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Book Review: Cities in Flight by James Blish

Cities in Flight (Cities in Flight, #1-4)Cities in Flight by James Blish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cities in Flight is an omnibus edition of four related books written by James Blish in the 1950s and 60s. Each one is a stand-alone story but they interconnect. The essential premise of the plot is that three factors — the Cold War, the discovery of anti-aging drugs, and the invention of anti-gravity technology — results in a mass exodus of entire cities from Earth, who then spread out among the stars as independent city-states. Some colonize planets; others, called “Okies,” wander from planet to planet doing odd jobs for pay, which sustains their civilizations; but just like hobos throughout history, they are routinely harassed by the police and seen as ne’er-do-wells. It is about one such Okie city, New York, New York, that Blish writes.

The first story, “They Shall Have Stars”, is not really about the characters, but it introduces the necessary technology and geopolitical pressures that create his world. “A Life for the Stars” is a twisted bildungsroman in this unique sociopolitical landscape that Blish has created (which is a wonderful thing in and of itself; considering the sociopolitical consequences of new technologies!). “Earthman, Come Home” is arguably the most character driven book of the series. And “The Triumph of Time” is ultimately about how we human beings confront mortality; but, more than that, how we confront inevitable oblivion.

My favourite character is John Amalfi. And I love how utterly ordinary Blish’s characters are. No chiseled jaws and rippling pectorals here; just ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations in a cavalier, almost Wild West pioneer spirit. That Wild West aspect was intentional on Blish’s part. Reading the appendix you discover that Blish was directly inspired by Spengler’s “Decline of the West.”

However, there were some flaws in the characterization as well, and some characters were better realized than others. Chris, the viewpoint character of “A Life for the Stars,” was terribly undeveloped. He existed for the sole purpose of exposing Blish’s politics and science. I could have taken him or left him. And I do have to say that I find it tiresome that these men writing classic science fiction, who were so progressive in terms of many of their ideas and technology, never seemed to anticipate that women would eventually be just as likely to be in positions of political and military leadership as men. Blish even pointed out how women never end up getting selected to serve as “Mayor” (which in this story is actually a eugenically-democratically elected Emperor of a city-state) by the computers that do that selecting. I guess it was really hard for men in the 1960s to accept that their skills in this department were not genetically superior to those of women. 😉 I have to give that a pass, though, because it is ridiculous to expect works of previous time periods to conform to the standards of the present day.

I like how the events of one book have effects that ripple into the others while, at the same time, being entirely stand-alone works (though “They Shall Have Stars” might have looked better as a story in Analog or Asimov instead of as a book.)

Some of the other readers in my book club were baffled and irritated by some of the science, which reduced their enjoyment of the book. I can see their point. The anti-aging drugs weren’t that terribly well developed and probably drew back to what was cutting edge science when the book was written, which of course is now completely obsolete. And it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense to me either; it was just discovered that some chemical compounds prevented come kinds of cellular degeneration, and the ones discovered later were also effective at eliminating mistakes in cellular regeneration because they were able to cure cancer while the earlier ones were not (but the cancer still didn’t kill you, which is interesting.) But I was okay with the McGuffin personally; largely I think because I also read a lot of fantasy. I don’t really care how it works, to be honest. I accept that in this universe that’s the way it works, and on I go.

In the middle of the Space Race there were thought to be two major obstacles to interstellar flight; a way to overcome and/or create gravity, and the amount of time it takes to get between places in such a vast universe. Blish’s solution was people who don’t age and spindizzies. Which also inadvertently solved the radiation problem, which is one of the big concerns that is currently delaying a manned mission to Mars; apparently outside of the Earth and Moon’s magnetic field there’s a whole slew of radiation from the sun that’s really harmful to us. I’m not even sure they were aware of all that in the 1960s, when those two books were written, but that problem is solved at any rate.

