Cities in Flight

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Cities in Flight
Cities in Flight.jpg
Cover of the first omnibus edition, 1970.
AuthorJames Blish
Country United States
GenreScience fiction, Adventure fiction
Publication date
1955 to 1962
Media typePrint
The novella "Sargasso of Lost Cities", Blish's third "Cities in Flight" story, was originally published in Two Complete Science-Adventure Books in 1953.

Cities in Flight is a four-volume series of science fiction stories by American writer James Blish, originally published between 1950 and 1962, which were first known collectively as the "Okie" novels. The series features entire cities that are able to fly through space using an anti-gravity device, the spindizzy. The stories cover roughly two thousand years, from the very near future to the end of the universe. One story, "Earthman, Come Home" won a Retro Hugo Award in 2004 for Best Novelette.[1] Since 1970, the primary edition has been the omnibus volume first published in paperback by Avon Books.[2] Over the years James Blish made many changes to these stories in response to points raised in letters from readers.

The books[edit]

They Shall Have Stars[edit]

They Shall Have Stars (1956) (also published under the title Year 2018!), incorporating the stories "Bridge" and "At Death's End",[3] is set in the near future (the book begins in 2013). In this future, the Soviet Union still exists and the Cold War is still ongoing. As a result, in the West, civil liberties have been eroded more and more, until society eventually resembles the Soviet model. Alaska's Senator Bliss Wagoner, head of the Joint Congressional Committee on Space Flight, is determined to do something about it.

Scientific research has stagnated, mainly because knowledge has become restricted. On the advice of scientist Dr. Corsi, Wagoner concentrates his attention on fringe science theories. One project he has funded is the building of a "bridge" made of Ice IV on the surface of Jupiter to make measurements. This leads to one of two major discoveries which make interstellar space travel feasible: gravity manipulation (nicknamed the "spindizzy"), which leads to both a faster-than-light travel and effective shielding. Another project yields an "anti-agathic" drug, which stops aging. Wagoner is eventually convicted of treason by an oppressive regime, but not before he has sent out expeditions (in a later book, it is revealed that they succeed in establishing thriving colonies). Politically, the book clearly expresses a strong opposition to McCarthyism, at its peak during the time of writing. The main antagonist is one Francis X. MacHinery, hereditary Director of the FBI, which has become a de facto secret police agency. In the final chapter he is heard to say "Bliss Wagoner is dead", with the narrative noting that "as usual, he was wrong", as his legacy will endure.

Reviewing a later edition, the Hartford Courant described the novel as "a skillful mixture of human reality and technological fantasy".[4]

A Life for the Stars[edit]

In the period in between the first and second parts, the Cold War ended with the peaceful merging of the East and West blocks into a single, planet-wide Soviet-ruled dictatorship, which hardly made any perceptible change, as the West's political system had already become virtually identical with the Soviet one. However, this dictatorial power was broken by the spindizzy drive which works for very large objects, so that dissidents and malcontents have an easy way of escaping and going off into space. First factories, then eventually whole cities migrate from the economically depressed Earth in search of work; these space-wandering cities are called Okies.

A Life for the Stars (1962) is a bildungsroman describing the adventures of sixteen-year-old Chris deFord, born when the above process of migration had already been going on for a considerable time. When Chris goes to watch the imminent departure of Scranton, Pennsylvania, he is unaware that the law requires that anybody found nearby must be taken along.

After several adventures, Chris is fortunate to be transferred to the much more prosperous New York (or at least the Manhattan portion of it), a major "Okie" city under Mayor John Amalfi. Scranton is run by the city manager rather than its figurehead mayor. When the two cities meet again and come into conflict over Scranton's bungling of a job, Chris is able to convince an influential friend in his old city to depose the city manager and end the conflict. Impressed, Amalfi elevates him to the newly created position of city manager of New York and gives him the status of resident rather than passenger (and thus entitled to anti-agathic drugs).

Earthman, Come Home[edit]

Earthman, Come Home (1955, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York), combining the stories "Okie", "Bindlestiff", "Sargasso of Lost Cities" and "Earthman, Come Home",[5] is the longest book in the series. It describes the many adventures of New York under Amalfi, amongst a galaxy which has planets settled at different periods of history under loose control by Earth. New York eventually ends up in an "Okie Jungle" created by an economic collapse. Amalfi realises that the "Vegan Orbital Fort", a semi-mythical remnant of the previously dominant alien civilisation, is likely to emerge in such chaos to take its revenge on Earth. His plan includes forcing the Okies to "march" on Earth, attracting the Vegan fort to join in the "march", and culminates in installating a spindizzy drive system on a small planet and using it to defend the Earth against the Vegan attack. But meanwhile the Earth Police had got a navy of big powerful armed spacecraft called "monitors", which appear from invisibility and quickly efficiently vaporize all the attacking Okie cities, except New York, which jumps unnoticed away to safety (in some editions it uses a special circuit which works only once), but the police think that they destroyed New York. At least one police monitor is destroyed in this battle. In later versions the Vegan fort destroys many police monitors.

