Sunday, 31 March 2013


James Blish's The Star Dwellers (London, 1979) is narrated entirely from the point of view (POV) of its central character, Jack Loftus, - except that the (omniscient?) narrator does wade in when necessary.

Inside the Coal Sack Nebula, concealed from any external observers, is a new star cluster inhabited by many of the energy beings that Earthmen call "Angels." We are told that:

"The central temple of this great cluster was as alive as the Angels were, and in the same kind of way. Jack could not have defended his knowledge of that for an instant against a sceptic, but he knew it was so. He could see it. Anyone could see it!" (p. 87)

The first sentence here states, as if this were an objective fact, that the central part of the cluster was alive. However, the second sentence, beginning "Jack..." shows that the perception of life is Jack's. Thus, it does not quite have the status of a definite fact imparted by an omniscient narrator. Nevertheless, usually, when a fictitious text informs us that its POV character knew x, we understand that we are to accept that x is true, within the fictitious scenario of course, even if we are also told that he "...could not have defended his knowledge..."

Surprisingly, in the first sentence of the following paragraph, the narrator not only does come center stage but even contradicts Jack's perception:

"But about this he was wrong. He never saw that central temple, if it exists; nor has anyone else seen it since. It may be alive, as Jack thought; or it may not. Howard Langer may have come a little closer to it, but if he did, he saw less of it than Jack did. The Angels guarded their mysterious heaven very closely, then as now; and the First Cause remains unplumbed." (pp. 87-88)

"" refers to some later date at which the narrator tells us of these historic events. So maybe this narrator is not omniscient, just better informed than the viewpoint character? After all, he does seem not to know whether the central temple is alive. What was Jack wrong about? His certainty that anyone could see that it was alive. A mystery remains...

The sequel, Mission To The Heart Stars, closes with an Angelic dramatic dialogue that is not witnessed by any human being. Since it is in dramatic form (characters' names capitalized followed by colons, then speech), it does not present the POV of any one of the speakers. We are then told that neither Jack nor even his great-great-grandchildren ever heard any of it so we seem to have gone far beyond the range even of the narrator who said, "...then as now...," in The Star Dwellers.


James Blish's Earthman, Come Home (IN Cities In Flight, London, 1981) is narrated entirely from the point of view (POV) of John Amalfi, Mayor of the flying city of New York. However, when the city manager, Mark Hazleton, permanently resigns/retires from starfaring by using the standard formula, " '- I want off' " (p. 386), the text lists several responses that Amalfi could have made before informing us that:

" one of these things entered his mind." (p. 388)

And also:

"...allowing the city manager to back down did not even occur to Amalfi..." (p. 387)

So someone else, an omniscient narrator, is informing us not only of what Amalfi said but also of those other things that he did not say and did not even think - unless the POV here is that of Amalfi not at that time but at some later date when he had had time to reflect back on the conversation?

The concluding paragraph of Blish's A Clash Of Cymbals (London, 1959), Chapter 4, p. 102, has the joint POV of two children, Web and Estelle. However, the paragraph mainly informs us that the children never heard a difficult conversation between Amalfi and Web's grandfather, Hazleton, and did not understand why the recall of Web's grandmother, Dee, from the planet He had to mean their recall also. The paragraph does tell us how the children felt and, of course, they did know that they did not understand their recall but we are also told of the conversation that they never heard so here the omniscient narrator is at work.

When the characters do return to He for the flight to the Metagalactic Centre, Estelle is not allowed to take her alien pet (a touch of Heinlein). This:

"...struck [Amalfi] as a strange thing to be weeping about.

"He did not know that she was weeping for the passing of her childhood; but then, neither did she." (p. 162)

POV In CIF etc I

POV is point of view. CIF is James Blish's Cities In Flight Tetralogy.

James Blish knew the importance of point of view in fiction and, as William Atheling Jr (his pen-name when writing science fiction criticism), adversely criticised a short story in which POV jumped arbitrarily between characters, even, apparently, entering a dog.

If, according to the rule that has emerged for the writing of fiction, either an entire novel or, at least, each chapter or discrete chapter section is narrated as from the POV of a single character, then is any role left for an omniscient narrator? Presumably it is such a narrator that divulges to the reader the inmost momentary thoughts of a POV character? That character may forget such thoughts or die before he can relate them to anyone else.

Nevertheless, the omniscient narrator can remain so much in the background that we are unaware of (which pronoun is appropriate?) presence. To make a comparison with stage drama, he (since we must use some pronoun) not only never comes on-stage but is not even an audible voice from off-stage. He is more like the director without whom the play would not have been performed but of whom we do not even begin to be aware during the performance.

Knowing all this, Blish nevertheless has some transactions between POV and, apparently, an omniscient narrator. "Common Time" is and can only be narrated from the point of view of Garrard who is alone in an experimental interstellar spaceship and, for some of the time, unwilling or even unable to move. Nevertheless, section 3 begins:

"That Garrard did not die completely...was due to the purest of accidents; but Garrard did not know that. In fact, he knew nothing at all for an indefinite period, sitting rigid and staring..." (Blish, Galactic Cluster, London, 1963, p. 19)

So who is telling us this? The second paragraph begins with Garrard waking and we are back in his POV. The concluding section 4 has three unnumbered subsections. In the third of these, Garrard, back on Earth, discusses his experiences with Haertel and gains some understanding of them. So maybe the passage relating what Garrard did not know at the time represents his POV not at that moment in the story but later when he had had time to reflect on it?

Blish's Future Histories

James Blish's several short future history series have different dramatic culminations.

"This Earth Of Hours": conflict between the Terrestrial Matriarchy and the Central Empire;

Mission To The Heart Stars: conflict between the UN/Angels alliance and the Heart Stars;

The Seedling Stars: colonisation of the galaxy by Adapted Men;

Cities In Flight: creation of new universes after the matter-anti-matter collision;

"A Style In Treason": conflict between High Earth and the Green Exarchy;

Midsummer Century: consciousness artificially preserved and enhanced in successive civilisations on Earth;

The Quincunx Of Time: colonisation of other galaxies by an expanding utopian civilisation.

The last three works are set in different periods of a single timeline. Thus, the number of future histories here is five. There are three hostile interstellar empires, counterparts of the Star Trek Klingons or of Poul Anderson's Merseians, but Blish leaves these conflicts unresolved because of the time scales involved.

Without straining language too severely, I have summarised in such a way that four key themes have been distilled: conflict; colonisation; creation; consciousness. Neat.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Parallel Blogs

I am trying to run two blogs in tandem at present. I think it is appropriate to read and study the works of James Blish and Poul Anderson in conjunction with each other but there are consistently more page views on the Poul Anderson Appreciation blog than there are here.

The most recent addition to the Poul Anderson blog, "Cadet Loftus And Ensign Flandry," (see here) summarizes a passage in Blish's The Star Dwellers (London, 1979) where that novel's central character, Jack Loftus, is said to have read a kind of fiction that sounds as if it could well include the Flandry series. I could just copy that post here, as with some others in the past, but I am now trying to refer readers of each blog to the other.

The Flandry series is more or less implausible space opera of a kind that is well critiqued in the relevant passage of The Star Dwellers but what is important about it is that it is very good space opera and hard sf and social commentary, thus not a body of work to be summarily dismissed as "'...nonsense...' " (p. 49).

