Friday, 28 August 2009

James Blish, Cities in Flight (1955-62)

Drafting an afterword for a Gollancz masterworks reissue of this fine quartet (Graham Sleight and I are doing a number of these between us) has given me the chance to revisit Blish's masterwork. Very good. I'll save my insights for the afterword, but will note a couple of things here. One is that I found it impossible to see the title Cities in Flight without singing it, to the tune of John Shuttleworth's 'Pigeons in Flight', something I recommend all SF fans try. The other is the variety of attempts to illustrate Blish's sublime concept. Up there, top of this post, is an early Analog cover, and very pretty it is too. But city? Judge the scale for yourself, but it looks to me barely even a city block ... 300m across at its widest point, if that. And so it strikes you; giving some sense of the proper scale of an entire city in space surrounded by its spindizzy field ... that's hard. Here's an early stab by the superb Chris Foss:
Huge Chunks of Rock and Soil in Flight. Judging by the pyramid, that's either a piece of Egypt, or else Las Vegas. Foss is more comfortable with the Big Spaceship (Model 9000: Storage Bin Exhaust Ports) in the foreground. Perhaps nonrepresentational is the way to go:

Are those coloured dots supposed to be stars, or a cloud of orbiting smarties? And why are there no houses on the IN? Who lives on IN? OK, well, perhaps botanical is the way to go, although it sounds a little odd to suggest it.
And, turns out, it looks a little odd too. A plant that releases not pollen by myriad face masks modelled on the actor who plays Mini-Me. That's a little ... nightmarish, I'd say. And of only glancing relevance to the novels. Or perhaps I'm missing something. There are other ways of dispensing with cities altogether. Like this:

An edition evidently published under the rare, variant title: Earthmen, Come Home Specially Abridged By The Author. Better, though, than this:
Which looks very much like somebody's bathtime.


Cara Powers said...

You should check out "Good Show Sir" at

It's a compilation of some of the worst SF and fantasy covers ever with witty captions of what the author might have been thinking when discussing the cover art with the artist.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I haven't read the Cities In flight series, largely because from a description of it (in your Palgrave history book?) I suspect that it would be an exercise in annoyance. Blish's books tend to read like parodies of the worst part of the Golden Age to me. You read A Case of Conscience, say, and you're like "Wow, a book about the Catholic church justifying religious genocide! Hey, that's kind of witty, though a bit overdone. Wait, he's serious."

Mark Pontin said...

'Wait, he's serious.'

No, he wasn't, in the sense you mean. Blish was simply serious about thought-experiments -- if this, then that, and then _that_.

Or maybe that's what you mean by Golden Age SF. If so, then Blish -- a pretty chilly writer and sometimes a clunky one, with whom my mileage varies -- is nevertheless SF, the pure quill, the thing itself, what the genre _is_. And you need to look at that.

In other business: Adam, are you and Graham Sleight thinking about or aware of anything for Budrys along these lines? Here in the US a couple of us have a likelihood of pushing through MIT Press a re-release of the three main Budrys novels in an omnibus edition and the consent of Budrys's wife to do it. Those novels need to be back out there, of course, but it's going to be effort-consuming and we're busy folks. If we knew someone else were to do it, it'd relieve us of the work.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Not trying to get into a big argument, but no, A Case of Conscience doesn't get to count as what SF _is_. There was great SF before, after, and even during the Golden Age that owes very little to what the Golden Age thinks SF should be. And the work of the Golden Age was itself never what it thought it was. It liked to describe itself as "serious about thought experiments", but somehow those thought experiments always ended up describing genocide as a good thing. Spinrad covered this territory pretty definitively with The Iron Dream.

Adam Roberts said...

Cara: brilliant link, thank you.

Mark: I'll check with the powers that be about Budrys.

Rich: Cities, as a quartet, is certainly uneven (in part because it's stitched together from more than four original components). But there is something nicely wind-in-your-hair sensawunda-ish about the central conceit.

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