Cities in Flight
by James Blish
Reviewed by Raedom
Posted July 24, 2003
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When one thinks of an author that has grand themes, spanning the galaxy and beyond, one would normally think of Edmond Hamilton. But the "Cities in Flight" saga of James Blish equals and perhaps even surpasses anything Hamilton wrote in it's sweep of both space and time. Spanning a time period from the near future to the literal end of the universes (yes, universes, plural), and in space from the first beginnings of space flight to travel throughout the galaxy and beyond.
The entire tale is encompassed in four novels:
They Shall Have Stars
A Life For The Stars
Earthman, Come Home (recent winner of a Retro Hugo)
The Triumph Of Time
This, at least, is the order of the books as far as the chronology of the plot is concerned -- interestingly enough, they were not written in that order. More on that later.
"They Shall Have Stars" begins the tale, in a time not long from now, and concerns mainly the efforts of Senator Bliss Wagoner, a Democrat from Alaska, to secure and keep funded two technological research projects. One of these invloves the building of a mammoth bridge on Jupiter, using robots and materials available on the gas giant; the other involves pharmaceutical research into the causes of aging. Wagoner is working as a member of a government of a United States that has, because of the ongoing cold war with the USSR, become increasingly repressive, and his main antagonist is the head of the FBI, a man named MacHinery, the grandson of the first hereditary chief of that bureau. Many of the assumptions in this novel are dated now (there is no USSR, the government of this country did not become more repressive due to the cold war, etc), but, though some of them jar on our senses today, they are really of little moment, because the primary purpose of this novel is to set us up for the succeeding works. It does that by laying out the development of two technological advances. The bridge on Jupiter, though seen as a boondoggle by MacHinery and others, is actually a research project which culminates in the development of a "gravity polarizer" or anti-gravity device, promptly nick-named the "spin-dizzy," which has the interesting side-effect of also allowing faster-than-light travel. The other technological advance, on the pharmaceutical front, ostensibly deals with antibiotic (anti-life) research, but actually develops anti-agathic (anti-death) drugs, thus insuring virtual immortality to those to whom the drugs are administered. These two discoveries combine to make space travel beyond our solar system possible -- and that is virtually the entire reason for this book, though the political infighting and other sub-plots are interesting (but again, somewhat dated.)
"A Life For The Stars" picks up the story a few centuries later. By now, the cold war has fizzled out, because the two sides, one becoming more repressive, the other less so, have merged, as the development of the anti-agathics causes a major upheaveal in the economy of the western world, and the USSR effectively takes over bloodlessly. By the time of this novel, both systems have been replaced by a world government known as the bureaucratic state, repressive, but far less so than the former USSR. But the spin-dizzy has been used for a couple of centuries now, beginning with propulsion for space-craft, then used to lift an entire manufacturing complex from Earth to Mars, in order to take advantage of the raw materials of that planet. From there it is but a short step to lifting cities from Earth (now we've come to "Cities In Flight"). As our story opens, a teenager, Chris deFord, is spying on the preparations for lifting Scranton, Pennsylvania. He is discovered, shanghaied, and taken aboard the city just before lift-off to become a laborer. (The cities in flight, called "Okies" after the migrant workers of the Great Depression, wander from planet to planet seeking work.) Through a tradition among Okie cities, deFord is traded to one of the older and larger Okie cities, New York, where the mayor, John Amalfi, recognizes the potential in the youngster, and sets him up in an educational regime designed to potentially prepare him for citizenship. (Only citizens are given the anti-agathics, "passengers" are not and live what we consider normal life-spans.) This novel was originally written as a juvenile, and as Robert Heinlein is supposed to have said, was written as though "it was intended for adults, and then all the sex was cut out." Be that as it may, it has many of the elements of Heinlein's juveniles in it, including the young person who, sometimes blunderingly, uncovers a plot that saves the city. DeFord earns his citizenship and also a unique position in the city of New York -- he becomes it's first city manager.
"Earthman, Come Home," the third installment in the saga, seems somewhat episodic, at first, as we follow the exploits of New York, now with Mark Hazelton as city manager but John Amalfi still as mayor, throughout the galaxy. They contract for various jobs on several planets, sometimes running afoul of the Earth police, the only galaxy-wide law enforcement agency. On one planet, they contract with the civilization there, a group of humans who have regressed to primitivism. The planet, called He, has no axial tilt, so uniform seasons year-round and a consequent heavy jungle ecology. The residents of He want the jungle destroyed so that they can begin the climb back to the technological level of the first colonists of the planet. New York undertakes the task, by installing spin-dizzies on the planet itself. When activated, the planet, with New York aboard, promptly leaves their solar system, near the edge of the galaxy, and heads for the Andromedan galaxy. New York escapes, but since it was not paid (in germanium) is now low on supplies. They stop at a star cluster where they learn that the germanium standard has collapsed throughout the galaxy, and what little money they have is useless. The same is true of all other Okie cities, and several hundred are stranded there in an "Okie jungle." The leader of the jungle, mayor of Budapest, convinces the cities to march on Earth, demanding relief. Amalfi, ostensibly opposing him, actually helps him in his effort, for he has seen a real danger to Earth and the galaxy.
Prior to the exodus from Earth, the Terran Empire, in it's original expansion into space, encountered another civilization. A murderous war erupted, and the Vegan civilization was destroyed, but rumors have since persisted that a huge "Vegan fort" (think "Death-Star" only bigger; no, bigger; no bigger yet) escaped and is still roaming the galaxy. Amalfi has reason to believe this is a fact, and that the march on Earth will attract the Vegans. It does, and New York destroys the fort, and in doing so leaves the galaxy for the Greater Magellenic Cloud. Most of the other Okie cities are destroyed by the Earth police, however, thus ending the era of the cities in flight.
Book four, "The Triumph Of Time," picks up where book three ended, as New York has permanently grounded on a planet in a star system in the Cloud. After freeing the (human) residents from their repressive masters (another former Okie city), they are building a civilization on the planet. Then a discovery in the heavens causes consternation among the scientists, but it turns out to be the planet He, returning from it's trip outside the galaxy. They advanced technologically quite quickly once the jungle died, and in only a couple of hundred years, learned to control the spin-dizzies and to turn their planet around. But they brought with them bad news. During their sojourn between galaxies, they discovered evidence that an "anti-matter" universe was on a collision course with ours and that would spell the end of both universes. It does, but not the end for all time.
I'm going to stop there, because to carry the story further will inevitibly involve major spoilers, and I don't want to do that for anyone who has not read this breath-taking story, but would like to. Besides, I've already run on a long time (though I still left much -- very much -- out. I never even mentioned the complex of computers known as the City Fathers, for instance, and they're important.)
A word about the order of the books. As I listed them above, that is the chronological order of the plot, and that is the order in which they should be read. However, Blish wrote them in the order of "Earthman, Come Home [III]," "They Shall Have Stars [I]," "The Triumph Of Time [IV]," and "A Life For The Stars [II]." I have never before known of an author to write a series in this manner, and the result is somewhat disjointed from book to book, with some minor inconsistencies, particularly as to chronology. Many of those were ironed out in the edition I just finished, the Science Fiction Book Club issued Overlook Press combined edition of all four books in one.
I first read this sweeping story when I was in college, and was totally entranced by it. I read it a couple of times later, but the last time until just now was almost twenty years ago. I was somewhat disappointed that parts of the story (particularly the geopolitics in the early part of the story) didn't hold up as well as memory led me to believe. But once past that, the sweep and the range of the saga was still enthralling, and I would whole-heartedly recommend it.
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