Since The Star Dwellers was written as a reply to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, anyone interested in serious science fiction would do well to read in succession:

Heinlein's five volume Future History;
Heinlein's fourteen juvenile novels, including Starship Troopers;
Anderson's History of Technic Civilization, including the Flandry series, now republished in seven omnibus volumes;
Blish's four volume future history;
Blish's two Jack Loftus novels.

There is more, of course, but I have just referred to thirty two volumes as a starter.

Friday, 29 March 2013


There is some sort of agreement among sf writers that it is either impossible or at least inadvisable for a spaceship to switch on its faster-than-light drive when it is very deep in the gravity well of a star. Thus, it is usually regarded as necessary to make a sub-light speed interplanetary journey perhaps to beyond the orbit of Pluto before going FTL. (Larry Niven spends some time re-examining this assumption in one of the later Ringworld novels.)

In James Blish's The Star Dwellers (London, 1979), this limitation on the use of FTL does not apply. One spaceship:

"...rose from the surface of the Earth to the top of the atmosphere with the gentleness of a lift - after which she flicked into Haertel [FTL] overdrive so efficiently that she utterly vanished." (p. 34)

However, in the sequel, Mission To The Heart Stars (London, 1980):

" 'Of course, if we go directly on to the Standing Wave [Haertel overdrive] from orbit, there'll be a planet-wide minor earthquake.' " (p. 106)

In the first novel, Blish, demonstrating that the interstellar vessels of 2050 are unlike earlier spacecraft, uses phrases like "...gentleness..." and "...utterly vanished...," whereas, in the sequel, when he is imagining a hasty escape from a hostile planet, he reverts to the idea that an immediate transition to FTL will have violent consequences. The result, I think, is an inconsistency between the novels.

The Star Dwellers

Chapters 1 and 2 of James Blish's The Star Dwellers (London, 1979) effortlessly and economically introduce nine characters:

Daniel Hart, Secretary for Space;
Dr Howard Langer, Hart's trouble shooter;
Jack Loftus, senior foreign service cadet in Hart's department;
Jack's father;
R Dover "Timkin" Bearing, Hart's underclerk for communications;
Paul X McCrary of McCrary Engineering;
McCrary's daughter, Sylvia, Trans-Solar Press reporter;
Jerry "Sandbag" Stevens, Langer's cadet understudy;
Lucifer, the fallen Angel (off-stage).

In Chapter 3, we learn that the novel is set in:

"...2050, nearly two decades after the discovery of the Haertel faster-than-light drive..." (p. 34).

Haertel connects The Star Dwellers to Blish's Hugo-winning novel, A Case Of Conscience, set in 2049-50, but the terrestrial and interstellar politics of the two novels differentiate them as occurring in alternative Haertelian futures. Apart from the fictitious Haertel, who appears in a juvenile novel and an adult short story, the two names associated here with faster-than-light (FTL) are British astronomer Milne and Mach of "...'Mach's axiom' or 'the cosmological assumption'" (pp. 42-43). I think that this Mach is real and therefore is different from the fictitious Mach associated with FTL in Poul Anderson's Fire Time?

Intelligent extraterrestrial races in The Star Dwellers are:

Martians (extinct);
inhabitants of planets of the stars Tau Ceti and 40 Eridani;
lesser races on one of three planets colonised by Earth in the past five years;
the Angels;

- and an interstellar confederation near the galactic centre is mentioned somewhere but I have not reread that far yet.

Langer says that finding intelligence:

" '...on five planets out of the first suitable seven we studied - including Earth, of course - proves...beyond a shadow of a doubt...' " that " 'Where intelligence can arise, it will arise.'" (p. 17)

I am not sure about that conclusion. Of course, Langer can quote evidence, his five out of seven planets, but he seems to imply that the proposition had already been made and was waiting to be proved. Maybe it is true that life arises wherever it can. It arose as soon as it could on Earth. All that it needs is energy, complex chemistry and time - all of these exist in space - but intelligence requires a lot more than just these three conditions and we have not yet seen any evidence for it anywhere else in the universe.

Blish Juveniles

Robert Heinlein wrote twelve Scribner Juveniles and two juveniles from Putnam. Five of the Scribner Juveniles are closely linked to Heinlein's five volume Future History.

James Blish, a successor of Heinlein, wrote five juveniles: three Haertel-related; one Okie; one contemporary. The Okie juvenile is an integral part of Blish's Cities In Flight future history. Thus, a younger reader might read the five juveniles, then proceed from them to the future history.

The range of science fiction is shown by the fact that the Foreword to The Star Dwellers, a Haertel-related juvenile, discusses biology whereas the Foreword to its sequel, Mission To The Heart Stars, discusses society.

Having reread Cities In Flight, I am starting to reread The Star Dwellers. We get used to Blish's spindizzy-powered flying cities although in fact they fly in only two volumes of one tetralogy. In The Star Dwellers, we return to Haertel overdrive spaceships but also to energy beings inhabiting and propelling themselves through interstellar space.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Cities In Flight As Future History

Volumes I and II of James Blish's Cities In Flight Tetralogy certainly achieve future historical status. Vol I presents world-changing events in three parts of a future society: politics in Washington; research in New York; exploration of Jupiter.

Vol II is set centuries later in the changed world. Although the series has now moved into the era of flying cities, Vol II does not begin with John Amalfi, mayor of Manhattan-in-Flight, the central character of Vols III and IV. Instead, it begins with Crispin deFord, a teenager growing up in the permanent economic depression on Earth who is press ganged by another city, Scranton, as it goes aloft.

The city manager of Scranton refers to Amalfi as someone on another city that Scranton is dealing with. When Chris deFord transfers to New York, he hears of Amalfi as a well known though rarely seen public figure. Vol II ends with the only account in the series of Amalfi's physical appearance and mannerisms as seen by another character. This is the last part of the series to be written.

Both Vols III and IV do start with Amalfi's point of view. Here, the future historical perspective is less prominent. We see important, dramatic and history-changing events occurring and are told that centuries are elapsing. However, thanks to the anti-agathics, it is the same small group of characters that is involved in or responding to these events so that we do not have the same sense of the passage of time.

Because Vol IV deals with the end of the universe, Blish wanted to show how a younger generation that had not lived for centuries would respond to the imminent end so some passages are written from the point of view of the former New York city manager's grandson but, apart from that, it is all Amalfi.

Cities In Flight As Series

By contrast with Star Trek (see previous post), James Blish's Cities In Flight is a series of just four volumes. However, the series element is repeated twice.

(i) Volume III, Earthman, Come Home, from which the others grew, is itself a collection of four sequential stories, originally published separately.

(ii) Although Volume II, A Life For The Stars, is a continuous novel about the flying city of New York, the city's two planetfalls in the volume correspond very closely to two episodes of a Star Trek-like series.

The juvenile hero of Volume II has an "adventure" on each of the planets. However, Blish is commendably restrained in his handling of the adventures. On the feudal planet of Heaven, Chris overhears part of a plot against the city but does not exactly save the day. He makes it to Castle Wolfwhip but is immediately imprisoned, gets in the way, has to be rescued and is warned against any further excursions on the second planet, Argus Three.

Since, in the Argus system, New York is in conflict with Scranton, a city that Chris knows, he does feel entitled to trek across country to Scranton. All that he can do, however, is to make for his former "hidey hole" and to hope that his local contact, Frad, will seek him out there. When Frad does this, Chris persuades him to depose the current city manager and to make a deal with New York. Although this does happen, Chris has to remain in his hidey hole throughout and thus is not involved in any of the fighting or in the rescue of his captured friend. His reward is to be offered the city managership of New York so our hero has come of age but by his ability to analyse the politics of Scranton and to negotiate, not by displaying any physical prowess.

