Cities in Flight

Cities in Flight
James Blish

I’ve been reading a lot of brand new, cutting edge type stuff lately, so it felt like time to dig into something old and moldy. Enter James Blish, a name I have heard several times but never read. He won a Hugo for A Case of Conscience and put out a small mountain of Star Trek novels, but I decided to go with Cities in Flight, a four book future history. Cities is a single-volume compilation that includes They Shall Have the Stars; A Life for the Stars; Earthman, Come Home; and The Triumph of Time. Together they cover the near future (at the time, now the past) through the end of the universe, though the latter occurs just a couple thousand years from now.

The title is a reference to spacefaring cities. Blish has his scientists discover a form of gravity control called “spindizzies,” that neatly answers the problems of lifting mass into orbit. Anti-grav pretty much renders spaceships obsolete. After all, why build a whole new expensive contraption when anti-grav can just lift Los Angeles into space? (It is a bit more complex than that, but the effect is the same.) And so in place of gleaming starships, we have cities large and small careening around the galaxy. The cities call themselves “Okies,” a nod to the Oklahoma farmers that lost their land in the Dust Bowl and wandered over to California in search of work. This is something like what the flying cities do – moving from planet to planet offering labor. Tom Joad in Space, if you will.

Cities is an interesting hodge-podge. I guess future history fits well in this case, since life rarely conforms to a three act story arc and Blish seems to feel no obligation to constrain his story either. The first book takes 150 pages to give the background of the two crucial discoveries that power his universe. Today it probably would have been a prologue, but Blish was allowed to use the whole book just to explain an Earth that would soon be completely irrelevant. The second book is a coming of age story set in a pair of flying cities, starting on Earth but leaving with the lovely Scranton, PA when the city launches into space. Third is a bunch of episodes that were probably short stories. The first of these could have come in pretty much any order and show what life is like in the flying cities. The last take a sudden turn for the epic and turn the universe on its head (again). Finally there is a long and crazy practical physics problem about the end of time, briefly interrupted by a planetary crusade. To rephrase, this is not something I would expect to be published now. Any real history that has a taut narrative and carefully plotted structure is probably not good history. But I would be surprised if any teacher or mentor recommended writing sprawling, random stories with no defined arc and a new cul-de-sac every fifteen pages. Wait, did I just describe The Wheel of Time? (A good comparison might be music albums now and then. A CD now is a tightly planned, executed, and marketed musical document, whereas 50 years ago, a bunch of available cats would wander into a studio, lay down whatever felt alright, and sell it warts and all. Is one better than the other?)

Now for some collected thoughts about Cities. The world of the first book is my second consecutive review (after Falkenberg’s Legion) to start in what is now an alternate history of the Cold War. Much like Pournelle’s Co-Dominion, the West gradually falls to the USSR not through military conflict, but by degrading its own society to support the war effort. In Cities, this leads first factories, then whole cities to uproot themselves and float off into space. Near future dystopias have evolved quite a bit, especially within cyberpunk, and the bleak, grinding Cold War future seems to have gone the way of the dodo. (Or the way of the USSR, I suppose.) Young people should be forced to read a few of these so they understand why their elders lack the Gen Y and Millenial perkiness.

Besides a dated setting (which I don’t mind at all), Blish falls victim to the most common curse of Old SF: awkward and cringe-worthy human relationships. Part of it is simply a function of language. We’re going to chuckle now anytime someone says, “By Jove, you’re beautiful and I shan’t hear anyone deny that you’re made for me!” There’s not a lot any author can do about this; I fully expect my counterpart fifty years from now to write, “Nothing dates fiction writing like, ‘hey, chill out dude.’ Did people really talk like that?” There is something to be said, however, for women and men not acting like animatronic creatures from Chuck E. Cheese when emotion enters the picture. SF has a long, illustrious history of portraying women awfully, though, so I can’t lay it all on James Blish.

Finally, one other bit stands out as a characteristic of the age: economy of prose. I’ve noticed this in plenty of other books from the age, but Blish covers more time, bigger action, and grander scales with fewer words than most writers today. I don’t know if it is a reflection of editorial realities at the time, or just a different fashion, but authors long ago did much more with less. The entire Cities saga is around 600 pages, or about the length of one best-selling fantasy doorstop now. This is probably jarring to someone used to the author explaining everything, as the action will skip ahead months or years in a single page.

Looking over the article, my tone seems to be a bit more dismissive and snide that the book deserves. The dust jacket features quotes from people like Brian Aldiss and Poul Anderson; if they say something is good, it is very likely good. And Cities is an ambitious, engaging work, worthy of the praise. It doesn’t occupy a place in popular imagination like Foundation or Ringworld, but is worthy of more attention.

Rating: Kenny Dalglish. I selected a name somewhat at random from football’s illustrious past.

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