Cities in Flight by James Blish: a book review

Cities in Flight by James Blish (1955–1962)

I recently re-read the science fiction classic Cities in Flight by James Blish. The galaxy-wide sweep of this four-part novel had stuck with me ever since I first read it as a child – likewise the role of the city that has two names twice. However, I had forgotten that the story opens in what is now our present (2019, with a prelude set in 2013 and a brief reference to an event of 2018). It was interesting to compare Blish’s vision of the future with our reality – where are our planetary outposts, for example? On the other hand, we have already begun forgetting facts, and letting computers remember them for us. Likewise, we have already started automating all “ordinary” jobs.

As an aside, it should be noted that the fourth part of the story, A Clash of Cymbals, was published in the U.S. as the less poetic The Triumph of Time.

The basic premise of this four-part novel is that a newly invented antigravity spacedrive allows cities to lift off into the galaxy and become “Okies” or itinerant labourers. Depressed American steel towns, for example, take off in search of planets with ore that needs refining. People, however, are still people, and not all the cities are friendly.

The writing is classic “hard SF.” There are even differential equations! The plot is heavily influenced by Oswald Spengler and the overall view of humanity is rather pessimistic (though not as pessimistic as some other novels). The second of the four parts, A Life for the Stars, focuses on a teenager (unwillingly) joining the exodus of cities, and thus has the form of a “coming of age” novel. The fourth part, like Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero and some other classic “hard SF,” ends with a sort of Big Crunch/Big Bang (although, as usual, the philosophical implications of a cyclic universe are inadequately explored).

The timeline of the novel spans more than two millennia:

  • 2018: Jovian expedition (in progress as They Shall Have Stars begins)
  • 2019–2021: development of the “spindizzy” antigravity spacedrive and first interstellar expedition (They Shall Have Stars)
  • 2105: fall of the West; earth ruled by Stalinist “Bureaucratic State” (hinted at in They Shall Have Stars)
  • 2310: the Battle of Altair begins the Vegan War, which in turn leads to the formation of the Hruntan Empire
  • 2375: rediscovery of the “spindizzy” on Earth; “Okie” cities begin to spread across the galaxy
  • 2522: collapse of the “Bureaucratic State” on Earth
  • 3111: New York, N.Y. leaves planet Earth (its career in space forms the major part of the novel)
  • 3602: Earth police take action against the remains of the Hruntan Empire (Earthman Come Home)
  • 3975: the Battle of Earth (Earthman Come Home)
  • 4104: the End (A Clash of Cymbals / The Triumph of Time)

As a classic, this novel is well worth a read, in spite of some writing flaws that are obvious on a re-reading. See here for a more detailed review and plot summary. Goodreads rates the combined novel as 3.95 stars, which is consistent with my 3.5 (I have a tougher scale).

Cities in Flight by James Blish: 3½ stars


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