Volume I, They Shall Have Stars, revives the serial format because it splits up two previously published stories into alternating installments. Finally, Volume IV, The Triumph Of Time, is an undivided novel.

Sequel, Serial, Series

(i) The first form of fiction has to have been the single story, spoken not written.

(ii) Next, there were sequels by the same author or by a successor. Homer's Iliad was followed by his Odyssey, then by Virgil's Aeneid.

(iii) Greek dramatists created trilogies, whether thematic or linear.

(iv) Nineteenth century periodicals serialised novels before their book publication. Here again was a single story but now read in installments.

(v) For periodical publication, Arthur Conan Doyle (I think) created the series: a serial in which each episode is a complete story so that a one-time reader gets to read an entire narrative while regular readers appreciate continuity. Series synthesises single story, sequel and serial.

Even those who do not follow prose fiction series are all too familiar with the series format from TV. In fact, everyone knows of Star Trek even if they have never seen an episode. Thus, the basic story, Kirk and Spock on the Enterprise, is known even when particular stories are either not known or forgotten.

It is impossible to read some works by James Blish, in particular Cities In Flight, without remembering Star Trek. In Star Trek/Cities In Flight:

a starship/city flies to various planetary systems where, however, it must not upset social systems;
we see a handful of individuals in controlling positions but not the entire crew/population;
we are shown the next generation (Star Trek: changed political alliances; two starships; a space station. Cities: a new interstellar empire; the astronomer's daughter and the city manager's grandson; a planet flying between metagalaxies; the end of the universe.)

Wherever they differ, Cities is superior - more imaginative with better characterisation and a sounder basis in knowledge of the relevant sciences. Where Star Trek does excel as a series, of course, is in sheer number of episodes:

three seasons of the original series;
a prequel series;
three sequel series;
the animated series;
the feature film series;
in other media, novels, comics, even fanfic (amateur fiction written by fans).

Quantity is the antithesis of quality. In fiction:

talent creates quality;
individual prolificity or team script writing generates quantity.

Thus, I suggest that:

James Blish created several works of considerable quality;
Poul Anderson, both talented and prolific, created many works of comparable quality;
Star Trek comprises many more works of mediocre or at best variable quality.

The ideal quality-quantity synthesis would be an sf series as long as Star Trek but as good as Cities In Flight or the History of Technic Civilization but when will that exist in reality?

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Galactic Centre

James Blish presented two (or three) empires occupying the centre of our galaxy.

(i) In "This Earth Of Hours," the culminating story of the Galactic Cluster trilogy, there is a telepathic Central Empire.

(ii) A different central civilization is unnamed in The Star Dwellers, referred to as the Heart Stars in "A Dusk Of Idols" and self-identified as the Hegemony of Malis in Mission To The Heart Stars.

(iii) The existence of such an empire is suspected in ...And All The Stars A Stage but, if it exists, it could be (i) or (ii).

The Hegemony would be a perfect recurring villain for a series but Blish used it only to make a couple of points about the nature of society and civilization and then turned his attention to other issues. He has been described as a careful writer, another example being that the sequel to Black Easter could have been a mere riot of demons throughout the world. Instead, Blish thought through the philosophical implications of his fictional premises, then wrote a different kind of outcome. 

What The Okies Do IX

The first textual confirmation that James Blish's A Life For The Stars follows his They Shall Have Stars is a casual reference to "spindizzies" on p. 135 (Cities In Flight, London, 1981). The earlier references to flying cities should not have meant anything to us yet unless we have looked ahead to Earthman, Come Home.

The background detail that technology has caused mass unemployment does not feature elsewhere in this series but does connect with two other Blish juveniles, the Jack Loftus novels, and with A Torrent Of Faces which Blish co-wrote with Norman L Knight.

A Life For The Stars reads like a Heinlein juvenile and is particularly reminiscent of Starman Jones. Although Poul Anderson's The Game Of Empire is not a juvenile, it has a similar opening passage when its teenage viewpoint character sees a quadrupedal alien approaching. The opening chapter of A Life For The Stars also has some, very different, parallels with CS Lewis' Out Of The Silent Planet. In both the hero, is kidnapped and physically coerced to leave Earth although Lewis' character is taken to Mars whereas Blish's text has already told us about Pittsburgh on Mars.

Lewis quotes Milton:

" never shuts his eye,
"Up in the broad fields of the sky..."

- whereas Blish's character thinks of "...Eternal Daylight Saving Time." (p. 144)

We are told that the flying cities "...provided badly needed industrial strength..." to the extra-solar colonies (p. 170). This makes sense. Small groups of Colonials had flown to Earth-like planets but how much industrial technology could they have transported with them?

We are given more details about how New York is to help industrialize the planet called Heaven. The Archangels want undersea farming and herding, as on Venus, with broadcast power. The Okies are to:

excavate in the wet terrain;
build the generator-transmitter station;
refine thorium and other power metals which Heaven has but cannot process in quantity;
receive payment in the precious metal germanium since, isolated as yet from interstellar trade, the Archangels have few Oc dollars.

Afterwards, the Archangels aim to have their own refineries and to sell to other planets. As they are Russian-speaking feudal lords, they cannot have been part of the original wave of Western colonists but must have left Earth later when the exodus of the cities began.

What The Okies Do VIII

James Blish's Earthman, Come Home, Volume III of his Cities In Flight Tetralogy (London, 1981), starts with Mayor John Amalfi on the flying city of New York and stays with Amalfi so that we get no sense of New York as a city with a population. Apart from the city manager and one or two others, most of the characters, technicians etc, come on stage to obey Amalfi's orders and then go straight back off stage again so does the novel effectively realise a city?

The later written Volume II, A Life For The Stars, does address at least part of this problem. This juvenile novel starts not with the Mayor of a major city but with a teenager press ganged by a lesser city, Scranton, just before that city goes aloft. Because Scranton is not a spaceship with a small and like-minded or disciplined crew but a city with a larger and diverse population, the viewpoint character Chris deFord is treated in different ways by the citizens that he meets. The press gang boss warns him to claim some useful skills or knowledge when questioned by the city manager. Faking a knowledge of astronomy, Chris is assigned to the city's navigator, a university astronomer. The navigator soon realises that Chris' knowledge of astronomy is minimal and insufficient but shields him for as long as possible as an "apprentice" rather than let him be relegated to pitching slag.

The novel does describe the internal economy of a flying city, a commune where:

everyone takes what he needs in accordance with the status of his job;
hoarding is a capital offence;
money is used only for foreign trade.

"Amalfi" is heard as the name of the mayor of another city. When Chris moves to that other city, New York, he enters a more sophisticated Okie society where he receives education and might qualify for citizenship and the antiagathics if he can demonstrate useful skills that are worth preserving in a single individual as against training a new individual in each generation or depending on the accidents of birth for comparable talents. Surprisingly, one of the antiagathics removes the need for sleep!

There is more that is worth recording but it may have to wait and I have not finished rereading yet.

What The Okies Do VII

After today, I expect not to have access to a computer until Good Friday at the earliest. I certainly aim to post more about James Blish whose Cities In Flight, which I am currently rereading, is proving to be considerably richer than expected. Of course, I did appreciate and rate the series on previous readings many years ago and with good reason although I would not have been able to articulate all of the reasons adequately then.

