James Blish: Cities In Flight

James Blish's Cities In Flight coversFrom the embankment of the long-abandoned Erie-Lackawanna-Pennsylvania Railroad, Chris sat silently watching the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, preparing to take off, and sucked meditatively upon the red and white clover around him.
It was a first time for each of them. Chris had known since he had been a boy—he was sixteen now—that the cities were deserting the Earth, but he had never seen one in flight. Few people had, for the nomad cities, once gone, were gone for good.

James Blish was a science fiction writer whose peak creative years came in the 1950s and ’60s. Among other things, he wrote one of the first serious examinations of religion in a science-fictional setting, A Case of Conscience (1958), and a jaw-dropping and much-anthologized short story, “Surface Tension” (1952), concerning the adventures of an improbable race of microscopic humans who inhabit a puddle of water. My favourite among his novels actually isn’t science fiction—Doctor Mirabilis (1964) is a historical novel that lovingly reconstructs the life and career of the thirteenth-century philosopher and proto-scientist, Roger Bacon. I’m not known for weeping at the end of novels, but I did shed a tear over the last page of Doctor Mirabilis.

However, here I’m going to talk about what’s probably Blish’s most famous work, a tetralogy* of novels collectively called the Cities In Flight series.

Blish had a particular writing style, which he didn’t use all the time, that he called “intensively recomplicated”. In an odd bit of self-reference, the origin of the phrase itself is to some extent intensively recomplicated. Here’s the story: Between 1952 and 1963, Blish wrote reviews and literary criticism of magazine science fiction under the pseudonym William Aetheling, Jr. To make it harder for people to guess his real identity, he (as Aetheling) would occasionally make reference to his own writings (as Blish)—on one notorious occasion even going so far as to review his own novel, A Case of Conscience, in less than glowing terms. In a 1952 piece entitled “Some Missing Rebuttals”, he (as Aetheling) used the phrase “intensively recomplicated story” to designate a “technique used by such men as van Vogt, Schmidt, Harness, Blish, and […] Knight”. Now, the Knight he mentions is Damon Knight, who as well as being a science fiction writer also wrote reviews and criticism of science fiction. And when, in 1956, Knight came to review Blish’s novel, Earthman, Come Home, he borrowed the phrase “intensively recomplicated” from William Aetheling Jr., apparently unaware that he was borrowing from Blish in order to describe Blish’s book.

Knight (a little unfairly) characterized Blish’s “intensively recomplicated” style as “the Kitchen Sink Technique”:

[…] this consists of packing as much as possible of everything into a given space. I mean almost everything: plot, incident, background, allusion, confusion; character usually gets left out.

What Blish actually does (and the Cities in Flight series is the best example of it) is to layer on complicated detail in passing, with which his characters seem to be completely familiar. The effect on the reader (when this technique works well) is to generate a sense of logical depth to the narrative—a feeling that the characters inhabit a world that is far more detailed than the story has time for. For instance, in describing a compact nuclear generator, many writers would content themselves with the phrase “compact nuclear generator”. Not Blish:

The pile itself, of course, was simple enough to handle; it consisted only of a tank about the size of a glass brick, filled with a fine white froth: heavy water containing uranium235 hexafluoride in solution, damped by bubbles of cadmium vapour. Most of its weight was shielding and the peripheral capillary network of the heat-exchanger.

(I love the “of course”.)

Later, when this dubious object is deliberately detonated, we read:

A blast of pure light blew through the upended cabin, despite the shielding between it and the pile. Even through the top of his head, the violet-white light of that soundless blast nearly blinded Amalfi, and he could feel the irradiation of his shoulders and chest. He would develop no allergies on this planet, anyhow—every molecule of histamine in his blood must have been detoxified in that instant.

This is just magnificent hokum—Blish was trained as a biologist and must have known that it made not the slightest sense, but he chucks it in anyway, as a marvellous throwaway notion, before pressing on with the action before the reader has time to think, Hang on a minute …

The biggest piece of invention in these stories is the fundamental plot element—the “cities in flight”. Blish comes up with an interstellar drive that works better on more massive objects. The “Dillon-Wagoner gravitron polarity generator” (colloquially known as a “spindizzy”) does something to electron spin. Typically, Blish provides an equation that supposedly provides the principle on which the device operates. It’s misprinted multiple different ways in different editions and versions of the books, but it makes no physical sense in any of them. However, in another piece of virtuoso intensive recomplication, Blish actually has his characters point out to each other that the equation doesn’t make sense. In his narrative, though, it nevertheless works—meaning that all of physics will need to be rewritten to accommodate it.

