Cities in Flight by James Blish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Cities in Flight is an omnibus edition of four related books written by James Blish in the 1950s and 60s. Each one is a stand-alone story but they interconnect. The essential premise of the plot is that three factors — the Cold War, the discovery of anti-aging drugs, and the invention of anti-gravity technology — results in a mass exodus of entire cities from Earth, who then spread out among the stars as independent city-states. Some colonize planets; others, called “Okies,” wander from planet to planet doing odd jobs for pay, which sustains their civilizations; but just like hobos throughout history, they are routinely harassed by the police and seen as ne’er-do-wells. It is about one such Okie city, New York, New York, that Blish writes.
The first story, “They Shall Have Stars”, is not really about the characters, but it introduces the necessary technology and geopolitical pressures that create his world. “A Life for the Stars” is a twisted bildungsroman in this unique sociopolitical landscape that Blish has created (which is a wonderful thing in and of itself; considering the sociopolitical consequences of new technologies!). “Earthman, Come Home” is arguably the most character driven book of the series. And “The Triumph of Time” is ultimately about how we human beings confront mortality; but, more than that, how we confront inevitable oblivion.
My favourite character is John Amalfi. And I love how utterly ordinary Blish’s characters are. No chiseled jaws and rippling pectorals here; just ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations in a cavalier, almost Wild West pioneer spirit. That Wild West aspect was intentional on Blish’s part. Reading the appendix you discover that Blish was directly inspired by Spengler’s “Decline of the West.”
However, there were some flaws in the characterization as well, and some characters were better realized than others. Chris, the viewpoint character of “A Life for the Stars,” was terribly undeveloped. He existed for the sole purpose of exposing Blish’s politics and science. I could have taken him or left him. And I do have to say that I find it tiresome that these men writing classic science fiction, who were so progressive in terms of many of their ideas and technology, never seemed to anticipate that women would eventually be just as likely to be in positions of political and military leadership as men. Blish even pointed out how women never end up getting selected to serve as “Mayor” (which in this story is actually a eugenically-democratically elected Emperor of a city-state) by the computers that do that selecting. I guess it was really hard for men in the 1960s to accept that their skills in this department were not genetically superior to those of women. 😉 I have to give that a pass, though, because it is ridiculous to expect works of previous time periods to conform to the standards of the present day.
I like how the events of one book have effects that ripple into the others while, at the same time, being entirely stand-alone works (though “They Shall Have Stars” might have looked better as a story in Analog or Asimov instead of as a book.)
Some of the other readers in my book club were baffled and irritated by some of the science, which reduced their enjoyment of the book. I can see their point. The anti-aging drugs weren’t that terribly well developed and probably drew back to what was cutting edge science when the book was written, which of course is now completely obsolete. And it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense to me either; it was just discovered that some chemical compounds prevented come kinds of cellular degeneration, and the ones discovered later were also effective at eliminating mistakes in cellular regeneration because they were able to cure cancer while the earlier ones were not (but the cancer still didn’t kill you, which is interesting.) But I was okay with the McGuffin personally; largely I think because I also read a lot of fantasy. I don’t really care how it works, to be honest. I accept that in this universe that’s the way it works, and on I go.
In the middle of the Space Race there were thought to be two major obstacles to interstellar flight; a way to overcome and/or create gravity, and the amount of time it takes to get between places in such a vast universe. Blish’s solution was people who don’t age and spindizzies. Which also inadvertently solved the radiation problem, which is one of the big concerns that is currently delaying a manned mission to Mars; apparently outside of the Earth and Moon’s magnetic field there’s a whole slew of radiation from the sun that’s really harmful to us. I’m not even sure they were aware of all that in the 1960s, when those two books were written, but that problem is solved at any rate.
I’ve also read some arguments against some other aspects of the technology being obsolete, such as the use of vacuum tubes, but here I don’t agree because there’s some very good arguments for using vacuum tubes in deep space. Consider how computers and satellites malfunction when there’s a major solar flare; do you want that happening to the computers upon which your life depends in deep space? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Still, to some extent I feel we must accept that classic sci-fi is often, by nature, going to have bad science, because our knowledge of how things actually work has increased considerably over the past two hundred years, and in exponential ways. Let’s not forget that Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells were writing perfectly acceptable science fiction for their time.
However, as I said, I can see why that lack of explanation about the anti-aging drugs could diminish enjoyment of the books and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Especially when the physics and quantum physics were so excellently done! Blish’s explanation for anti-gravity, and dealing with anti-matter, stands the test of time even today, even after all we’ve discovered about those subjects since.
The conclusion was fascinating, and also how the characters reacted to it was great. Overall, despite some significant literary flaws, mostly I think in the inconsistency in styles between the stories, I really enjoyed these books, and I see why they are considered to be classics of science fiction. Highly recommended!