Monday, April 1, 2013

James Blish's CITIES IN FLIGHT #OneBookAtATime

Oh man, if I had known from the beginning just how literally this title, Cities in Flight, was meant -- I took it to feature the word "flight" in the sense of fleeing pursuit, rather than maneuvering through air or space -- I would have attacked this book a lot sooner. That's one of the disadvantages of scooping up a whole lot of ebook titles at once; if you don't examine the cover art, you're just going on author and title unless you take the trouble to look up the blurb. And the author.*

Cities in Flight is actually an omnibus edition of four novels Blish published in the 1950s: They Shall Have StarsA Life for the StarsEarthman Come Home, and The Triumph of Time. I could have read them discretely as I often do with such collections, but I found the central conceit of these stories -- that a pair of technologies developed in the early 21st century allowed entire Earth cities like New York and Los Angeles and Pittsburgh and Scranton to lift themselves bodily, buildings, subways and all, from the planet's surface and go into space as giant spaceships** -- so compelling that I just kept right on going after the first novel, which detailed the development of the twin technologies, a gravity defying/harnessing field called the "spindizzy" and anti-aging drugs, that would allow this weird feat to be possible. Rather than just function as an elaborate prologue to the "real" narrative of the spacefaring cities, though, They Shall Have Stars is a great novel all on its own, as I'll get to in a bit.

But first, I want to share this cool fan-made video by Charlie McCullough. Just because it sells the concept so marvelously, and is cool in its own right:

Cities In Flight from Charlie McCulloch on Vimeo.

Outlandish! Ridiculous! Attractively art deco! Am I right?

But so anyway, the novels. These span from the political/budgetary machinations that made the spacefaring "Okie" cities possible, to a tale of a young man kidnapped by the departing city of Scranton, Pennsylvania who later rises, out in the galaxy, to become a man of some importance after he is traded off as useless to New York, NY, to the story of the mayor of New York's thousand-year reign and the tribulations faced by a city whose motto "Mow your lawn, lady?" encapsulates its willingness to do any crappy job, anywhere in the universe, in a universe whose economy is collapsing, to that same city's final establishment as actually being the center of the universe that many of us assume New Yorkers think it to be anyway. Heh.

So, this one has a lot in common with Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, except its eons of time are spanned by a single generation of essentially immortal human beings, which means it has characters of a kind, but don't go looking here for people you'll love or hate or feel like you know. Blish is interested in charting a vast future history, just as Stapledon was; he just chose to give it a slightly more human scale for the benefit of his readers. So Senator Bliss Wagoner's story of secret research projects and financial shenanigans bleeds into Chris DeFord's rise to prominence bleeds into John Amalfi's tribulations at the helm of the city so nice they named it twice bleeds into Amalfi and a bunch of pseudo-cosmologists doing pseudo-cosmology until the reader's face melts... They could just as easily all be the same guy. Why they're not is anybody's guess. But that's okay. What these novels lack in character they make up for in grandiosity, imagination and occasional goofiness -- as well as the odd (and I do mean odd) moral dilemma of a kind that could only occur when big industrial cities are out in the universe doing odd jobs, planet by planet, solar system by solar system.

And hey, if you're going to do science fiction, might as well really freaking do science fiction, right?

*I have mostly known Mr. Blish as the constructor of novelizations of episodes of Star Trek (original series). He did this very competently, no complaints, but since the reader already knew the story from having seen it enacted by Shatner and Nimoy et al, his skill and imagination were eclipsed by memories of Shatner and Nimoy et al. At least they were for me. But then there was Spock Must Die! And Spock's Must Die! was more than a bit brilliant, and it was on the strength of this (and the inclusion of two Blish works in the SF Masterworks series) that made me want to read the man's "own" work.

**Doctor Who fans will be hopping up and down and screaming about The Beast Below, and surely that episode owes a lot to these novels. No starwhales, though.


  1. Great review and that video is a great find. I've read "Cities" more times than I can recall.

  2. I have the Cities in Flight books to thank to interest me in Toynbee and Spengler, since the historical charts in the book explicitly reference them and their influence on the work.

    1. Paul --I had actually read some Toynbee because of the tiles (hee hee) so yeah! I haven't tackled Spengler yet but this book made me want to.

      Fred -- YES! I have great love for that video. I stumbled across it while trying to make up my mind which city became IMT (I decided on Chicago, based on the reference to the Moore statue).


Sorry about the CAPTCHA, guys, but without it I was getting 4-5 comment spams an hour.