Anyway. The spindizzy drive allows entire cities to take off from the Earth and fly off to other stars at multiples of lightspeed. These nomadic cities roam the galaxy, offering specialist expertise and industry to the inhabited planets, which had been colonized during an earlier wave of exploration. Blish calls these migrant communities the Okie cities—a reference to Depression-era migrant agricultural workers, who were nicknamed “Okies” because so many of them came from Oklahoma.

The migrant cities first appeared in Earthman, Come Home (1955). It was the first published of the series, a fix-up novel built from four short stories that had been published between 1950 and 1953. It follows the adventures of the migrant city of New York under its mayor, John Amalfi, as the city and its inhabitants roam the galaxy looking for work, getting into trouble, and getting out of trouble by causing more trouble. As the series built over the next decade, Earthman, Come Home wound up being placed third in the internal chronology of the books. It’s the first of the series that I read, it’s the most intensively recomplicated, and it’s the fastest paced.

Next came They Shall Have Stars (1956), which is another fix-up novel, interleaving scenes from two short stories—”Bridge” (1952) and “At Death’s End” (1954). These two are the origin stories for the  series—the first tells how the spindizzy drive was invented (during a lovingly described construction project on Jupiter, of all places); the second describes the discovery of the “anti death” drugs which will allow individual humans to live long enough to explore the galaxy while moving at “just” the few multiples of lightspeed that the spindizzy allows. (Blish called these drugs anti-agathics, a term that has escaped into general science-fictional use, and one that has set me running off on a long side-track that I’ll describe in a separate post.)

There then followed a direct sequel to Earthman, Come HomeThe Triumph Of Time (1958), published in the UK as A Clash Of Cymbals. This one, though in places as recomplicated as its predecessors, has none of the brash self-confidence of the two previous novels; instead, it is as mournful and elegiac as its namesake poem by Algernon Swinburne. The flying cities no longer fly; Amalfi, having lived for a thousand years, is tired and regretful for lost loves, and suspects he might be losing his edge; and the Universe is coming to an end. Yes, that’s right—Blish wrote The End Of The Universe into the novel. If you have created infinitely resourceful and potentially immortal characters, and you want to fill them with late-life regret, then only the impending end of the Universe will do the job properly.

And finally, A Life For The Stars was published in 1962, filling the gap between the events of They Shall Have Stars and Earthman, Come Home. I quoted its opening lines at the start of this post. It’s essentially a coming-of-age novel, following the adventures of a boy, Chris deFord, who is shanghaied aboard the city of Scranton as it leaves Earth, and ends up working as city manager of New York under the not-particularly-benign rule of a younger (but by no means young) John Amalfi.

The whole series is leavened with Blish’s wry, dry humour. His description of a preacher “moaning unctuously, like a lady hippopotamus reading A.E. Houseman” is a characteristic example. And there is a satisfying sense of steadily expanding scope, from petty Washington politics, to the exploration of the solar system, to spacecraft setting off for the nearest stars, to cities roaming the galaxy, to whole planets moving between galaxies, and finally a transcendent confrontation with universal catastrophe. But it is very much a product of its decade—fast-talking, wise-cracking heroes who chomp cigars; can-do engineers who navigate between the stars using a slide-rule; scientists who distractedly scribble opaque jargon on a blackboard; sophisticated computers built from vacuum tubes; and poorly drawn female characters whose equality with men is at best partial and at worst patronizing.

It’s fun, and it’s a classic, but perhaps more of a nostalgic classic than a living classic.

* Although the word quadrilogy enjoyed a brief vogue after the release of the Alien Quadrilogy (1979), a boxed set of four films from the Alien franchise, quadrilogy is a hybrid word of mixed Latin and Greek roots—no good can come of it.

The connection to William Ætheling, son of Henry I, is obscure, at least to me.

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