A lot of science fiction stories claim to be epic in scope. But few come close to the size and spectacle of James Blish’s Cities in Flight. Beginning in the near future and culminating in the destruction of the known universe, this four-volume series (published as a single volume omnibus in 1970) spans thousands of years, hundreds of protagonists, multiple sentient races, and even hints at a scientific explanation for the existence of god in creating new universes. If that’s not “epic,” I don’t know what is. And while the individual stories themselves can be sometimes drag a bit, and the amount of characters can often make it confusing as to whose doing what and for what reason, the sheer audaciousness of Blish’s vision of the future and the various technologies that shape mankind’s path more than make up for any narrative shortcomings.
The first volume, They Shall Have Stars, starts in the near future. With the Cold War still raging and civil liberties in decline all over the world, scientific progress has stalled and Western Civilization seems to be stagnating. In secret, Bliss Wagoner, the Head of the Joint Congressional Committee on Space Flight has been supporting research into “Fringe” scientific theories as a last grasp attempt at spurring innovation and growth. One particular project, a bridge made of ice on Jupiter, leads to two unique discoveries. First, the discovery of properties that allow for the manipulation of gravity – which eventually leads to the development of technology that allows for faster-than-light travel (known as a “spindizzy”). Second, the discovery of an anti-agathic drug which helps stop aging. These two discoveries together finally make interstellar travel possible. While Wagoner is eventually tried for treason, his work sets the stage for everything that follows.
The next volume, A Life for the Stars, picks up years later as Spindizzy technology has been successfully developed to transport large objects through space. With Earth in a severe depression, whole cities have taken to the stars in hopes of finding work throughout the galaxy. The main character of this volume is Chris DeFord, a teenager who unwittingly catches a ride on the departing city of Scranton, Pennsylvania as it’s leaving Earth. These “Cities in Flight” are referred to frequently as “Okie” cities, referring to the Oklahoma residents who escaped the Dust Bowl in the 1940’s in search of work. After a series of adventures on Scranton, Chris eventually transfers to the larger and wealthier city of New York, where he meets Mayor Amalfi – a character who features prominently in the ensuing volumes. After helping successfully defuse a dangerous conflict, Chris is elevated to Resident status and made the City Manager of New York.
Earthman, Come Home continues Amalfi’s adventures as the head of New York, spanning almost 300 years (of relativistic time) and covering most of the galaxy. Over the course of the book they encounter an ‘Okie Jungle’ of economically collapsed cities, fend off a mythical alien threat to Earth, outwit a city of renegades, and outrun the Earth police. Eventually they find themselves hurtling out of the Milky Way into the Greater Magellanic Cloud and settle temporarily on a planet where they encounter and get the better of a group of renegades called IMT (Interstellar Master Traders).
The final volume, The Triumph of Time, finds the gang (now on a planet called He) undertaking the first intergalactic flight. During their journey, they discover that a collision of universes threatens to wipe out all life, and that a competing civilization has already realized this. The rest of the novel involves the Hevians racing to beat the other civilization to the singularity in order to potentially manipulate the new universes that will result from the collision.
While a lot of the concepts and technical specifics of cosmology and intergalactic travel went waaaaaaaaay over my head, the ideas and compelling story helped me get past some of the more incomprehensible moments in the book. I’ve always been a sucker for “Big Ideas” so you might not be as forgiving as I am (unless you’re a cosmologist). But if you’re not a cosmologist and you’re down for a little incomprehension, James Blish’s Cities in Flight is a fun flight of fancy filled with interesting ideas about the future of humanity (and the universe we live in).