I think that the main American future histories are definitely those written by Heinlein, Blish, Anderson and Niven. Asimov's can be read for comparison but I think that it lacks the substance and solidity that can be attributed to those others.

Blish said that Cities In Flight, Volume II, A Life For The Stars, resulted from the "laziness" of using an established background for a new juvenile sf novel instead of creating a new background. However, I am glad that this novel exists because it adds significantly to the series, even answering some questions that are not even addressed in the earlier written Volume III, Earthman, Come Home. The flying cities are shown only in Volumes II and III so we should certainly be grateful that they appear in two whole volumes and not just in one.

We are told more about why the cities go aloft. When Scranton goes Okie, it takes its slag heaps with it because there will be some frontier planets with iron ore to process and others with a use for slag whereas Earth has by now exhausted all of its iron ore. Scranton must leave the Solar System because:

there is no iron ore on the gas giants or Pluto;
no steel town can afford to process the iron on Venus or Mercury;
Mars, lacking not iron but oxygen, necessary for making steel, can support only one steel town, Pittsburgh.

Bystanders too near the perimeter when the city lifts are press ganged but must show that they have useful skills if they are not to be assigned to pitching slag. Even a Master Steel Puddler goes to the slag heaps because Scranton is " '...a Bessemer-process town...'" (Cities In Flight, London, 1981, p. 149). I still do not understand these technicalities but this time I am noting them instead of just reading past them. This is how Blish builds the plausibility of his narrative.

It becomes clear, I think, that the Scrantonites are capable, maybe, of selling their existing skills to established colonies but not of what would in fact be the far more difficult tasks either of founding their own colony or of transforming their flying city into a self-sufficient entity. The latter project would, according to information given in Volume III, require them to change their mining operations from iron to oil and also to find uninhabited Earth-like planets where they could mine. How many such planets would be left in the accessible parts of the galaxy after several centuries of colonisation?

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Structure Of The Triumph Of Time

After its Prologue, James Blish's The Triumph Of Time IN Cities In Flight (London, 1981) has eight chapters:

New Earth
Nova Magellanis
The Nursery Of Time
Object 4001-Alephnull
The Metagalactic Center
The Triumph Of Time

Most of these chapter titles are developments from chapters in the previous volume, Earthman, Come Home:

New Earth is the name given to the planet that had come to be regarded as "Home" in the concluding chapter of Earthman;
the apparent nova beyond the Lesser Magellanic Cloud is in fact the planet He returning from the intergalactic journey that it had started in Earthman;
"The Nursery Of Time" is a description of intergalactic space;
Fabr-Suithe is a city on He;
the metagalactic center is where He goes next in order to respond to the imminent event that is described as the triumph of time;
the jehad and Object 4001-Alephnull are, respectively, Fundamentalist and scientific responses (denial and enquiry) to the triumph of time.

The Structure Of Earthman, Come Home

James Blish's Earthman, Come Home IN Cities In Flight (London, 1981) collects four stories but is divided into nine chapters after its Prologue:

The Rift
The Jungle
Hern Six

However, the nine chapters present four adventures:

the warring colony planets of Utopia and Gort are in the same planetary system;
the planet He is in the Rift;
the planets of Murphy and Hern Six and the Jungle of destitute Okie cities are in the Acolyte Cluster;
the city called Interstellar Master Traders is on the planet that the former Okies come to regard as their home.

Occasionally, the texts of Cities In Flight give interesting hints of galactography. We are told that, in Arm II (of the Milky Way), the law is enforced by the Earth police and the economy is supported by the Okie cities (p. 171). A Dirac emergency message to Earth police is sent from "...ACOLYTE CLUSTER CONDENSATION XIII ARM BETA..." (p. 394) The reply from "...BETA ARM COMMAND EARTH..." states "SQUADRON ASSIGNED YOUR CONDENSATION ON WAY." (p. 395)

Arm Beta must be the same as Arm II. Thus, the Earthman culture covers not the entire galaxy but one spiral arm. The Acolyte Cluster has a unified defence force. However, its full address is not "Acolyte Cluster, Arm Beta" but "Acolyte Cluster, Condensation XIII, Arm Beta." I have never heard of "Condensations" as parts of the galaxy. However, galaxies are composed of stars that condensed from gas. Some stars are gathered in clusters and perhaps several clusters condensed from a single cloud of gas with at least thirteen such clouds forming one spiral arm?

What The Okies Do VI

I have yet to reread James Blish's A Life For The Stars IN Cities In Flight (London, 1981) but have skipped ahead to find out the nature of the two jobs that New York accepts in this novel.

(i) The feudal aristocrats of a planet called Heaven want New York to "' them industrialize the planet...'" but without upsetting the social order, which is impossible (p. 183). Of course, the Okie city can just fulfill its contract and leave but, like the Starship Enterprise, it is  "'...not allowed to change planets' social systems...' " so, when the Earth police find out what has happened, they will charge the city with a Violation (p. 183).

(ii) On Argus Three, the Okies are hired to do some " '...local geology and mining...,'" which is described as "'...a standard piece of work...' " (p. 211). The situation is complicated by the fact that the tramp city of Scranton, previously hired to do the job, has failed to complete it but has remained on the planet past its contract deadline and is suspected of wanting to take over the planet. Instead of calling the police, the Argidae ask New York to deal with Scranton...

But the relevant point here is that the standard work is as usual mining.

Jobs undertaken by Okie cities

On Heaven: industrialization.
On Argus Three: geology and mining.
On Utopia: sharing spindizzy technology in exchange for mining rights.
On Gort: New York was hijacked to divulge molar valance so we do not know what the contract work would have been.
On He: clearing of jungle and sharing of anti-agathics in exchange for mining rights.
On the periphery: teaching colonists how to work poisoned soil and manage low-yield crops without heavy machinery.
On Hern Six: an unspecified temporary development project, including a pressure job.
On a small planet of a hot star: low-grade carnotite mining.
On the Proctor planet: supplying molybdenum and wolfram as byproducts of oil drilling.

What The Okies Do V

In James Blish's Earthman, Come Home IN Cities In Flight (London, 1981), when New York lands on an already colonised planet in the Greater Magellanic Cloud, the Okies immediate need is for oil so that they can eat. They must first " for payment in drilling permits." (p. 429) Having now permanently left the home galaxy, they no longer need to be paid in the drug standard that has replaced the germanium-based Oc dollar there and payment in the local currency can wait.

As before, the question arises: what is the nature of the work that they will do? Apparently:

"...the city could throw up enough low-grade molybdenum and wolfram as a byproduct of drilling to satisfy the terms of the Proctors [the planetary authorities]." (p. 429)

So, really, as ever, it is their oil drilling that counts.

Looking ahead, Mayor Amalfi hopes that there will be commerce within the Cloud, using spindizzy-powered spaceships because:

"...commerce was the Okies' oxygen." (p. 428)

Was it? New York did not buy either raw materials or finished products on one planet and sell them on another but maybe other Okie cities did? 

Thursday, 21 March 2013

What The Okies Do IV

In James Blish's Earthman, Come Home (Cities In Flight, London, 1981), when the germanium standard collapses and the impoverished Okie cities gather in a "jungle" around a red dwarf star in the Acolyte Cluster, a trader in a spaceship protected by police craft comes to hire:

several grade A cities for a temporary development project, requiring at least one pressure specialist, on the planet Hern Six;

twenty class B cities to work "...low-grade carnotite lies on a small planet too near a hot star." (p. 366)

A class C desperate for work claims to be a mining town that can refine the carnotite by gaseous diffusion, mass spectography or mass chromatography.

