t get in my way. And there is an AI, the ‘City Fathers’, though they are not so much a character as a plot device, as they only seem to advance information or advice when asked, although later on, when the Okies have mobilised the planet Hern VI, it turns out that the City Fathers are actually doing most of the flying, though this is not reflected elsewhere in the novel – they are not credited with running that much of the city’s autonomous systems. Oddly, most of the rest of the Okie cities appear to have equivalent systems, but there is little penetration of computerised systems into everyday life.

There are humourous asides – the so-called ‘Emperor of Space’ who appears to have learnt his English from Liverpudlians is particularly smile-provoking – but what really surprised me was the extent of Blish’s erudition on a range of subjects, from literature and history to economics and (some of the) science. My teenaged self must have done a lot of skimming in this novel, though I’m not conscious of that – or perhaps what I thought was super-science in the late 1960s/early 1970s was actually sound knowledge that I hadn’t yet discovered.

So not too bad a brush with the Suck Fairy, that magical creature that touches all the things we loved in our youth and makes them awful when we pick them up again as adults. The invention makes up for many of the faults, and the style of the writing itself has no major infelicities. But I suspect I’ll leave a further re-read for a good few years, because too much further exposure would most probably make things go seriously bad for me and this book.

A clash of cymbals (aka The Triumph of Time)

So to the final book in Blish’s Cities in Flight sequence, and the fourth sf novel I ever read.

What could I possibly have made of it when I read it at age 14? There are huge expository lumps of advanced cosmology in it, although I have to say that for 1959, a lot of what I understood (even now!) strikes me as being fairly sound, except for the way in which the steady-state theory is promoted as a sound and lasting theory of the origin of the universe; which is odd, because we are firmly in (cosmological) Big Bang territory here.

I also, at age 14, would not have grasped the joke Blish was playing on us by reflecting Archbishop Usher’s fabled date for God’s Creation of the World of 4004 BC (though he doesn’t go so far as to replicate the actual day and month!). Quite why Blish chose to throw this into the mixture I’m not sure, though it does correspond to the cosmic ideas in the novel of the reflection of matter and anti-matter universes..

As with its prequel, Earthman, come home, I found myself revisiting an old friend in the form of this book, although Amalfi’s casual acceptance of eugenic euthanasia for his children because of his centuries of spacefaring having exposed him to excessive radiation and subsequent genetic damage somewhat jaw-dropping. I found the recurring characters from previous books quite well-drawn, though the Hevians, as recent introductions (apart from their leader) were rather sketchy.

My main issue with the book was the way in which it seemed to have very little to do with the story of the flying cities; New York is permanently grounded, and at the end of Earthman, come home, the last of the Okies settled down to raise families and grow crops. Perhaps John Amalfi’s unrest and urge to be back in space would have made only a coda to that novel, though doubtless it would have fitted better there. Flying off in an entirely new, part cosmological, part mystical adventure which had very little to do with the sort of events and the sort of story that we saw in the preceding volumes was really something of a discontinuity.

There was a good sense of the passage of time and the characters’ reaction to suddenly being forced to reflect on that passage; But oh! The expository lumps!

Overall comments

So, in the end, what do we have? We have two novels about flying cities which are reasonable adventure novels for their time with a fascinating premise, flanked at each end by two strange books full of exposition; one gives the back story in far more detail than necessary, whilst the other starts with the central character’s unease at having stood still in one place for way too long, and then veers off into something  mystical that is rather out of place when compared to the rest of the story. The level of invention never flags, but the plotting is just plain strange. Cities in Flight is often pointed to as a classic of the science fictional genre, but on the strength of this re-read I would have to disagree.

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