Eventually, New York is installed on a spindizzy-equipped planet called He, which is projected out of the Milky Way galaxy, and then leaves the Milky Way galaxy and flies towards the Greater Magellanic Cloud. Some of New York's spindizzies are irreparably damaged; Amalfi convinces the New Yorkers that they must find a planet to call home from now on. On their chosen planet, New York encounters a city of renegades, which calls itself IMT (Interstellar Master Traders), whose sacking of the planet Thor 5 damaged the reputation of the cities in general, and who have enslaved the local human population. In typical fashion, Amalfi swindles the IMT residents; their city flew up and was summarily vaporized by a patrolling Earth Police monitor. Although Blish rarely defines how much time passes during each adventure, a late chapter implies that over three hundred years pass in the course of the novel. Reviewer Groff Conklin praised it as "a real, honest, pure, gee-whiz space opera."[6]

A Clash of Cymbals/The Triumph of Time[edit]

A Clash of Cymbals (published in the U.S. as The Triumph of Time) (1959) follows the passage of Amalfi and the planet "He" undertaking the first intergalactic transit. In the less relativistically-distorted space between the two galaxies, evidence of a collision between two universes is detected by the "Hevians" — a matter-antimatter collision that reveals the cyclic nature of reality. An alien culture is also investigating this phenomenon, which will shortly accelerate to engulf all galactic space; in other words, the colliding universes will end in a transition in between the Big Bang and Big Crunch. It will be possible to modify the future development of the fresh universes which will emerge from this singularity, and Amalfi directs the "New Earth" residents to compete with the alien culture (the Web of Hercules) in order to prevent their manipulation of the future of the universe.

As with the other books, a detailed description of the technologies used is provided, including cosmological calculus. While there are some continuity slips, the series presents a unified story of humanity's expansion across the galaxy, and the birth of a new universe.

Frederik Pohl praised the novel as "science fiction which deals with tomorrow on its own terms", citing Blish's "triumph of inventions, great and small", but concluded that despite the "brilliance" of the author's conceptions, Triumph suffered from its inadequate story.[7]

Fictional technology[edit]

  • The powerful space weapon called the Bethé blaster operates by causing a fast atomic fusion explosion in all low-atomic-weight elements in its target, thus completely vaporizing its target. It efficiently and quickly destroys any Okie city which it is fired at. It was named after Hans Bethe.
  • The mesotron rifle is a hand-held energy weapon.
  • The spindizzy is an anti-gravity and faster-than-light flight device.
  • The Dirac communicator allows instantaneous communication across the width of a galaxy. It was named after Paul Dirac. It occurs often in Blish's fiction and its creation is described in the novel The Quincunx of Time.
  • Bethé barrier: a sort of defensive barrier sometimes set up at an Okie city's limits.
  • Transistor metals: the story mentions germanium often, including as a money metal, but it never mentions silicon.
  • Scranton circa 3000 AD is described as being largely still as it was around 1960.
  • Steelworks workmen's safety helmets in the story are once called "tin hats" and are thus likely made of metal sheet and not of polymer like real modern safety helmets: see Hard hat#History.
  • In the start of A Life for the Stars a man booking a ride in a computer-controlled taxicab spoke his social security number to it, demonstrating computer voice recognition.


In the year 2010 omnibus edition, these flying Okie cities are named (but many more are mentioned):-

  • Buda-Pesht (Hungary)
  • Coquilhatville - Congo
  • Dresden - Saxony (Germany)
  • Pittsburgh
  • New York City - The main protagonist City about which the stories revolve.
  • Thorium Trust's Plant Number 8
  • Gravitogorsk-Mars (later renamed) IMT = Interstellar Master Traders
  • Los Angeles (only in a legend that was current among the Okie cities)
  • Liverpool (England)
  • Bradley - Vermont
  • Lincoln - Nevada (a false name used for itself by the Vegan orbital fort) ("Lincoln, NV" is part of the postal address of Area 51.)
  • Scranton (Pennsylvania, USA)
  • Washington, D.C. - Described as 'The sole City on the sleepy planetary capital of the system', and 'The place where old bureaucrats went to retire' , Earth. All other Cities had by this time left the earth. Seat of operations of the Earth Police, and the Earth Government which regulates and polices the far-flung Okie cities.

References in other works[edit]

The spindizzy was used in at least two novels by Jesse Franklin Bone, The Lani People and Confederation Matador, and appears as the nickname for fictional Heim Theory devices in Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel.


  1. ^ Hugo Award Winners from the 2000s
  2. ^ ISFDB publishing history
  3. ^ Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections
  4. ^ "Pick of the Pockets". Hartford Courant, January 21, 1968, p.G15
  5. ^ Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections
  6. ^ "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, May 1955, p. 115.
  7. ^ "In the Balance", If, July 1959, pp. 96-98