Monday, 18 March 2013

Cities In Flight, Volume III

Is James Blish's Cities In Flight Tetralogy uneven or unbalanced? It began as a space opera quartet about flying cities that was collected in a single volume, Earthman, Come Home - thus, a short tetralogy. That series is complete in this one volume. The last city flies in the last story.

Blish added a prequel that is a pre-Okie novel and a sequel that is post-. No cities fly yet in the prequel. In the sequel, the Okies whom we knew have become New Earthmen. They travel in spaceships and some of them join the Hevians on their flying planet of He but no cities fly in this novel. New York remains immobile where it had landed on the colonised planet of New Earth in the Greater Magellanic Cloud.

The point I am leading up to is that the prequel, They Shall Have Stars, and the sequel, The Triumph Of Time, are very different and very substantial science fiction novels that can be read and appreciated in their own rights without much reference to the intermediate volume that they were written around. Is that earlier written novel a lesser work?

It was the first James Blish book that I read back in the early 60's. I was very impressed at the time and reread it often after that although not recently. The paperback that I bought had the cover that is shown on the above image and much later I bought another copy of the same edition after the first copy had crumbled through over-use. (It has since been rebound with the original illustrated front cover preserved inside a new hard cover.)

Having recently reread and posted about both the prequel and sequel, I have now started to reread Earthman, Come Home and to find that it bears rereading. It is like a better Star Trek. Instead of an exploratory spaceship encountering humanoid aliens, we have a migratory flying city encountering long isolated human colonies and coping with problems like a local war or local barbarism.

The Prologue, an extract from a fictitious history book, is quite literary. Describing the Bureaucratic world dictatorship:

"Where the West had soared from the rock of Earth like a sequoia, the Soviets spread like lichens over the planet, tightening their grip, satisfied to be at the bases of the pillars of sunlight the West had sought to ascend." (Cities In Flight, London, 1981, p. 238)

Thought police do not allow even fiction writers to mention space travel, "...Unearthly Activities...," so there is scope for a 1984-style novel set in this period, though it would have to be set in maybe 2184 (p. 238).

Later, the novel reflects on how physical immortality might affect psychology. It suggests that the short-lived are restless whereas:

"After three or four centuries, people grew tired of searching for the unnameable; they learned - they began to think of the future not as holding a haven of placidity and riches, but simply as the realm of things that had not happened yet. They became interested in the budding, the unfolding present, and thought about the future only with an attitude of indifferent acceptance toward whatever catastrophe it might bring." (p. 423)

Similarly, the immortal narrator of Poul Anderson's World Without Stars says that he and his fellow immortals have learned patience with their centuries.

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