I hoped to learn more about the work that Okies do from this hiring and bidding session in the jungle but this is as much information as I have been able to extract from the text. New York accepts two jobs in A Life For The Stars which I have yet to reread so some more information will emerge there. It is good that Blish added that extra volume to the series because Okie society ends far too quickly in Earthman, Come Home.

What The Okies Do III

In the late 60's and early 70's, I loved Cities In Flight, reread Earthman, Come Home a lot and preferred it to Black Easter. More recently, I have greatly appreciated After Such Knowledge, particularly The Day After Judgement, and have not thought much about Cities for a while. However, on getting back into Cities after comparing Blish's and Anderson's stories of Jovian exploration, I am once again impressed with how rich the series is. Each volume is different and stands on its own feet even though there are problems with fitting them together. Earthman, Come Home has a lot of fast-moving action and adventure in imaginative and well-realized science fiction settings.

The adverse criticisms of Cities are that:

(i) the Chronology is big time inconsistent;
(ii) we are shown conversations of three individuals in the mayor's office but not the life of the flying city;
(iii) there is a major question as to why the cities need paid work since they seem to be self-sufficient.

(i) is undeniable. Indeed, I have drawn attention to the anomaly of the Hevians which was simply not mentioned when an attempt was made to harmonise dates. I cannot accept Richard D Mullen's explanation that the texts are partly mythologized history with the truth somewhere behind the myths (Cities In Flight, London, 1981, p. 599). They read like (fictitious) real history to me.

(ii) is undeniable. A whole 'nother series needs to be written.

I have tried to reply to (iii) in "What The Okies Do II."

Non-technical readers, of whom I am one, tend to accept that the author gets the technological background right but I am now rereading and paying close attention to this aspect. Amalfi says that New York's business is petroleum geology. The cop interrogating him replies that petroleum geology is not a business for Okies because they all need to mine and crack oil in order to eat. Again, this raises the question, at least in our minds: can they not survive by mining oil on uninhabited planets? Amalfi insists that, "'We trace and develop petroleum sources for planets which need the material'." (p. 339) I think that inhabitable planets with mine-able oil deposits will be rare and might well all be occupied by the time we are talking about so it makes sense that an Okie will have to negotiate with a planet's occupants, receiving, in return for services rendered, either payment in Oc dollars or permission to mine.

Memory And Patience

In Poul Anderson's World Without Stars, the antithantic has ended aging and death by old age for all mankind. Many people trade and explore between galaxies. A spaceship can make an instantaneous jump to any other galaxy when it has accelerated to equalise velocities. Memories are periodically edited to prevent insanity through memory overload and people have learned patience.

In James Blish's Cities In Flight, the anti-agathics have ended aging and death by old age for the small minority who fly cities between stars faster than light. Immortals do not overload with memories because they leave the remembering of facts to computers. However, they have learned to see solutions to problems almost instantly and are impatient with those who don't.

Similar premises; different conclusions.

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 " 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...

What The Okies Do II

The richness of James Blish's Cities In Flight is shown by the fact that not only can each of the four volumes be discussed in detail and at length but also each raises a different issue or issues:

in Volume I, McCarthyism, biology, the Jovian environment, physics and psychology;
in II, technological unemployment and education;
in III, adventure fiction and economics;
in IV, cosmology.

In Vol III, Earthman, Come Home, the Okie city of New York is legally obliged to get permission from the authorities on the colonised planet of He before mining their planet for germanium. In return, the Okies will wipe out the Hevian jungle and share the anti-agathics. Thus, if He had not been colonised or if the Okies had been willing to act illegally, then they could have mined the planet without having to give anything in return. So far, in Earthman, we have seen New York mining Utopia, offering to mine Gort and again mining He. So we come back to the questions: Why do the cities need paid work? Can they not be self-sufficient? I will try to defend the economic basis of the series.

Vol I, They Shall Have Stars, concentrates on the two discoveries, one in biology, the other in physics, that make interstellar travel possible but otherwise makes an assumption that is common to much science fiction (sf):

" 'Richardson Observatory, on the Moon, has two likely-looking systems mapped already - one at Wolf 359, the other at 61 Cygni - and there are sure to be others, hundreds of others, where Earth-like planets are highly probable.' " Cities In Flight (London, 1981), p. 123.

Highly probable that there are many planets where human beings can breathe the air and drink the water as if they had merely flown to another continent on Earth? In Blish's parallel series, The Seedling Stars, human beings must be "Adapted," by the science of pantropy, before they can colonize (many) other planets. An "ultimate" Blish novel might have been one incorporating all his divergent and convergent concepts into a single narrative:

the spindizzy and/or the Haertel overdrive;
the anti-agathics;
the Dirac transmitter, with the "beep";
the Arpe drive exploring the microcosm;
a single all-encompassing rationale for telepathy;

We suppose that the "Colonials" who left the Jovian system in 2021 were well equipped to survive on and to start terraforming a few extra-solar planets. Three and a half centuries later, Thorium Trust Plant no 8 uses the rediscovered spindizzy to leave the Solar System and to seek work among the colonists who have by now made a few planets fully habitable. The Plant is equipped to mine and refine thorium but not to colonize so the colonists somehow pay it to help them industrialize. The Exodus from Earth begins and germanium becomes the standard of exchange. The colonists have already settled those planets that can most accurately be described as "Earth-like." There is not a large number of uninhabited planets with mine-able oil deposits and they are not easy to find. The Okies become part of an economy in which they assist in planetary development in exchange for Oc dollars or the right to mine for what they need. The Colonials of 2021 had had both the spindizzy and the anti-agathics but somehow the latter come to be used mostly by those who need them most, the Okies.

I will continue to reread the series noting what is said about contracts between cities and planets. Amalfi from New York compares notes with an Okie from another city. New Yorkers are mainly miners and petroleum geologists but have developed sidelines. The other city were agronomists working on the periphery, "'...teaching abandoned to work poisoned soil and manage low-yield crops without heavy machinery...,'" with a sideline in soil-source antibiotics (p. 313). They " '...converted to a barter economy as soon as we got out of the last commerce lanes.' " (p. 313)

Barter must also have preceded the germanium standard.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

New York

How much are we told about New York and its inhabitants as they exist in the fictitious future of James Blish's Earthman, Come Home, IN Cities In Flight (London, 1981)? (Currently, I have reread Chapters One to Three of Nine.)

Mayor John Amalfi stands on a narrow, worn granite ledge around the City Hall belfry which is unchanged since 1850. The distant, residual hum of the spindizzies is softer than the former traffic roar. The city still has jails, playgrounds, alleys, alley cats and one bell in the belfry although without a clapper. Battery Park, the Cathedral Parkway lookout, the Twenty-Third Street spindizzy, the West Side subway tunnel and the mid-town RCA building with its rooftop penthouse, elevators, offices and office workers are mentioned. Amalfi speaks into a phone hooked to the railing.

In the mayor's office at City Hall, he converses with the city manager, Mark Hazleton, who is less than 400 years old, born since the city left Earth in 3111 when Amalfi was 117. Other city personnel include Jake in Astronomy, Sergeant Anderson and a pile engineer called Webster, one of the original complement, who wants off at the next port of call. Parliamentary secretaries handle intramural affairs.

Amalfi locks the control tower and, out on the street, flags a Tin Cabby, which can fly between the towers, to take him from the control tower on Twenty-Fourth Street and The Avenue to City Hall on Bowling Green. Amalfi's flight board is "...a compressed analog of the banks in the control tower..." (p. 259) His office contains the plastic-covered, little-used, screenless Dirac transmitter.

