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Cities in Flight 22

Duncan Lawie continues his voyage through science fiction worth reading, reviewing this week James Blish's Cites in Flight. The book itself is a compilation of: They Shall Have Stars, A Life for the Stars, Earthman, Come Home and A Clash of Cymbals (aka The Triumph of Time), all stories by Blish. Click below to read more about the good, and the not-so good in this collection.
Cities in Flight
author James Blish
pages ?
publisher Baen Books, 1991
rating 8/10
reviewer Duncan Lawie
ISBN 0671720708
summary Thoughtful and intelligent themes combined with classic "sense of wonder" science fiction on a grand scale.
The name of James Blish may be familiar to some readers from his Star Trek novelisations in the sixties and seventies. These are a minor part of the late work of a writer important in the development of science fiction out of the pulp era. Blish was an early science fiction critic and the author of a number of significant novels. Much of his work considers religious, moral and metaphysical questions.

Cities in Flight is an important part of science fiction's increase in breadth and complexity through the 1950s. Much of the plotting, particularly in the parts first published, displays the pulp antecedent but the ideas are grand and fully worked through. The glorious central image of Manhattan lifting from the Earth and sailing through the stars is backed by sufficient technological breakthrough and human history to be as convincing as it is wonderful.

The work is episodic and occasionally contrary as a result of its publication history. Much was originally published as short stories and the internal chronology does not closely relate to the order of book publication. Its final publication as a single work - an omnibus, strictly - occurred twenty years after the first publication of the initial short story. Despite, or perhaps because of, this, Cities in Flight manages to cover the next two thousand years of human history in a complex patchwork.

The first book, They Shall Have Stars, is a prologue. It is a short, sharp look at the development of the technology necessary for the society present in the later books. Set early in the next century, this book develops directly from the world of the 1950s. It is a powerful manifesto for the space movement and a convincing, well written, coherent novel.

A Life for the Stars, the second book, steps forward over a thousand years to a time when the exodus of cities from the solar system is almost complete. Aimed at a younger audience, it details the struggles of an Earth boy for acceptance in Manhattan. Many cities have reached a position equivalent to itinerant workers, travelling from planet to planet and taking jobs such as mining or complex manufacturing in exchange for supplies, repairs or money. These cities are referred to as "Okies", reflecting the effects of the dustbowl years of the 1930s on the Midwestern USA. While this is a central plot device it also reflects Blish's interest in the cyclical nature of history.

The next book, Earthman, Come Home, was the first to be published. It is the hub of the saga, covering the height of the freedom of the flying cities and the nature of the end of that lifestyle. In its episodic nature and action-oriented adventures the book displays its origin in science fiction magazines of the early fifties. In its overarching plot and philosophy, Earthman, Come Home shows considerable depth. This book returns to consideration of the importance of the greater good over the individual first discussed in They Shall Have Stars. Other abiding themes of the series are also present - the passage of time and the obtaining of (or failing to reach for) wisdom.

The final book in the internal chronology, A Clash of Cymbals, is more directly concerned with these philosophical questions. It continues the story of Manhattan and its inhabitants, though the city has come to the end of its journey through space. This new circumstance affects the characters as does the inevitability of the triumph of time. The book has little action and much thought but is a tense, and intense, farewell to an amazing universe.

Cities in Flight forms part of the texture of science fiction, both in standing apart from earlier works and through becoming part of the canon, influencing much of what followed. It is filled with the classic science fiction "sense of wonder". There are powerful images and ideas, many of which have been used time and again in subsequent decades; the "spindizzy", the engine of the Flying Cities, may sound almost antiquated but the concept of confusing atomic particles to do the impossible is a standard in many novels using faster than light travel; longevity as a method of carrying a single group of protagonists through an extensive history is another example. Blish uses this immunity to age to explore the nature of history. He appears to believe that only the best of humanity is capable of learning from the past and that as a result we are destined to repeat our own mistakes. The heroes are brave, strong, clever and prepared to do whatever is necessary for good to triumph. Yet, they develop. They become more rounded people, more prepared to defend their territory than their ideals and are barely able to admit the mistakes they are forced to live with. This imparts great depth to an adventure as large as the galaxy.