I’ve also read some arguments against some other aspects of the technology being obsolete, such as the use of vacuum tubes, but here I don’t agree because there’s some very good arguments for using vacuum tubes in deep space. Consider how computers and satellites malfunction when there’s a major solar flare; do you want that happening to the computers upon which your life depends in deep space? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Still, to some extent I feel we must accept that classic sci-fi is often, by nature, going to have bad science, because our knowledge of how things actually work has increased considerably over the past two hundred years, and in exponential ways. Let’s not forget that Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells were writing perfectly acceptable science fiction for their time.

However, as I said, I can see why that lack of explanation about the anti-aging drugs could diminish enjoyment of the books and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Especially when the physics and quantum physics were so excellently done! Blish’s explanation for anti-gravity, and dealing with anti-matter, stands the test of time even today, even after all we’ve discovered about those subjects since.

The conclusion was fascinating, and also how the characters reacted to it was great. Overall, despite some significant literary flaws, mostly I think in the inconsistency in styles between the stories, I really enjoyed these books, and I see why they are considered to be classics of science fiction. Highly recommended!

View all my reviews

Ideas for Adapting Spelljammer for 5th Edition

Here’s a really neat way of making Spelljamming work for 5th Edition, combining elements of classic Spelljammer, Shadow of the Spider Moon, and Dragonstar.  Sounds great!  Thanks, Cosmonomicon!

Crew of the Reverie (Remembrance)

Elven StingerGriim (ogre male): AL N; W5; hp 15; AC 10; #AT 1; DMG 2-9; SZ L; STR 17, INT 17
Notable Possessions: Bo staff, Lens of Speed Reading, Periapt of Wound Closure

Not long ago, Griim was a simple ogre sage and scribe of minor note in Steelspace. He was part of a minor order of scribes based out of a derelict mammoth near Corrukai. Griim was training in the fields of history (Steelspace) and Known Sphere cultures. He was part of a group of about two dozen scribes, serving under one Gistor the Gray, an elderly ogre magi. He was dislodged from his relatively comfortable life about four years ago.

The group was visited by Makamo the Glutton, an ogre bushi who came looking for answers to a burning question of his. Much research would be required, so Makamo was allowed to stay in the guest quarters while Gistor researched his books for the answers Makamo sought. Over the course of the next week, many of Gistor’s scribes and servants disappeared. Griim feared the worse, and his suspicions were realized when spied Makamo hunched over Gistor’s corpse, devouring it greedily. Griim and the remaining scribes fled to the cargo hold, where the Remembrance was being stored (Gistor had purchased it a few years ago as a curiosity). Fearful of Makamo’s wrath should he learn that Griim had escaped his grisly feast, Griim fled Steelspace and made his way to the Known Spheres.

Griim uses Change Self spells to disguise his true nature. He usually uses the disguise of a half-orc courier wizard to earn enough coin to survive. Despite his self-banishment from his homesphere of Steelspace, Griim is actually having a good time. He sees it all as a grand adventure, a chance to study up close all of the cultures, kingdoms, and races he’s read about in his master’s scrolls and books. He rather enjoys his freedom from his master’s harsh gaze.

Krosh (hobgoblin male): AL N; Scribe 2; hp 7; AC 10; #AT 1; DMG 1-8; SZ M; STR 10, DEX 14, INT 15
Notable Possessions: Bo staff, signet ring, writing equipment, potion of healing

As a young hobgoblin, Krosh was the runt of the family. Considered good for nothing, his clan sold him to Gistor, and Krosh became a simple scribe under his tutelage. Even as an adult, Krosh is very small for a hobgoblin, both shorter than normal at only 5’11” tall, and weaker than typical. He is quite the pacifist, preferring to sit and chat over herbal tea rather than resorting to violence. Much like Griim, he finds the Known Spheres fascinating, despite the inhabitants being uncouth, uncivilized barbarians. Krosh knows how to handle the wing-sails and his duties are to manage them.

Krosh appears much like a peasant in his mid-twenties from Wa, save that his skin color is a shade of light orange, fairly close to the color of a ripe apricot. Krosh wears sandals, a simple peasant tunic and breeches, and a broad straw hat that helps obscure his unusual skin coloration.