The city is flown by Hazleton or, in his absence, a younger man called Carrel. It is flown by handling a "...stick..." (p. 261) The city needs oil, currency and also rare-earth and power metals which it collects and refines. When it lands on the planet He, a procession of locals advances along The Avenue watched by the "...sober workaday faces of the Okie citizens..." (p. 295) We see far too little of these citizens during the novel.

What The Okies Do

Anyone who has merely a lay person's knowledge and understanding of science and who reads science fiction (sf) usually places a great deal of trust in the scientific knowledge of a hard sf writer like Poul Anderson or James Blish.

Another discipline that can be as esoteric as physics or chemistry is economics, although each of us is obliged to understand the economy at least well enough both to manage our own affairs and to vote in political elections. When reading James Blish's Earthman, Come Home, we accept that:

there is an interstellar civilisation that has an economy and a currency that enable the Okie cities to seek work (this becomes important later);

each city commands those technologies that enable it to do its work - whatever exactly that is?

Volume I, They Shall Have Stars, concentrates on the production of the two technologies, antigravity and anti-agathics, without which cities could not have become Okies. However, there is still the question of what additional technologies the Okies use in the course of their work - and what is that work?

It is instructive to reread the text heeding technical details that might otherwise be overlooked and, in fact, of course, the technological and economic factors overlap. New York arrives in a planetary system where the Earth police are incorporating two warring colonial planets, Hamiltonian republican Utopia and Hruntan imperial Gort. First, the mayor and the city manager negotiate with a Utopian. The city needs supplies, raw materials, oil, germanium, thorium and "...some other rare-earth metals for instruments." (p. 252) The Utopians lack the spindizzy and anti-agathics but are rich in oil which they do not need in quantity because "molar valence" enables them to modify molecular bonding beyond the usual adhesion effects. In exchange for spindizzy technology, New York will be allowed to mine for what it needs.

Because the interstellar currency, the Oc dollar, is germanium-based, the standard contract between an Okie city and a planetary government requires "...payment in germanium 'or equivalent'" (p. 263). When Mayor Amalfi negotiates with a Hruntan, the latter refuses either to pay in germanium or to allow the city to mine for that metal because the Hruntans need it for transistors. When asked what would be the equivalent, Amalfi suggests " 'Equipment...or skills, at a mutually agreed valuation.'" (p. 265)

So far, Amalfi seems to be answering a question about how the Hruntans can pay the Okies. However, he next seems, in the following sentence, to talk about some equipment or skills that he can offer them because he asks what they use for lubrication. This tips off The Hruntan that the Okies have learned molar valence from the Utopians. Attempting to extract this technique from the Okies by force, he falls into a trap, enabling Amalfi to sabotage Gort. So we never learn what work the Okies might have done for the Hruntans and I remain puzzled by the apparent switch in what Amalfi says to the Hruntan.

Fleeing from the police who want to fine them for refusing to vacate the Utopia-Gort system when ordered, the Okies enter the Rift. The City Fathers (computers) predict that crossing this "...valley cut in the face of the galaxy..." will take a hundred and four years, over twice as long as any previous single journey by the city (pp. 286-287). But they should survive the crossing because:

the city, unlike a spaceship, can grow its own supplies and, in fact, the Chlorella tanks are flourishing;
further, there should be no mutations in a region of such low star-density;
the oil tanks are almost full;
" 'Both breeders are running so there'll be no fuel problem.'" (p. 286)

Damon Knight argues in A Sense Of Wonder (Chicago, 1967, pp. 152-155) that, on Blish's own showing, the cities are self-sufficient and do not need paid work. They grow their own food and could mine for oil on uninhabited planets, run their own repair docks and grow the plants from which to extract the anti-agathics. Amalfi says that Okie cities are fueled ships needing to visit civilised planets for power metals but, as Knight argues, they can mine for metals anywhere and could run their own docks. So maybe my uncertainty about the nature of the Okies' work made more sense than I realised?

Literary Passages

"Blish's scale is the whole galaxy, a view that has to be awe-inspiring if he can only make you see it: and he does, I think, more successfully than any previous writer." (Damon Knight)

I agree. I read that comment of Knight's in his A Sense Of Wonder but here I quote it from the back cover of James Blish, Cities In Flight (London, 1981).

Some of Blish's passages transcend what we expect in space opera and are worth quoting, eg:

" 'This is not a Hamiltonian state. It's stable, self-sufficient, static - a beachcomber by the seas of history. We're Okies. Not a nice name.' " (p. 274)

"Stable, self-sufficient..." sounds attractive; "...static..." maybe less so. "...a beachcomber by the seas of history..." suggests that future events of historical significance occur elsewhere while the Okies scrape a living on the sidelines. Finally, we are given to understand that they are not socially respectable.

"Under Amalfi the city soared outward, humming like a bee, into the raw night." (p. 285)

Elsewhere, Amalfi compares the migrant cities to bees pollinating the galaxy.

" 'Above' there was nothing...It was the empty ocean of space that washes between galaxies." (pp. 285-286)

So there are seas of history and an ocean of space, "...the star-seas that the city sailed." (p. 242). Blish makes us see both.

An Inter-Metagalactic League?

Why does the universe seem to be so underpopulated in James Blish's Cities In Flight? There is a handful of intelligent species in the Milky Way but no new races are encountered either during the colonisation of the Greater Magellanic Cloud or during a brief passage through the Andromeda galaxy and there is not enough time to explore any further - but why is there no mention of any Dirac messages received from other civilisations?

The only two species that travel to the metagalactic centre before the Ginnangu-Gap have originated in the Milky Way. Blish agreed that this was an unacceptable coincidence and suggested that it might have been dealt with when the books were filmed.

I would not have welcomed a film adaptation that simply added a Babel of extra species to the human beings and Herculeans. I envisage instead an inter-metagalactic league of spacefarers using spindizzies to move artificial structures larger than planets, monitoring human Dirac messages and maybe rescuing the Herculeans who would otherwise have been killed by the Hevians' counterattack. Some spacefarers would contemplate the Ginnangu-Gap with equanimity. Others might know how to escape to other universes if they wanted to?

But it is hard to imagine genuinely alien beings and civilisations and I think that Blish was right to exercise restraint on that issue in this series. 

Cities In Flight, Volume II

How well does the juvenile novel A Life For The Stars fit into James Blish's Cities In Flight? The latter was already complete as the single volume Okie series plus two novels as prequel and sequel. Blish said in conversation that A Life For The Stars resulted from laziness. Asked for a juvenile science fiction novel, he used the established Okie background instead of creating a new one. Anyone reading the Tetralogy in chronological order of fictitious events goes from the sophisticated adult novel, They Shall Have Stars, to this simpler juvenile one.

I will comment further when I have reread Volume II. However, I am currently rereading Vol III, Earthman, Come Home. This volume opens with the Utopia-Gort affair. Because of that affair, New York, needing to evade the Earth police, leaves known space (to use a phrase) and crosses the Rift. When the city has returned from the Rift, the germanium currency has collapsed and that is the beginning of the end of Okie culture. The concluding story in Earthman is an aftermath.

Thus, the Utopia-Gort affair turns out to have been the city's last exploit within Okie civilisation before its collapse. Earthman mentions some previous incidents:

deFord shot on Epoch;
the previous astronomer killed on St Rita's;
Hazleton's bad experience on Thor V.

