Cities in Flight

Instead of a Stendhal post this week – I missed Saturday lost in the DC snow – and further to my Foundation post below, which has garnered some very interesting comments … do we have any fans of James Blish’s Cities in Flight novels?

As an exercise in future history social theory, I actually think they are deeper than the Foundation novels; certainly I found the characters more psychologically interesting and in many respects, the interplay of society with ideas from science deeper, too.  I used to think – and say below – that they are emotionally rather bleak, pessimistic.  I think today I would say it is not so much pessimism as a very adult sensibility of mortality.  The original Foundation series is aimed at cleverness in holding out on the ending; Blish was a surprisingly psychological writer, particularly for that era in science fiction.

Here is what I wrote about the series on a family blog in 2005, reading them with my daughter:

Renee and I have been reading as bedtime story the James Blish 1950s science fiction saga, Cities in Flight. I read it at Renee’s age, utterly entranced. It is fully adult science fiction, however – here is a biography of James Blish – that wonderfully combines hard science of the 1950s with an astonishing reach into projecting forward sociology, history, politics, and social theory to imagine a future galactic civilization. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that so much science fiction aims at exactly this – but Blish’s bleak, brilliant historical vision is something really special. The historical vision is essentially Oswald Spengler’s dichotomy between culture and civilization, and Spengler’s view of the fall of civilizations, set in a galaxy in which space traveling earth cities roam between the planets as migrant workers – poor migrant laborers of the Great Depression, yet in a social sense acting as the glue, the cross-pollinators, that holds the fabric of a far flung galactic civilization together. The real power comes not in the science, but in the social theory. Renee is enjoying it for the first time; I’m rereading it for the first time in 35 years.

(I remember very clearly how my older brother and I first came across the first book in the series. The family was on a rare vacation that was not simply a trip to grandma’s house – my father, a chemistry professor, was attending a conference at UC San Diego, in the mid-sixties it must have been, and the family – mom, older brother, me, one (or two?) sisters, and a baby – were camped out in a camping trailer on the beach at San Diego, somewhere around San Clemente, maybe? Anyway, it was cold and wet and miserable the whole week, until, of course, the sun gloriously burst forth the day we were packing up. My mother had her hands more than full with the baby and the little one’s – and she, in a very rare treat, allowed my brother and me to buy a book each at the drugstore. We bought two books – Blish’s They Shall Have Stars was one of them, and we sat in the car in the rain reading it over each other’s shoulder for days on end. I read it a zillion times, and was thrilled to get all four later on. It’s hard for my kid – who has every book her heart has ever desired and then some – to understand what it was like to actually buy a book. It’s not that we were poor or anything – but people didn’t have as much disposible income in the 1960s, especially not if Dad was a professor at a state college with a lot of kids and neither parent came from money.)