Duncan Lawie

Purchase this book at fatbrain

Some information on Blish.

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Cities in Flight

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  • Hope they or someone will reprint the series collectively known as After Such Knowledge (IIRC), which included A Case of Conscience, Black Easter, and The Day After Judgement.

    I think A Case of Conscience even won a Hugo Award...

    Zontar The Mindless,

  • (US) reports a hardcover edition to be published in February 2000.


  • I read Cities in Flight when I was in my early teens. The book had just come out in paperback. It still ranks up there near the top of my list of the greatest Sci-Fi novels.

    Never read any of the Star Trek novels (none of 'em -- never looked interesting) so I can't hold them against Blish.

    I loved the part in CIF where the main character asks ``What city has two names twice?''.

    Getting a bit off-topic but...

    I was reminded of the part where the cities took off when I saw the movie Silent Running. Does anyone remember the little robots (Huey, Dewey, and Louie if memory serves) in that movie? They made reappearance in the original Star Wars movie when R2D2 and C3PO are in the trader's sand crawler before they got sold to Luke's uncle. One of these robots was walking around in the sand crawler. Must have still been sitting around in the props department.

  • While I enjoyed the first three books in this set, I found that the last one degraded into bad scifi babble and then just nonsense at the end. I throughly recommend that you pick up a copy, just stop after book 3.
  • "Floppy included" - What could possibly be on it?

    A complete copy of the spindizzy plans...
  • One thing that I've noticed is that if an author writes a Star Trek book, they tend to be dismissed by 'real' SF fans unless they've a track record outside that genre. Blish is dismissed because he's best known for his Trek stuff; in fact, AFAIK that's the only stuff that's currently being printed in the UK.
    Blish is a massively underrated author, and one that the current generation of SF fans needs to read. I can't say for certain that he was an influence on, for example, Vernor Vinge, but there's something distinctly Blishian about A Fire Upon the Deep.

    Blish is a great author not just for people who want to understand the history of SF over the past few decades, but for anyone who just plain wants a cool bit of space opera.

    Well done to /. for bringing these older authors to the attention of the masses.
  • The Cities in Flight sequence has just been published in the UK by Millennium Masterworks. You can get it at [].

    I read 'Cities in Flight' when I was maybe 15 and the description of a city taking off is still one of the coolest images in SF. I've just finished reading the whole sequence and the last book sort of drifts off on a random tack and trails away to nothing, but the first two and a half books are definitely among the classics of the golden age.

    The same imprint has also published 'The Stars My Destination' and 'The Demolished Man' by Alfred Bester, 'Last and First Men' by Olaf Stapledon and 'Player Piano' by Kurt Vonnegut.
  • Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks... I only really enjoyed the third and fourth books of the series, actually. The first one bored me, and the second one, while more interesting, didn't interest me enough to make me want to re-read it. I've read the third and fourth several times since and enjoyed both immensely.

    I found the very concept of time running down during humanity's lifespan both challenging and thought-provoking. I think Blish handled the concept very well. The eventual outcome is also satisfying, without being condescending (although I guess it depends upon how much you "like" Amalfi [sp? - it's been a while since I last read it]).
  • They Shall Have the Stars is a dystopic view of the West, so obsessed with national security that most rights have been suppressed, including such goodies like freedom of speech, due process, etc. The director of the FBI is a hereditary post, and more concerned with his own position than the country's. In the end, the Soviet's cause the US to become a mirror image of their society, complete with corruption, fear, stasis and repression.

    Today, the Soviets are a shadow of themselves, but the government keeps finding new ways to repress our rights. Remember when packages over a pound had to be mailed in person, because they were worried TWA 800 was brought down by a mail bomb? Everyone agrees that it wasn't a mail bomb, but good luck putting package weighing more than a pound in the mailbox. Another minor right chipped away.