Nevertheless, it is good to have this extra volume (II) that describes two earlier planetary contacts and gives some account of life in the city.

Monday, 18 March 2013


In the Milky Way, a new interstellar empire called the Web of Hercules sterilises or kills planetary populations by bombarding their upper atmospheres with anti-matter particles, thus generating lethal radiation.

In the Greater Magellanic Cloud, a New Earthman scientist sets out to construct an anti-matter artifact.

In intergalactic space, scientists on the moving planet He detect the arrival of anti-matter particles, thus establishing that the matter and anti-matter universes will soon collide.

Are these three occurrences of anti-matter a coincidence? No, such apparent coincidences happen as scientific knowledge advances.

When the Web attacks He at the metagalactic centre, Amalfi suggests retaliating with a burn-out overload pulse of the planet's spindizzies but such a pulse emanating from the centre would gravitationally disrupt the entire universe. Instead, the Hevians poison the Web's electromagnetic field by resonance, thus killing the Herculean spaceship crews by total nerve-block though not before everyone on He has received a lethal dose of hard radiation. Thus, both sides will die although those on He at least will survive until the universe ends in any case.

The spindizzies, graviton polarity generators, take Blish's characters through the Rift, intergalactic space and the metagalactic centre but, unfortunately, Blish did not know about black holes. Someone with a spindizzy - or with Wells' Cavorite - would be able to report back from beyond the event horizon of a black hole.

The Galaxy

Science fiction writers imagine two kinds of galaxy: humans only or multi-species. James Blish's Cities In Flight (London, 1981) is kind of intermediate. There are a few other species and some of them are significant but they remain off-stage throughout the entire Tetralogy. Thus, we see only human beings interacting with each other.

The nearest we come to an alien appearance is when we hear a voice from the Vegan orbital fort:


We are to imagine this spoken in a "...mouthy voice..." (p. 416) "Okay" may be a mispronunciation of "Okie."

The Okies, including those who later become New Earthmen, must contend with some powerful, understated villains:

Jorn the Apostle;
the Web of Hercules.

The Vegan orbital fort attacks Earth under cover of the Okies' March of the Cities but Amalfi flies a planet in front of it. At the Metagalactic Centre, both the Herculean attack and the Hevian counter-attack are fatal but both sides survive long enough to influence subsequent universes: a stalemate or one-one draw.

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.

Backwards In Time?

James Blish's The Triumph Of Time, IN Cities In Flight (London, 1981) informs us that, when mid-twentieth century experimental physicists produced a few atoms of anti-matter that lasted for "...a few millionths of a micro-second...," the apparent production of these atoms was really their destruction and vice versa because the direction of their duration was the reverse of ours.

I thought that I had detected a contradiction in Blish's account because he states, first, that the "...atoms proved to be non-viable beyond a few millionths of a micro-second..." and, secondly, that "...the particles of which they were made were born...some micro-seconds in the future..." (p. 510)

So does the anti-matter exist for "...some micro-seconds..." or for only "...a few millionths of a micro-second..."? However, Blish seems to mean that the physicists observed anti-material atoms decaying, after a few millionths of a micro-second, into anti-material particles that they continued to observe for a few full micro-seconds?

The inter-universal probe has at its center a crystal of anti-salt of which we are told that it:

"...was already minus two weeks "young" and had yet a week to go...before it would collide with the flying instant of the present and decay..." (p. 555)

This is a rather confusing account. The present instant does not "fly" anywhere. Each instant is seen as the present by any conscious being existing in that instant. If, as we usually say, an object is two weeks old and has a week to go, then it began to exist two weeks ago and will cease to exist one week hence. Since this crystal is anti-matter, Blish seems to mean that it was destroyed one week ago and will be produced two weeks hence?

When, immediately after the moment of the cosmic collision, each of the "Survivors" enters his own four dimensional space, will he be accompanied by any of the furniture from the room in which they were waiting? No, the scientists, wanting to create new universes only from the matter of their own bodies, will push the furniture a micro-second into the past, presumably by temporarily transforming it into anti-matter? (We are told that it will be done by " '...using a modification of the technique we used to build Object 4101-Alephnull [an anti-material object] in the future...'" (p. 593))

The result, we are told, will be that the furniture will remain in the universe. But will it? If it is sent only a micro-second into the past, will it not then come forward again, co-existing with itself for that micro-second?

In fact, why are the Survivors each entering a space of their own? As I understand it, the entire Planet He entered the metagalactic center before the cosmic collision and therefore occupies the common neutral zone after the collision so why are the planet's spindizzies said to " '...have been annihilated...'"?

Cities In Flight, Volume IV

James Blish wrote The Triumph Of Time (alternative title: A Clash Of Cymbals) specifically to complete and conclude his Okie series, collected as Earthman, Come Home, making it impossible to write another sequel about this set of characters. Because the characters are physically unaging, Blish shows them surviving until the end of the universe. However, for story purposes, he brings this end much closer to the present than we would have expected.

This end of the universe is not its heat death but its mutually annihilating collision with its anti-matter counterpart. Thus, all cosmic matter is transformed into energy but the energy remains active - it does not become quiescent. Some of it will be transformed back into matter and will then continue on its way towards a heat death at a much later date. For this reason, one character, a philosopher, refers to " '...the period of Interdestruction...' "(Cities In Flight, London, 1981, p. 515)

However, he also refers to a number of dissimilar myths and philosophies that had allowed for:

" '...a break or discontinuity right in the middle of the span of existence...' " (p. 515)

Blish in conversation once applied the term "Interdestruction" not to a discontinuity midway between the monobloc and the heat death but to the period between cosmic collapse and a new monobloc as presented in Poul Anderson's Tau Zero - so the term "Interdestruction" does not seem to have one unambiguous meaning.

The Triumph Of Time is a good novel of endings and new beginnings after the endings. It begins:

"In these later years..." (p. 472)

- and ends:

"Creation began." (p. 596)

The characters hold a farewell dinner and walk for the last time through the city that they had flown between the stars. Every single physical action is eventually performed for the last time. The "...epitaph for Man..." is:

"We did not have time to learn everything that we wanted to know." (p. 596)

At the very end, a philosopher says, "I think-," but is interrupted by the end of the universe (p. 595).

Making it impossible to write another sequel does not rule out adding yet another prequel or earlier episode and Blish did this in A Life For The Stars, which is why the concluding novel is Volume IV, not III.

Cities In Flight, Volume I

James Blish wrote They Shall Have Stars (alternative title: Year 2018!) specifically as a prequel/prelude/prologue to the Okie series collected as Earthman, Come Home. These are two very different volumes. Earthman is a four episode adventure series with a single central character whereas Stars has three alternating viewpoint characters because it is a three-layered political, scientific and psychological novel.

A US Senator politically outmaneuvers his opponents including the director of the FBI. A Jovian explorer resolves his own psychological response to the hostile environment. The novel is science fiction because it is set in the future and assumes space travel and other scientific advances but it is also "scientific" in that it dramatises scientific enquiry and procedures. Hence, the three layers of politics, science and psychology. The scientific and psychological layers were originally published as separate stories. Thus, these two volumes incorporate six previously published works.

