April Books 6) Cities in Flight

6) Cities in Flight, by James Blish

The full series in a single volume, containing They Shall Have Stars, A Life For The Stars, Earthman, Come Home and The Triumph of Time (aka A Clash of Cymbals).

The first book, They Shall Have Stars, is set off from the other three by being set in the near future, on a recognisable Cold War earth; I was slightly amused to note mention of Eritrea and Latvia as independent states, which must have seemed rather less likely than the end of the Cold War back when it was first written in 1957. (Heck, here I am in the capital city of a country that nobody had heard of a hundred years ago.) Story not especially engaging, a reflection really on contemporary US politics, McCarthyism, the space program, J. Edgar Hoover, the likelihood that the West would lose to Communism. The central character, Senator Wagoner, starts a trend for the rest of the series by working out a complex plan manipulating his political enemies into allowing his ideas to triumph.

I think I first read A Life For The Stars perhaps even before I left primary school – I seem to remember having to look up the word “concubine” in my dictionary. It was the last to be written,  certainly the best of the four I think. A Bildungsroman of young Chris deFord, who accidentally leaves earth with the flying city of Scranton Pennsylvania; using the techniques sponsored by Wagoner ni the first novel, cities have been flying around the universe for ages by now. Chris ends up on New York and saves the day. Generally good stuff, although Chris’ only close friend (the one with the concubines) gets treated pretty badly by the author.

Earthman, Come Home is supposed to be the real classic of the series, with one of its component novellas winning a retro-Hugo last year. I didn’t completely understand why (well, I suppose the fact that the other stories in the running for the retro-Hugo were much more obscure may help explain why). Mayor Amalfi of New York (Blish having disposed of Chris deFord in a casual half-sentence) feels a bit like Doctor Who but in a city-sized TARDIS, advised by the computers known as the City Fathers, zooming from one episodic scrape to another, in the penultimate episode saving humanity at the cost of eternal exile. I didn’t think it really hung together all that well, and by this stage Amalfi’s habit of working out a complex plan manipulating his political enemies into allowing him to triumph was beginning to annoy me.

The series ends with a bit of a whimper. The Triumph of Time has lots of grand ideas, stabs at character development both of the established characters from earlier volumes and of a romantic young couple, and the end of the world as we know it; but doesn’t really deliver on any of them. A bit disappointing. There’s a rather pointless essay postscript about Blish and the historical theories of Spengler, by one Richard D. Mullen; perhaps I was just tired by then but I didn’t feel it had added much to my understanding of the book.

However the audacity of Blish’s vision and his ability to make you suspend your disbelief in flying cities do help the series as a whole succeed. And apart from the end the plotting is generally solid. Good old-fashioned stuff.

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