Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Chronology Of Cities In Flight

James Blish's "Chronology of Cities In Flight" changed at least twice and was then dropped from a later edition. The last event in the Chronology changed from the death of one person to the end of two universes, then its date changed from 4004 to 4104. Thus, although the series is rightly described as "Wagnerian" (David Ketterer, Imprisoned In A Tesseract: The Life and Work of James Blish, Kent, Ohio, 1987, pp. 160-191), its originally conceived "Gotterdamerung" was the end of Okie civilisation but not also the subsequent end of the universe.

I have in my possession not every relevant edition but:

a paperback edition of Volume I, They Shall Have Stars, re-entitled Year 2018! (London, 1964), with the original Chronology;

the omnibus edition, Cities In Flight (London, 1981), with revised dates in the text but no Chronology.

If I quote from the original Chronology (because it is the only one to hand), the dates quoted may differ from the revised versions but only by a century at most. It will be obvious that major discrepancies remain despite the revisions.

The text of Earthman, Come Home says that Amalfi had not been born at the time of the " '...the Night of Hadjjii...' " (p. 332) whereas the Chronolgy says that he had.

According to the Chronology, the first Colonials left the Solar System in 2021 and New York visited the planet He in 3844, which is 1823 years later. According the text of Volume III, Earthman, Come Home, the Hevians are human and had a "...high civilization, a culture just entering its ripest phase..." on He over eight thousand years ago (Cities In Flight, pp. 297, 298-297). Of course, Hevian years might be shorter than Terrestrial years but not by that much. He is an Earth-like planet. The Mayor of New York and the Hevian Miramon speak of "a thousand years" as if they mean the same thing by it.

Before landing, the New York City Fathers (computers), analysing the language in a radio message from the surface, said that the race speaking it would, unusually, be indigenous although some of the linguistic forms might be degenerates of English. However, when Mayor Amalfi sees the Hevians, he wonders why the City Fathers had been unsure about the language because these are clearly human beings with fingernails on five-fingered hands, human beards, ribs and clavicles and no "...trace of alienage." (p. 296)

Blish cannot mean that the Hevians are humanoid beings indistinguishable from Terrestrial human beings. That is ruled out by Amalfi wondering "...why the City Fathers had been puzzled about the language. These were human children." (p. 296) (Blish's emphasis.)

Yet the reference to a high civilisation with scientific techniques on He over eight thousand years ago makes the Hevians sound like a race that has always lived on He, not like descendants of relatively recent colonists from Earth. And the dates are all wrong.

Dr Richard D Mullen writes in his Afterword that the inconsistencies in Cities In Flight are so numerous and prominent that they must be regarded as essential to it. Thus, the series is not a single, consistent fiction but a "...historical narrative with a large admixture of myth...," with an actual history somewhere behind the myths (p. 599). He justifies this by noting that point of view is rigidly controlled so that each statement can be attributed to one of the characters, not to an omniscient narrator. However, I still have a problem with that conversation between Amalfi and Miramon where they share the meaning of a thousand.

The adventure on He should be filmed. There are rockets like "...fire-tailed birds..." (p. 294) and giant jungle insects preying on each other. The bindlestiff Okie city, protected by its spindizzy screen, rises slowly from under the surface of a lake of boiling mud where it has hidden while secretly organizing opposition to New York's role on He. Amalfi's screen shows him black tendrils of troops moving through the Hevian jungle...

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