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Cities in Flight, Vol. 1 by James Blish
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Cities in Flight, Vol. 1

by James Blish (Author)

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This volume contains two short science fiction novels, both set in the same universe, originally published in 1957 and 1962.

The first, "They Shall Have Stars," takes place in 2018 and involves a secret project aimed at launching humanity -- or at least the minor subset of it that hasn't become mired in religious fundamentalism and paranoid Cold War politics -- to the stars. It's very much a product of its particular time and genre; both the science and the social aspects are dated, and the characters and plot are pretty thin, with the focus more on scientific speculation and abstract ideas than on storytelling. Which doesn't make for a very compelling read, but such things go, it's not too bad. If nothing else, it's interesting to compare Blish's imagined future, which was of course very much shaped by his own present, to our current reality. (The story opens, by the way, with a character lamenting that space travel has become stagnant and unambitious. This, in a world with manned bases on the moons of Jupiter. Oh, that Space Age optimism... ) Ultimately, I think what this really is, in a somewhat low-key way, is a type of story that has always been popular with SF fans in one way or another and was particularly so back then: a story that assures us, however implausibly, that people with enough vision and open-mindedness -- you know, people like SF fans -- can, with a bit of grit and determination, overcome the stifling pettiness of Earthly politics, defeat death, and conquer the stars. Which may be naive and simplistic, not to mention self-indulgent, but I'll admit that I do understand the appeal, having indulged in it from time to time myself.

The second story, "A Life for the Stars," is set something like 1,000 years later. Earth has become deeply impoverished, and its desperate cities have begun encasing themselves in antigravity bubbles and setting out for an nomadic, interplanetary existence. It starts out much more readable than the first one, I think, but it, too, gets a bit bogged down in exposition somewhere in the middle. And the plot, which follows the adventures of a teenager who unwillingly accompanies Scranton, PA on its exodus, was rather unimaginative and ultimately failed to hold my interest. But the central idea, that image of whole cities tearing themselves free of the Earth to roam the stars, is wonderfully appealing, a truly classic science fictional invention. I just wish Blish had done something more interesting with it, as there's a lot of opportunity for terrific world-building that's never remotely realized here. Oh, well... Maybe in volume 2? ( )
  bragan | Dec 2, 2010 |
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This is an omnibus of They Shall Have Stars and A Life for the Stars. Please do not combine it with Cities in Flight: They Shall Have Stars
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An omnibus of They Shall Have Stars and A Life for the Stars.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0671720503, Paperback)

Cities in Flight is an omnibus volume of four novels, originally published between 1955 and 1962, two of which are fix-ups of pieces that first appeared in various magazines in the early '50s. Despite having been conceived more than 50 years ago, and produced in episodic fashion, they stand head and shoulders above most SF available today.

In They Shall Have Stars, humankind's will to explore space is renewed with the advent of two discoveries: anti-gravity (the "spindizzy" machines) and the key to almost eternal life (anti-agathic drugs). By A Life for the Stars, centuries have passed and most of the major cities have built spindizzies into their bedrock and left earth, cruising the galaxy looking for work, much like the hobos of the Depression Era. Earthman, Come Home, told from the perspective of John Amalfi, the major of New York, was the first-written of the novels and--although not as tightly woven as the other segments--is still a masterly work. Blish gives the same weight and authority both to the sweeping cultural change wrought and suffered by the cities, and to the emotional growth of a man who is several hundred years old. We stay with Amalfi for the final episode, The Triumph of Time. New York is now planet-bound in the Greater Magellanic Cloud, but when Amalfi learns of the impending destruction of time itself, he is forced into space one more time, to take a last, desperate chance. The novel ends, literally, with a bang.

Despite the occasional, inevitable anachronism, such as vacuum tubes, Cities in Flight stands up remarkably well to modern reading. The novel's political and literary sophistication was unmatched in its time; there is very little to rival it even today. For most readers of a certain age, this was probably the first SF they encountered that was written from a mature standpoint and adult sensibility. The fact that Blish also manages to tell a fabulous, galaxy-spanning adventure tale makes this essential reading. --Luc Duplessis

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:10:11 -0400)

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