Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, August 10, 2012

1970: Cities in Flight (Blish, James)

Full-bodied red wine when all you want is a crisp rosé (3/5)
From April 8, 2010

I knew from the start that I couldn't digest the entirety of Cities in Flight in one sitting, as it was composed of four separate but chronological books. Therefore, I read the book in four steps, which took the better part of eight months interspersing it with other fiction and science fiction reading. I could just never really get into any of the others books other than besides the initial book: They Shall Have Stars. Thereafter, each story had its own troublesome adventure, clash with ideals, and its eventual dry conclusion. I was definitely not bowled over by this collection. Terry Pratchett once said of the series, "This is the real heady wine of science fiction." Well, I don't like wine so much and when I do drink it, I like it to be a cool, crisp chardonnay or rosé... Pratchett can take his heady red wine and go elsewhere... put some cubes of ice in white wine while you're at it.

Blish insistently overuses the comma and semi-colon to such an extent that sentences drag on and on, much like that of Kafka (but with dramatically less flamboyance). At least Kafka had a certain charm or uniqueness to his writings whereas Blish just drones on and on. Another random but irritating aspect of Blish's idiosyncratic writing in Triumph is his overuse of Latin quips. I've never studied Latin so I haven't a clue as to what most of the quips were about. The dialogue is rarely ever taken past the point of being a degree above freezing point, making the reading even more dragging... as if the rambling paragraphs between the dry dialogue wasn't torture enough. Still, Blish manages to slip in a few wondrous ideas of the ultimate fantasy of human space flight and the plights which humans may face beyond our own little star. His consistent use of physics is a fun frolic but not to be taken too seriously as the characters still use some archaic technology.

It's remarkable that Arthur C. Clarke had the amazing vision to apply his knowledge in science to dream up the geostationary satellite and the space cable. He brought a true wonder to the world which made people awe that these new inventions may just be within their grasp. At the opposite end of the spectrum lays James Blish, whose characters still use slide-rules (Pg 584: "Amen! Can I borrow your slide-rule? I've got a few setting up exercises I'd better start on right now.") and vacuum tubes (Pg 587: "...there was a single spearpoint of yellow-orange which was only the heater of a vacuum tube smaller than an acorn.") He constricted himself to such old technologies but still dabbled in the higher end of science and physics with anti-particles, particle waves and galactic formation; all a curious mixture of dated-technology and theoretical physics.


Book 1: They Shall Have Stars (novel, 1956) - 4/5 - A lull in the space program spawns an idea in which `crackpots' must be hired in order to delve into unexplored regions of science. The government thereon sponsors the exorbitant cost in order to take humankind to new levels. In sci-fi culture, it is widely known that the two discoveries found which will send humankind beyond the lonely confines of the earthly orbit are the spindizzy (the anti-gravity device) and ascomycin (the anti-agathic [or anti-mortality] drug). The lead-up to these discoveries is shrouded in mystery but at the same time is also lightly exposed to play into the hands of the government's agenda. Written with outstanding intelligence and focused maturity, James Blish presents a new format of science fiction which eclipses the fiction of the same era (including his peers Asimov and Pohl). The science is thick enough to satisfy any hard sci-fi reader and also inventive enough to titillate the consumer of speculative fiction. The story may be fairly short but it provides a solid bootstrap to the universe which Blish has created. Its sheer ingenuity condensed into the number of pages leads to its dryness and abbreviation of finer points.

Book 2: A Life for the Stars (novel, 1962) - 4/5 - A great amount detail about the Exile history from Earth, the mechanisms of the Cities and about general life on-board has been written. The reader follows Chris from his humble upbringing in Pennsylvania to his unwilling assignment on the City of Scranton to his bright-eyed transfer to the City of New York. Besides the enlightening detail about the Cities in Flight universe, Blish makes a brilliant attempt to impose a dark shadow over the morale of the passengers (as opposed to the Citizens) and also of the pessimism of the people. Some Cities can't find a contract on a planet as many of the closer moons and heavenly bodies have already been speculated. The City of Scranton and the City of New York must look far into deeper space to find a toehold for their existence. Little did either City know just how their fates would intertwine. The only negative phase of this book is the transparent and seemingly forceful portrayal of Chris as being a self-motivated and self-stylized plot thickener. He conjures up simple plots which lay a thick plot foundation but which feel as desperate attempts to shake up the establishment of the wonderfully creative City idea. When the Cities stray planet-ward, the plot tends to become self-centered on Chris and suffers a sense of silliness.

Book 3: Earthman, Come Home (novel, 1955) - 3/5 - Earthman doesn't follow suit (even though it was the first story written) with the rest of the series. Firstly, Earthman is much longer and is split into nine chapters, which is strange considering that the third book is pretty much just a consolidation of four stories. The linking between each story is strained with effort on the part of Blish. The strain is hard to bear as the book is laden with too much dialogue. Typically, it's more difficult for readers to pay attention to a plot with little dialogue and much description. Blish managed to fail in holding my attention as the excessive dialogue was as dry as the pages they were printed on. I found the logic of the plot to be all within the skull of the Mayor. He sets every plot and sub-plot with information and foresight only known to him. There's a certain amount of clairvoyance involved. Watching the result of the Mayor's pre-planning is what keeps the book from slipping into a 2-star reading and hence off my shelf and to the second-hand book store. But trying to predict what the Mayor is thinking, what harebrained schemes he will come up with, and what path his madness will follow is impossible. It's unpredictable and frankly a tad off the wall.

Book 4: The Triumph of Time (novel, 1958) - 3/5 - In the first conflict, the City is taken under hostage by religious extremists who protest over New Earth's use of the philosophy called Stochasticism. The conflict is quickly resolves through some quick wit reminiscent of the classic problem/solution sort of science fiction back from the 1950s Golden Age science fiction. This plows forward into the second and more interesting conflict: the realities of a parallel anti-matter universe and the coming of the end of the universe by June 3rd, 4104. It's only in the last forty or so pages that the story really begins to pick up pace because the first eighty pages had me putting the book up and down like no tomorrow as I was beginning to doubt Blish's grand finale. The finale is chalked full of based-on-reality physics and hypothetical physics, too, where the cast find that their fate is drawing ever nearer. The implications of their actions are a fantastic conclusion to a somewhat lengthy, yet important, but also rather dry series.

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