Cities in Flight is a four volume collection of innovative science fiction spanning 1950 to 1962 from James Blish. The first of the so-called Okie stories was published in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1950. Earthman, Come Home was the first published book in 1955, collecting stories published since 1950. It actually appears as the 3rd book in the collected Cities in Flight. The 1st book They Shall Have Stars was published in 1956. The collection was first brought together under the main title in 1970. The version I read was the SF Masterworks edition from 1999.
Rather than the order of publication, I’ve taken this story as it is in this book, assuming nothing other than a story originally conceived and published in 1950.
The 1st book is really the explanation of how cities took flight. Starting in 2013, the cold war between the US and the USSR still rages on. Western civil liberties are turning into the Soviet model. Senator Bliss Wagoner wants to fight back. In space. A huge experimental project is being carried around Jupiter, resulting in gravitational manipulation. The machines are known as spindizzies. Meanwhile, another fringe experiment produces “anti-agathic” drugs, which stop aging. Expeditions into deep space begin.
Book 2 is called A Life for the Stars. We’re now well into the future. Earth is a Soviet planet. Spindizzie tech allows discontents to fly entire cities into space to escape the tyranny. Chris deFord is caught up in the escape of Scranton, Pennsylvania. A series of fairly routine adventures ensure leading Chris ending up in the flying New York, where he meets the rather figurehead-like Mayor John Amalfi – the main protagonist of the rest of the collection.
Earthman, Come Home is very episodic, as expected, being made up of several short stories. Amalfi and New York journey around the galaxy looking for work and dealing with conflicts. There is a galactic economic collapse. There is a mythical race of aliens that pre-date humanity. There is a return to Earth and destruction of many of the cities by Earth cops. Amalphi takes a planet to be a new home from a renegade city. All this takes place over centuries, as the characters all take the anti-aging drugs.
The final book – The Triumph of Time – sees a natural conclusion. John Amalfi is bored. However, not only can cities navigate using the gravity tech, but now entire planets can break free and wander the universe. Meanwhile, it is discovered that the universe will end in a few years. Ever the optimist, Amalphi takes his planet to the centre of the universe where, as time ends, he fights off an alien civilisation and creates a new universe where he is, perhaps, god.
The volume, Cities in Flight, is much more complex and detailed than the above summary of course. The amount of detail in my 600 page book and across millennia would take pages to describe. What is important, to me at least, is the progression of the science fiction. The characters are interesting to a point, but not hugely engaging or developed. Not much changes in their personalities over the centuries. By the time I’d reached the end, I could barely recall the characters in story 1.
And this is my biggest issue with this type of high concept science fiction. While the science and philosophy are generally interesting and imaginative, the characters and their traits are always little more than unimaginative cyphers. Written over the course of a decade, Blish’s characters do not evolve in anything like the way they should. Even when introduced – be it in 2013 or 3000+ – they are pretty much 1950s characters – both in terms of language and attitude. Science fiction authors only need to look into the recent past to see the differences in culture, language, philosophies and such-like. They apply evolution to science but not to society, despite clear and obvious evidence that it will change. Do we really believe that people are called John and Chris and Mark and refer to cops and bosses and brindles or even ultraphones in the year 3900? There’s even a damsel-in-distress character in the shape of Dee, from a planet called Utopia that forgot about space flight until New York turned up.
The ideas that Bliss had about science are the only things that make this volume interesting. This, above pretty much all other science fiction published before 1950, is science fiction about science. There isn’t the allegory of Wells or the adventure of Burroughs or the critique of Orwell, Huxley or even Lewis. There are pages of explanations of how this might work or that should operate. Solutions to obstacles often come from physics or chemistry. Blish talks about fundamental particles and quantum mechanics as plot drivers. There are nods to AI – the City Fathers – who in book 2, Chris essentially shows the machines passing the Turing Test.
Blish doesn’t mess around with the science. Of course, it is vital to the plot. The first book takes place around the orbit of Jupiter, and contains scientific experiments. The craft is known as the Bridge, and while on it, characters describe the science as Blish shows it; text contains chemical equations showing atoms and bonds. It is science that eventually causes the economic crash. Blish often describes the characters as engineers, not scientists (applied rather than pure) – maybe a way of reader engagement? There is plenty on interesting tech that is described, such as a way to poison a space craft. Blish uses proper terminology throughout – tau-time and t-time, the p-n boundary, etc. – that gives heft to his ideas. He must understand this stuff!
There are a few other themes addressed through the books, including faith and religion. Believers on Earth and Jorn the Apostle on New Earth, for example. War, obviously. There is a little romance between a few characters. Amalfi is the object of desire for Dee, but he can’t have children as space travel has damaged his genetic makeup. Another idea regularly examined is what it means to be a citizen. But so many of the ideas get lost in the less than impressive cast of characters and the very impressive science. Way too much exposition (when the machines are educating Chris for example) and world-building (much of the final book) to have an enjoyable story.
I struggled through the 600 pages of Cities in Flight and I wouldn’t say that it was worth the time or the effort. However, the evidence within the pages that this is one of the first high-concept proper science fiction books is fairly clear. Full on science geeks should get a lot from this volume, but those who like character-driven stories…not so much. From Star Trek to Banks’ Culture novels to the likes of Anne Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee , Blish begins it all.