They Shall Have Stars is a good novel of beginnings, therefore also of endings preceding beginnings. What is beginning, as indicated by the title, is the faster than light travel with physical immortality of Earthman, Come Home. The concluding chapter ends when two Jovian explorers:

"...looked past the discarded bulk of Jupiter at the near horizon, where there had always been visible a few stars." (Cities In Flight, London, 1981, p. 128)

- and the brief Coda begins:

" 'Every end,' Wagoner wrote on the wall of his cell on the last day, 'is a new beginning. Perhaps in a thousand years my Earthmen will come home again.' " (p. 129)

The last day of the life of the man who gave mankind the stars is the end of the first volume.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Trilogies And Tetralogies Revisited

 In an earlier post, I suggested The Heart Stars as an appropriate title for an omnibus collection of James Blish's two juvenile science fiction novels featuring the space cadet Jack Loftus, The Star Dwellers and Mission To The Heart Stars.

"A Dusk of Idols," a "Heart Stars" adult short story, refers back to the events of The Star Dwellers although it is not fully consistent with the further prospects as outlined in the second novel. Thus, these three works do not form a linear series but might nevertheless be regarded as loose two-pronged trilogy, just as the same author's After Such Knowledge is also a trilogy although its unity is not linear but thematic.

This enables us to categorize Blish's several interconnected works as:

Three Trilogies
The Galactic Cluster trilogy
The Heart Stars
After Such Knowledge

Three Tetralogies
The Seedling Stars
Cities In Flight
The Quincunx tetralogy

- and a few loose ends to be collected as Haertel Scholium: Coda, among which I had previously listed "A Dusk of Idols."

Listing these works in this way makes it easy to see at a glance where they diverge but also connect. Subatomic particles are described as unvisualizable in Cities In Flight Volume IV but are nevertheless visited in the Galactic Cluster trilogy, part two. Star-dwelling energy beings are called "Angels" in The Star Dwellers whereas supernatural demons (fallen angels) are encountered in After Such Knowledge Volume II where it is even speculated that they might be composed of energy (permanent negative entropy = eternal life?). Satan is dismissed as a superstition in Cities In Flight Volume IV but is a real being in After Such Knowledge Volume II.

They are other connections, mostly discussed earlier.

At The Metagalactic Centre III

(ii) If an inanimate object occupies the metagalactic centre at the moment of the cosmic collision:

" '...then the two universes will reform exactly as they did after the explosion of the monobloc, and their histories will repeat themselves very closely.' " (Blish, Cities In Flight, London, 1981, p. 578)

So they will be destroyed but will immediately reform? This is one of the possibilities if the centre is empty for the collision. (See (i) in previous post.) Everyone will die in the destruction but they will die in any of these eventualities in any case.

(iii) If the centre is occupied by a human being, then two possibilities are suggested. First:

" '...we can put our imprint on the future of both universes...' " (p. 578)

Secondly, however, when this possibility is spelled out further, it changes from influencing two universes to creating one universe! Each survivor:

" '...has available...any of the infinitely many different sets of dimensions of Hilbert space. Each one of us that makes that crossing may in a few micro-seconds start a universe of his own, with a fate wholly unpredictable from history.'

" 'But...he will die in the process. The stuffs and energies of him become the monobloc of his universe.'" (p.  578)

To become a new universe is not to influence the future of two already existing universes. So I do find this discussion rather confusing.

In the previous volumes, he were told what the Mayor, the city manager and a few of their colleagues did while flying New York around the galaxy but were told little or nothing about the population of the city. In this volume, we learn nothing about the entire population of the planet, He. What do they think about the coming catastrophe and how do they feel about their planet flying through the darkness of intergalactic space instead of remaining in orbit around a star?

The text tells us that the planet flew:

"...toward that place where the Will had given birth to the Idea, and there had been light." (p. 577)

- but the rest of the text is non-theistic so this passage must be understood as describing the monobloc in terms of a, highly abstract, myth.

At The Metagalactic Centre II

In James Blish's The Triumph Of Time, why do the Hevians and their New Earthmen companions want to move the planet He to the metagalactic centre before the two universes collide?

I must ask some questions that are not raised in the text. First, is there an exact one to one correspondence between the two universes? Secondly, if yes, then does it follow that, when He occupies the centre of the matter universe, an anti-He will occupy the centre of the anti-matter universe? If that were the case, then the Hes would mutually annihilate simultaneously with the universes so that nothing would have been gained by travelling from the Greater Magellanic Cloud to the metagalactic centre.

Although this question is not posed in these terms, it does seem to be clear that no one to one correspondence is assumed:

" 'What we will be trading on is the chance - only a slight chance but it exists - that this neutral zone coincides with such a zone in the anti-matter universe, and that at the moment of annihilation the two neutral zones, the two dead centers, will become common and will outlast the destruction by a significant instant.' " (Cities In Flight, London, 1981, p. 577)

- although:

"This single many-barbed burr of a datum...was also sufficient in itself to endorse the existence of an entire second universe of anti-matter, congruent point for point with the universe of experience of normal matter..." (p. 513) (my emphasis)

The metagalactic centre is a "...neutral zone..." because it:

" ' stress-free and in stasis because all the stresses cancel each other out, being equidistant. There, one might effect great changes with relatively small expenditures of power.' " (p. 577)

Because the metagalactic centre is as featureless as the rest of intergalactic space, complex instrumentation is necessary to detect it. Because the centre is stress free, instruments there will work at peak efficiency. Approaching the centre, needles recording external stresses fall while those recording outputs of equipment rise. On arrival, input meters operating at peak efficiency but detecting no incoming signals instead detect the signals generated by their own functioning. This is a sign that the centre has been reached.

If the two universes, even without a one to one correspondence, are counterparts differing only in electrical charge, then surely there is considerably more than "...a slight chance..." that there are corresponding neutral zones? But, in any case, what happens if there is a common neutral zone and if it is occupied at and immediately after the moment of cosmic collision?

In fact, three possibilities are considered:

(i) that the neutral zone is empty at the collision;
(ii) that it is occupied by an inanimate object;
(iii) that is occupied by a survivor with volition and maneuverability.

(i) Two answers are given here. One is that " '...history repeats itself. The universe is born again...' " and continues towards heat-death for matter and monobloc for anti-matter (p. 579). This does not sound like destruction to me? It is even suggested that the protagonists might live as before although in the anti-matter universe and without being able to tell the difference. I am not sure whether this means that they would repeat their previous lives exactly, thus with no memory of having lived before, or simply that they would live again but without being able to tell that they were now composed of anti-matter? In any case, this possibility is dismissed as unlikely. The more probable result is simply reduction of all matter to neutrons " '...and a re-birth of both universes from the primordial ylem.' " (p. 579)

" 'The ylem was the primordial flux of neutrons from which all else emerged...Ylem in cosmogony is like "zero" in mathematics - something so old and so fundamental that it would never occur to you that somebody had to invent it.' " (p. 579)

I am not sure about that. I understand that the mathematical zero is a far more sophisticated concept that the straightforward "one, two, three..." of counting visible objects. The Romans had no symbol for zero. The Indians significantly contributed so-called Arabic numerals with the decimal point and the zero symbol. Surely the cosmological equivalent of zero would be not a flux of neutrons but empty space and/or mere nothing?

It is taking much longer to analyse this section of The Triumph Of Time than I had anticipated. The characters keep mentioning what seem to be mutually incompatible hypotheses from:

" 'Nothing less,' Retma said evenly, 'than the imminent coming to an end of time itself.' " (p. 505)


" Retma shrugged. 'Then...history repeats itself. The universe is born again...' " (p. 579)

I have so far discussed only (i) and must leave (ii) and (iii) until a later post - but this does at least seem to enumerate all the possibilities. (To be continued.)