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SF Masterwork of the Week: Cities in Flight

Our current SF Masterwork of the Week is James Blish‘s epic Cities in Flight is available as a Gollancz paperback, and the four books that make up the sequences are available as individual SF Gateway eBooks: They Shall Have StarsA Life For The StarsEarthman, Come Home and The Triumph Of Time.

To introduce you to this extraordinary work, we’re delighted that our good friends at SFX, the UK’s premier SF entertainment magazine, have kindly allowed us to republish this article from their excellent SFX Book Club feature.  This view of Cities in Flight is from one of our finest writers of politically-savvy science fiction, the wonderful Ken MacLeod . . .

CITIES IN FLIGHT James Blish

Civilisation will become increasingly global, oppressive and bureaucratic – but free space settlers will escape, to found brave new worlds beyond Earth’s grasp. This is one of the great myths of SF. James Blish wrote it.

Cities In Flight is a fix-up tetralogy, cobbled together from stories and novels written between 1950 and 1962. SF critic John Clute has said that every SF work has a “real decade” in which it happens, no matter when it was written or when it is set. Cities In Flight’s real decade is the ‘50s, haunted by memories of the ‘30s. Its 40th century still has sliderules, steel mills and slumps. Despite all anachronisms, the eye-kicks have it. Cities! In flight!

The first novel, They Shall Have Stars, begins in 2018. The Cold War is still going strong. Big science is failing, choked by secrecy. Two areas of research – gravity and life extension
– succeed. Blish pulls a blinder here, fast-talking, name-dropping real physicists and hand-waving algebra. Anti-gravity, the faster-than-light drive, and anti-ageing drugs make a long life amid the stars possible for the lucky thousands who escape.

In A Life For The Stars, set a thousand years later, the epic takes off. The anti-gravity devices – spindizzies – are capable of lifting entire cities. One by one, they leave. Teenager Chris deFord is press-ganged aboard the rusting steel-town of Scranton, PA. He’s soon traded to New York, where he meets the hero of the series, Mayor John Amalfi , and its next most memorable character: NYC’s onboard AI, the City Fathers, who talk in capitals, like Death or God. Through adventures, Chris grows up.

Earthman, Come Home details NYC’s subsequent scrapes and skirmishes. In one such, Amalfi meets the love of his very long life, Dee. Intelligent, independent, sexy in a “sort of sack” and “black tube” (after centuries of seeing women in overalls, Amalfi ’s eyes pop at a top and skirt) she charms him and marries his best friend. Amalfi knuckles down to his slide-rule and a bit on the side. Facing a galaxy-wide slump, NYC leads a rabble of starving
cities in a “March on Earth”, stomping old enemies along the way, and flees to Andromeda. Peace at last!

It doesn’t last. In The Triumph Of Time, NYC’s citizens learn that the universe is about to collide with its anti-matter twin. Dee and Amalfi get together – not before time, one might say. NYC travels to the exact centre of the metagalaxy, the still axis of creation. Time ends. Four individuals survive long enough to explode into new universes. Amalfi , alone, chooses to go out with a bigger bang. Creation begins.

It’s all bonkers, and wonderful.

The epic has flaws: repeated situations – rather like Star Trek, for the first series of which Blish later wrote scripts and novelisations – and inconsistencies. The Galactic polity and economy, and – when you stop to think about it – the central analogy of flying cities with migrant workers make no sense. The chronology has several jarring gear shifts, where more millennia of space flight are implied than the dates allow. Given all that, it’s interesting to see what holds it together, and what makes it so enjoyable. The theory of cyclical history, derived from the works of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee – helpfully explained and charted in an appendix – gives it a structural frame. Numerous sly cultural references, and evocative allusions to great events off-stage – the war with the alien empire of Vega, the evolution of isolated human colonies, the sedimentation of the Bureaucratic State out of the impasse of the Cold War – give it colour and depth. The ever-increasing scales of space and time, the engaging long-lived characters who inhabit them, and the escalating risks Blish takes for the sake of a vivid image do the rest.

Built on a solid foundation of physics, philosophy, poetry and history, Blish’s architecture still stands – and flies.

This piece was written by Ken MacLeod and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature.  You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.

Ken MacLeod’s latest novel is the BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke Award-shortlisted Intrusion, which is available in paperback and as an eBook. Ken MacLeod blogs at The Early Days of a Better Nation, tweets as @amendlocke, and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.