Sakka (hobgoblin female): AL N(C); Scribe 3; hp 8; AC 10; #AT 1; DMG 1-4; SZ M; INT 16, WIS 14, CHA 13
Notable Possessions: Dagger, writing equipment, Quill of Neverending Ink, Spectacles of Comprehending Languages

Bookish, quiet, shy, and “wall flower” all described Sakka, one of Gistor’s underling scribes. Getting away from Steelspace’s structured society has liberated Sakka. When the crew pulled into Bral for supplies and work, she walked the streets like a wide-eyed child, taking in the sights. It is perhaps a small miracle she did not get mugged, but it is likely her meager possessions did not attract any attention.

Sakka is short, 5’6” tall, and has dark orange skin and long, black hair. She is not unattractive, all things considered, but certainly no exotic beauty. She has traded in her drab peasant clothes for attire more commonly worn by the aperusa. Her favorite is a colorful dress, but she has more practical clothes as well. Sakka is near-sighted, which she corrects by wearing spectacles.

Sakka is much more aggressive than Krosh, and knows how to load and fire the catapult. It is actually something she takes pride in, since Krosh does not, and often teases him about it.

Brakkdor (bugbear male): AL LN; Bushi 3; hp 31; AC 5; #AT 3/2; DMG 6-11; SZ L; STR 18/22, CON 16
Notable Possessions: Shikomi-zue (double-bladed) +1, leather lamellar, Ring of Protection +1

Brakkdor is the crew’s ‘heavy’, the only one who is actually trained in combat. A bugbear from Korryl, he was hired on as part of Gistor’s security. When Makamo murdered Gistor, he first knocked Brakkdor unconscious in a swift, dishonorable blow from behind. As Griim and the others fled, they discovered the unconscious Brakkdor, and carried him to safety. When he awoke, Brakkdor was enraged, but even he realized how badly outmatched he was against the likes of Makamo, and sullenly accepted the self-imposed banishment the rest of the group agreed upon. Although he would dearly love to extract revenge on Makamo, he knows that ogre is far beyond his skills and does not allow thoughts of revenge to consume his every waking moment.

Since leaving Steelspace, Brakkdor is probably the most uncomfortable of the Remembrance’s crew to their new life in the Known Spheres. Everywhere he sees enemies, people that would do him and the people he protects harm. Of course, being a seven foot tall very hairy humanoid does not help matters, for most people treat him as a scary monster. Ironically, Brakkdor is surprisingly gentle for a bugbear, and Sakka has noted that he has a soft spot in his heart for children, regardless of race.

Brakkdor’s Shikomi-zue appears as an iron staff with a length of about six feet. With a simple twist of the handle, it can produce foot-long blades from either end of the shaft. This special weapon normally causes 1d6+1 points of damage, either bludgeoning (as a staff) or piercing (the spear tips). Brakkdor is specialized in its use. He also knows martial arts, so he is never completely disarmed.

Tarn Rabbittoe (kender male): AL NG; Handler 6; hp 28; AC 8; #AT 1; DMG 1-6; SZ S; DEX 16; CHA 12
Notable Possessions: Hoopak, lock picks

Tarn stands out with the rest of the crew, as he is neither a native of Steelspace, nor is he a humanoid. He is a kender, which in some peoples’ minds, make him by far the most dangerous member of the crew. This, in some ways, is a very true statement.

Tarn met up with the crew while they were docked at the Rock of Bral. He encountered Sakka while she was wandering the streets, and after some small talk, the two became fast friends. Both share a fascination with wildspace and the myriad of cultures of the Known Spheres. Tarn, of course, hails from Kendermore, and managed to stow away on an odd ship while it was docked in Balifor. He had been wandering the docks of wildspace for almost a decade before he met the crew of the Remembrance, and has become a guide of sorts to them. His knowledge of wildspace and its dangers has kept the crew out of the worst danger, although he still loves a little mischief every now and again to keep things interesting. He genuinely cares for the crew, and would never knowingly endanger them, although he is a bit scatter-brained and often oblivious to danger.


By Adam “Night Druid” Miller