Cities in Flight, by James Blish

One of the founding fathers of the science fiction community, the UK-based American author James Blish is chiefly remembered for his short story collections based on Star Trek, a project that occupied him from 1967 up to his death from lung cancer in 1975, at the comparatively early age of 54. This is unfortunate because he was an excellent writer who won the 1959 Hugo Award for his thoughtful novel A Case of Conscience.

Blish’s most ambitious work, however, is Cities in Flight, which has been compared with the Foundation Trilogy. Though failing in execution to match Asimov’s masterwork, Cities in Flight is certainly comparable in scope, spanning nearly two millennia from the crucial discoveries that made interstellar travel practical in the year 2018 to the “Ginnunga-Gap” in 4004. The work is generally encountered in a single volume, but actually comprises four separate novels, which in order of the events they describe are They Shall Have Stars (aka Year 2018!), A Life for the Stars, Earthman, Come Home and A Clash of Cymbals (aka The Triumph of Time).
The first volume describes a near-future in which the Cold Peace has resulted in the bureaucratic regimes in Washington and Moscow becoming equally repressive.

Anticipating that the West will eventually be absorbed by the Soviets, an American senator, Bliss Wagoner promotes two crucial projects. The first is a practical space drive, the Dillon-Wagoner graviton polarity generator or “spindizzy”; the second is an anti-agathic or longevity drug. Wagoner flees to Jupiter V (Amalthea?) and organises the first interstellar expedition. He is later arrested and condemned to death, but dies knowing he has secured a future for mankind beyond the reaches of the bureaucratic state that will dominate Earth for centuries.

The second and third volumes are set over a millennium later. By now, the bureaucratic state is long gone and after a long-running struggle with an imperialism known as the Vegan Tyranny, Earth has become the Milky Way’s third great civilisation. We follow the career of New York City, which following the example of practically every major city on Earth has “gone Okie”, that is to say gone aloft to flee Earth’s economic slump and seek work on the planets settled by descendants of the expedition sponsored by Bliss Wagoner.

In effect a gigantic spindizzy-powered spaceship, New York is under the rather Machiavellian leadership of Mayor John Amalfi, though supreme authority is vested in a computer complex known as the City Fathers. A Life for the Stars describes how Chris De Ford is impressed aboard Scranton, Pennsylvania when that steel-town goes Okie, only to be offloaded on New York. There he does sufficiently well there to be appointed City Manager, though for reasons more to do with haphazard manner in which the work evolved, by the time of Earthman, Come Home, he has been shot by the City Fathers.

Earthman sees the first appearance of De Ford’s replacement, Mark Hazelton, whose endless shenanigans cause Amalfi no end of grief. New York is caught up in interstellar wars, tangles with “bindlestiffs” (bandit cities), faces bankruptcy when the galactic Germanium Standard collapses, and thwarts an attempt by the Vegans to destroy Earth. There are continual run-ins with Earth’s and local police forces. Finally, she is forced to leave the galaxy proper and settle on a planet in the Greater Magellanic Cloud, where a struggle follows with another “bindlestiff” city known as the Interstellar Master Traders.

In the final volume, A Clash of Cymbals, Earth’s interstellar empire has been conquered by a new imperialism, the Web of Hercules. New York is permanently grounded on the planet now known as New Earth, with only Amalfi nostalgic for the old space-faring days. Then comes news that the entire Universe will be annihilated in just three years time….

In Norse mythology, the Ginnunga-gap was, in the words of H.R. Ellis Davidson, “a great emptiness which was nevertheless pregnant with the potential power of creation”. Blish manages to capture the essence of this notion with astonishing power. The date of the catastrophe, 4004 AD, is a reference to Archbishop Ussher’s calculated date of 4004 BC for the Creation.

Though an immensely satisfying space opera, Cities in Flight suffers from the rather piecemeal fashion in which it was put together. The core volume of the work, Earthman, is itself comprised of four novellas spliced together – Okie, Bindlestiff, Sargasso Sea of Lost Cities, and Earthman, Come Home, and was the first to be written. Blish then added a prequel, They Shall Have Stars, then A Clash of Symbols and finally Blish backtracked to write A Life for the Stars, which is aimed primarily at younger readers. He admits this leads to a lack of economy in the work, but there are also some inconsistencies. The timescales in Earthman do not match the chronology of the work as a whole and the conquest of Vega is described therein as nothing more than a police action. Only later is it revealed as a full scale interstellar war involving Wagoner’s colonists and the first wave of Okies to leave Earth. Another unfortunate consequence is that the work’s best character, Chris De Ford, appears in only one volume. It would have been very interesting to follow the relationship between this likeable young man and the ruthless Amalfi in subsequent adventures, but by this time Blish seems to have tired of the project.

The plotting is sometimes unconvincing, and in particular the analogy with the migrant workers (“Okies”) of the Great Depression is at times rather strained. The Okies need anti-agathics (which cannot be synthesised and must be harvested), germanium (for trade), oil (raw material for synthesising foodstuffs), and “power metals” (uranium?). They are required by law to earn these materials by honest endeavour, which is fair enough if they want to mine or harvest an inhabited planet or system, but what is wrong with obtaining them from planets which are not inhabited?

One of Cities in Flight’s strongest points is the use of anti-agathics to keep the same characters alive through action that spans centuries, enabling character-development of a kind impossible in the Foundation Trilogy, where the strictly-mortal cast constantly changes. But the characters, though strongly drawn, are mostly unlikeable. Only the teenage De Ford and his mentor Frad Haskins are likely to evoke any reader sympathy.

Cities in Flight has been described as influenced by Spengler’s cyclical view of civilisation, but these ideas strike me as being peripheral to the story line.

An interesting feature of Cities in Flight is that it goes into the theory behind the spindizzy in some detail, even quoting “Blackett-Dirac equations” describing a relationship between rotation, gravity and magnetism. Though the equations are fictitious, the British astronomer Paul Blackett did speculate that a relationship between rotation and magnetism might actually exist, in an attempt to explain how large electrically neutral bodies like the Earth, the Sun and Jupiter possess magnetic fields. Others speculated that the relationship might extent to gravity. The theory was eventually abandoned when other means were found of explaining the phenomenon, but not before Blish had picked up on the idea.

Its quirks and limitations notwithstanding, it is a fact that Cities in Flight has remained in print for well over forty years. This in itself marks it out as one of the greatest of all science-fiction works.

© Christopher Seddon 2008


Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author