    SPOILER below

    In the end, the senator that worked hard to make an interstellar drive and anti-agathics and allowed humanity to reach the stars gets locked up in a radioactive waste dump. Joy.

  • I have here my copy labled 'cities in flight'
    arrow edition 1981
    isbn 0 09 926440 4
    question will there be anything new in the latest re-print ? and i never thought a lot of the way
    the universe got ended myself.
  • I didn't find them thought provoking. They are an interesting read to see how someone in the 50's saw the future, but I felt like the "Cities" just dragged on.

    I much preferred the "Foundation" series (Asimov).

    Disclaimer: my tastes; not necessarily yours. :)
  • This is a great series, and should be widely purchased. Not only are they re-printing two classic novels every month, they are doing something even more important.

    They are demonstrating there is a market for non-media tie-in Science Fiction that was written before 1990.

    Plus, because they all have the same spine and format, they look a lot nicer on the shelf then the decades old copies you pick up from second hand bookshops, markets etc.
  • The 4th and 5th chapter are perhaps best seen as sureal events, I read the last 2 chapters while recoveing from surgery, while on morphine, and found them most entertaining.
  • One thing that I've noticed is that if an author writes a Star Trek book, they tend to be dismissed by 'real' SF fans unless they've a track record outside that genre.

    Not to criticize Blish, who has written some excellent work, but 'real' SF fans, or any other kind of fans, tend to dismiss authors who write crap(pulp). Have you read Blish's ST novelizations? Crap. I don't see anyone dismissing, say, Peter David or Diane Duane for writing ST books. Because they were good books.
  • Just a case of varying mileage, ar they say: I thoroughly enjoyed the last book as well. Of course, if you expect the same kind of action as earlier on, you'll be disappointed, but if you just sit down to enjoy reading something new (or old: I've reread all of them several times), it's very thought provoking.

  • Strangely enough, I've never read any of his Star Trek novels. I've read most of the other ST:TOS novels (am re-reading The Price of the Phoenix and The Fate of the Phoenix, by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath)

    Whenever I think of James Blish, I think of the Cities in Flight series and the novel Midsummer Century, which is easily one of the strangest novels I have ever read.
  • I enjoyed the original review of Blish's CIF tetrology here, and the followup comments. I first read the novels that make up CIF in the late 60s while in junior high, and over the years I've reread the single-volume collection in paperback. That volume has an appendix which discusses (as a fictional academic commentary) the CIF series in parallel with Oswald Spengler's ("The Decline of the West") view of the history of civilizations. If you look at Spengler after reading CIF, you'll see some parallels indeed... esp. how one (or a few) major cities come to represent the final embodiment of a culture before it declines and falls. Contrary to some of the posters here, I've always found CIF more accessible than the Foundation series, despite it's being anchored in the Fifties, with its McCarthyism, slide rules, and - in what was forward-looking in its day - emphasis on germanium for its use in transistor technology. In CIF, there are cultural and political forces which are given expression once a handful of innovations come about, most particularly the spindizzy (stellar drive) and death-postponing/anti-aging drugs. There is less of a fantastic nature to Blish's storytelling, despite the wide sweep he takes over the four novels. Just my opinion, but I think CIF has more to offer its readers than just decent sci-fi. Dave
  • I can see that Cities in Flight took space opera in new, more sophisticated directions ... but it felt a lot more like E. E. Smith than Brin or Vinge. The first two books were great ... the third book was just far too pulpy (and long) with NY zooming around the galaxy blowing up things. The fourth part was just ... odd. All in all, a book I was very glad to be not reading anymore, once I'd finished it.

    As someone else mentioned, Cities in Flight has been reprinted by Millennium in their Masterworks series - you can see what else is in the series at _SF_Masterworks__Millenium_UK__63.h tml []

    Cities in Flight notwithstanding, it's a fantastic series! I've read the first 8 so far - Pohl's Gateway is next. These really are SF's classics.

  • gr33tz 2 d3v0

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