Wow! What an intense book!
I started this book for the Science Fiction Masterworks book club I’ve organized, and I waited patiently until the very end of 2015 to start it, especially since I was also working on a reading challenge I wanted to finish by the end of 2015. But once I picked it up, I simply could not put it down. The writing is electric, even pyrotechnic. It starts out with awesome and it just keeps adding more awesome onto awesome.
The book starts with a prologue that explains that someone discovered that when threatened with imminent death people have the ability to “jaunte”; that is to say, to teleport over short distances. Eventually the trick of the ability becomes something that everyone can do and so culture and society must adapt.
Cue our opening scene, in which Gully Foyle, our protagonist, a common labourer, has survived in space for 170 days after his ship, the Nomad, has been blown to smithereens, existing in the one airtight space left — a storage locker the size of a coffin — which requires him to go out every few days to loot an oxygen tank, food and water; the catch being that he has only five minutes of air to breathe, since the attachments for air tanks on his duck-taped spacesuit are damaged.
Have I got your attention yet? Alfred Bester sure got mine! You can’t imagine where this story goes or how it ends from this starting point. The action never stops and all the while the protagonist, and every other significant character be it friend or foe, is realized in such exquisite detail that you never once doubt their motivations and you sympathize with all of them, no matter how cruel they get; and believe me, they can get Game-of-Thrones-cruel!
Bonus points: while I have noted many times that you often have to read 1950s science fiction with a grain of salt in that women generally seem to be present to be sex toys or, at best, love interests for the protagonist, this book does not suffer from that one whit. Bester’s female characters are complex and strong and vulnerable at turns. They are every bit as beautifully human as the men and I love them.
Extra bonus points: no jarring moments of obsolete technology to take you out of the illusion. Not a one.
Every science fiction fan needs to read this book, especially if you love space opera. I want to write like this when I grow up.
Although space is a virtual vacuum, this does not mean that there is no sound in space. Sound does exist as electromagnetic vibrations.
Through specially designed instruments, the Voyager, INJUN 1, ISEE 1, and HAWKEYE space probes used Plasma Wave antenna to record the vibrations of the planets that they visited that are within the range of human hearing (20 to 20,000 Hz).
To be fair, however, they are often quiet; quiet enough that they are difficult, if not impossible, for the human ear to hear.
The recorded sounds are the complex interactions of charged electromagnetic particles from the Solar Wind, ionospheres, and planetary magnetospheres. Here’s a sample of some of the recordings released by NASA:
Here is a recording (and photos) of the noise of the Singing Comet, 67P, as recorded by the Rosetta spacecraft (though in this case the volume has been increased by 10,000 times):
And here is a full playlist of the Symphony of the Planets. These five CDs, which are now out of print, were created from the complex sounds recorded by the Voyager probes.
Yes, really. This is real world stuff I’m talking about, not just Arcane Space!
So if you’d like to imagine what it sounds like aboard a Spelljamming ship, picture that the closer you got to a planetary body, the more of this kind of sound you would hear. It would start as faint, water-like popping noises. Then you would wonder when the wind noise had started. Then you might notice a high-pitched drone like a wet finger on crystal or a Tibetan singing bowl. In some cases (Suns, large planetary bodies) you might notice a low droning buzz, like the sound of a WWII airplane. The closer you got to the planetary body, the louder it would get, and when you reached a planetary gravity plane, it would be a veritable cacophony to ears accustomed only to the creak of the ship, the flap of sails and the quiet of the Void; which would fade again into the background once you hit atmosphere and terrestrial noises began to reach your ears. Or you might be sailing along in space, likely with continual distant popping sounds that would be more rapid the closer you were to the center of the sphere, and all of a sudden a Solar Gale might whip wind and ringing and high-pitched drones through the air envelope. In which case, a sargasso might be heralded by a sudden, deafening silence.
This is the true heady wine of science fiction crafted by the hand of a master. (Quoting Terry Pratchett, which he was saying in regards to “Cities in Flight” by James Blish, but it fits here).
I saw the movie years ago, when I was almost too young to understand it. As always, the book was much better.
I see no reason to reiterate the plot; everyone knows it by now I’m sure. I want to talk about the craft of the writing. The style. The way he writes with a minimalist hand, like Miyamoto Musashi, doing nothing which is of no use.
The first part of the book reads like a spy novel. The second part reads like a space suspense thriller, with the style of the writing being as stark as the setting. Which is why the lush, vividly detailed conclusion is like suddenly really seeing colour after ingesting hallucinogenics; in addition to being mind-blowing in its scope and concept.
The scene where Dave confronts HAL? It’s even creepier in the book than the movie. I felt terrible for a malfunctioning, murderous computer. How do you even do that? That is just good writing.
So even if you haven’t read it because it’s a cultural icon and a classic, read it because it’s just well written. And don’t be discouraged by the title; it reads just as easily today as it did when it was written.
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!
Legendary Games brings you an epic sword & planet adventure saga for Pathfinder and 5th Edition that takes you across the multiverse!
Okay, so this came out more than three years ago, and I see very little actual “Spelljammer” stuff in it, but it’s a promo for what’s got to be the absolutely geekiest, nerdiest thing I’ve ever heard of – which makes it absolutely awesome! I don’t know if it ever got made or if they’re still taking auditions, but just in case, here you go: