Novel Review – Cities in Flight by James Blish

“The end cannot justify the means; but if there are no other means, and the end is necessary…”
― James Blish, Cities in Flight

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Originally published in four volumes nearly fifty years ago, Cities in Flight brings together the famed “Okie novels” of science fiction master James Blish. Named after the migrant workers of America’s Dust Bowl, these novels convey Blish’s “history of the future,” a brilliant and bleak look at a world where cities roam the Galaxy looking for work and a sustainable way of life.

In the first novel, They Shall Have Stars, man has thoroughly explored the Solar System, yet the dream of going even further seems to have died in all but one man. His battle to realize his dream results in two momentous discoveries anti-gravity and the secret of immortality. In A Life for the Stars, it is centuries later and anti-gravity generations have enabled whole cities to lift off the surface of the earth to become galactic wanderers. In Earthman, Come Home, the nomadic cities revert to barbarism and marauding rogue cities begin to pose a threat to all civilized worlds. In the final novel, The Triumph of Time, history repeats itself as the cities once again journey back in to space making a terrifying discovery which could destroy the entire Universe. A serious and haunting vision of our world and its limits, Cities in Flight marks the return to print of one of science fiction’s most inimitable writers.

A Selection of the Science Fiction Book Club


Posthumous Awards and nominations

  • 2001 [1951] Retro-Hugo Award nomination for Best Novelette, for “Okie”.
  • 2004 [1954] Retro-Hugo Award for Best Novelette, for “Earthman, Come Home”.

My Thoughts

141805I don’t often do reviews of classic science fiction. It is not that I haven’t read a great deal of it nor am I not interested in it, quite the contrary. I LOVE golden era science fiction. I think some of the greatest literature that has ever came about came out of that era. Early novels are staggeringly important to how science fiction is written now. Tropes and all. Where would we be without books like, “Brave New World,” now more poignant and prophetic as ever? Like with anything in life, if you are trying to garner a true embracement of the genre, look to the roots of it.  I am no expert by any means in science fiction. But, a few years ago I set myself a challenge of reading as many of these classic science fiction novels as possible. I wanted to learn, embrace, and understand. I am so glad I did. This is one of the beauties that was recommended to me by my father, a lover of old science fiction himself.

1003150All of this chatter is a great big segway into the sheer coolness that is “Cities in Flight.” It is considered one of the benchmark hard science fiction novels of the 1950’s and also considered one of the granddaddies of modern hard science fiction. Having garnered Retro Hugo awards in the process.  This books takes two of my favorite things and slams them together into an architecture/science fiction sandwich. Whole cities lift off the Earth and race towards the stars searching out work from other planets. He took the concept of an okie and turned it on its ear.  Each one of these cities still specializes in their main product. Pennsylvanian mining cities now astro-mine and asteroids. New York is a seat of culture for the universe as we know it. Washington DC is the politics. These cities escape a Soviet-dominated rule on earth by heading to the stars via a spindizzy. A spindizzy is the Deus ex Machina of the story.  It is a propulsion and shield system that allows faster than light travel simultaneously making an impenetrable shield.  This is a typical story trope of that time with the fear of communism and McCarthyism ages and dates the story a bit. At the same time as the discovery of the spindizzy; humans create an anti-aging drug that allows humans to travel great distances and pretty much never die unless they choose to. We now have all the factors for unlimited travel. Humans do not age, with a ship that is powered by a machine that needs no batteries, it goes faster than light speed and is completely shielded.

The book, “Cities in Flight” is technically 4 small books that Blish wrote and released independently that eventually became one large book; “They Shall Have Stars,” “A Life for the Stars,” “Earthman Come Home,” and “A Clash of Cymbals.”  Collectively called the Okie Chronicles or Cities in FlightTogether they follow the creation of the spindizzy, the adventure of sixteen-year-old Chris deFord who accidentally ended up on ship Philadelphia, book three is the adventure of ship New York, and book 4 follows the traveling of New York and the new spindizzy planet “He” that undertakes the first intergalactic transit.

While traversing these four books know a few things. The first book is a slog. Matter-a-fact there are no cities yet that have lifted off. It does set the stage for future books, however. Book 2 is a bit juvenile. It touches on McCarthyism and many of the fears of the mid-1950’s. Book three is where it gets interesting. The characters, specifically Amalfi (Mayor of New York) are well written. Some of the characters are harder to read than others. Especially women. Writing in this genre has come a long way. If you can step back from how this story has aged and character flatness, the plot is such a grand idea.

I say try it if you want to leap to the golden era. If you like it there is a literal treasure trove of stories that await you: “Day of the Triffids,” “Slaughterhouse Five,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “I.Robot.” I can go on and on.

If you have any suggestions for books to check out leave a comment in the comment section!





  1. nsfordwriter

    I used to read a lot of classic SF when I was a teen, don’t read it often now. I’ve read Blish short stories occasionally. Somehow I think older SF is more imaginative, maybe because it didn’t have to be backed up by the science, unlike today’s SF which either has to make sense, or be completely fantasy.

    1. Beth Tabler

      I agree. There was less “giving a shit” about what other people had done before them. Less worry. Everything they were doing was trailblazing so they could write and be whatever they wanted to be. The science thing is probably true. Some of the older science fiction writers just waived a proverbial wand and shouted SCIENCE and people believed them.

      1. Beth Tabler

        Yes. I agree. Credibility is a big issue. Writers now have to write in a framework of known scientific knowledge. Then writers could be or do anything they wanted to.

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