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James Blish's Cities in Flight; is it a classic?

Vertigo

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Cities in Flight by James Blish is in the SF Masterworks list, so clearly some "leading SF writers and editors" think it is a classic. I’m not sure I agree; it was a mostly enjoyable though somewhat uneven read but I’m not convinced it deserves classic status.

The series of four books is nowadays published as an omnibus in a single volume that spans some two thousand years of Human and Galactic history. However it was mainly written in the 50’s and was previously published as four separate novels and before that much of the material was originally published as short stories. On top of that the books were not written in chronological order the writing order was approximately III, I, IV, II. I felt that, partly due to this history, these books have some serious flaws:

Commentary on society: I think this is where these books are strongest. They present an interesting commentary on society, closely following Spengler’s theories on the cyclic nature of society. Unfortunately I think these theories and/or Blish’s interpretation of them are wrong. The societies presented are almost all dystopian in nature and I thought overly pessimistic. Also some of the fundamental near future ideas have already been shown as incorrect; Russian society did not subsume Western society, in fact pretty much the reverse has taken place. That is an understandable mistake considering the books were written whilst McCarthyism was rife. But that aside, fascinating though they were, I never felt that any of the societies presented were completely plausible.

Hard SF: these books are undoubtedly excellent early examples of hard SF. Unfortunately science has moved on a long way since the 50’s and that rather detracts from this aspect of the books; a thousand years into the future and they have computers that don’t quite make it to sentience but they are still using slide rules. Blish was aware of transistors at this time and clearly could see their importance (making germanium the basis for galactic currency) and yet a thousand years in the future they still have control circuits using vacuum tubes “as big as his fist”. All this tends to make the books feel more than a little dated. However the hard science would have been pretty impressive at the time of writing and the sheer scope of Blish’s vision is pretty breathtaking.

Plots: as best I can tell only books I and IV were actually written as books rather than cobbled together from short stories, which means that books II and III were really made up of lots of little plots. I found this made them somewhat disjointed and also that, and the odd order of writing, resulted in a lot of inconsistencies. In fairness Blish was aware of this:

Forgetfulness, alas, did indeed play a role. The volumes were written roughly in the order III, I, IV, II over a period of 15 years (during which I was also writing other books), and inconsistencies crept in despite my best intentions to keep them out.


Writing style: I frankly struggled at times with Blish’s style of writing, whilst I know they were written in the 50’s, I have read many other books from that period or older with less trouble in this regard. He frequently used idioms with which I am unfamiliar and struggled to make sense of. Some of his sentences were massively long and I found his punctuation sporadic; I frequently had to read a sentence three or four times before I could make sense of it.

Characters: there were relatively few characters in the books and those that there were I never really felt I got to know well. I did not feel that character building was one of Blish’s strengths in these books. Maybe that’s partly due to the disjointed nature of bolting together a lot of short stories. Certainly the first and last books which were written as single novels were better in this regard.

All in all I felt they were too uneven in too many ways to rate as a classic SF book.

[All that said they did inspire me to think about and write this commentary which is not something I usually do, so maybe that fact argues against me ;)]
 

D_Davis

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I think this leads to a broader question I've had for a long time - how are those SF Masterworks chosen? I still can't tell. I've searched for the criteria and a list of people who might vote on such a distinction, but I cannot find anything. I find it a little troubling that a series would be called the Masterworks, and yet there is little to no indication about how the titles are chosen.

As to the book in question, I've struggled with it both times I've tried to read it. This coupled with me negative feelings towards the other Blish that I've read has lead me to believe that he may not be an author for me.
 

Rodders

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I must confess that i tried to read this a long time ago but gave it up as a lost cause, I just couldn't get into it.
 

Vertigo

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I found the first book hardest to get into. The following books are a much easier read, almost as though they were by a different author; very different style.
 

AE35Unit

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Hmm I have a huge blue omnibus edition upstairs but Ive yet to be brave enough! Ive long been intrigued by his Spin dizzys and ansible concept but so far Ive not found much of merit in Blish's writing.
 

Vertigo

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Get past the first book and I think you would enjoy them AE, infact I have seen it mentioned that you could just skip the first book if you don't like it and I would agree. All it really does is establish the two major trchnologies that are key to the rest and they would read just as well simply treating them as established technology. The second book does take place several hundred years after the first so they are just that by then - established technology.

I would say the same to Rodders and d_davis; try starting with the second book.
 

J-Sun

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It'd be hard to write something I'd be more likely to like on the face of it - a historical interstellar story cycle? Sign me up! Foundation II! But, as executed, I didn't like them either. I forget why (it's been awhile) but I'll easily answer in the negative to "Is it a classic?" (except in the sense that someone at some time thought it was a big deal). I didn't hate them but I don't recall being even a little impressed.

I've come to think Blish is overrated in general - I don't even care for Ballantine's The Best of James Blish when almost every volume in that series is gold. It does have a good story or three in it, though.
 

Connavar

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These old SF books is just like reading heavy 1800s classic books. You have to get used to that era, style. You cant go from techno thrillers of today to 40s SF.....

Not saying Blish is special, cant be overrated. Im staying there is something wrong or what you are looking for if you cant read classic, somewhat dated SF.

SF Masterworks are usually true masterworks. Also somtimes they are just minor books that is out of print and choosen in the series. Why sell an author best books who have other publishers already. Its not a real Masterwork series. The low level PKD books show that.
 

Jade44

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I would say so. I can't say my memory of the series is fresh, (I read it about 40 years ago), but parts of the series still stick in my mind. The idea of entire cities breaking off from Earth and cruising through space in a hobo-like existence as well as the idea of anti-aging drugs made an impression on me I have not forgotten.
 

GOLLUM

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I think this leads to a broader question I've had for a long time - how are those SF Masterworks chosen? I still can't tell. I've searched for the criteria and a list of people who might vote on such a distinction, but I cannot find anything. I find it a little troubling that a series would be called the Masterworks, and yet there is little to no indication about how the titles are chosen.
I found this extract form a Locus Magazine article. It was an interview with the then Managing Director of Orion Books, Malcolm Edwards. He apparently came up with the idea of a Masterwork list for SF and Fantasy and proceeded with consultation from a wide range of people (not specifically mentioned). I have the entire SF and Fantasy Masterwork series to date and think that overall they are very good lists but there's always going to be exceptions not to mention varying tastes from readers. I hope this provides at least a partial answer to your ongoing query.

http://www.locusmag.com/2005/Issues/03Edwards.html

Cheers.
 

hitmouse

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Thats interesting. I thought the first in the series was the one where the kid gets stuck in Scranton when it takes off. This is a terrific novel. The next two are not quite so good.
 

Vertigo

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These old SF books is just like reading heavy 1800s classic books. You have to get used to that era, style. You cant go from techno thrillers of today to 40s SF.....

Not saying Blish is special, cant be overrated. Im staying there is something wrong or what you are looking for if you cant read classic, somewhat dated SF.

SF Masterworks are usually true masterworks. Also somtimes they are just minor books that is out of print and choosen in the series. Why sell an author best books who have other publishers already. Its not a real Masterwork series. The low level PKD books show that.
I agree completely with you on that Connavar, and I tried to make allowances for that when I reading. Yes some of the sciences was dated and wrong but I expected that from books written in the 50s. And allowing for that I think Blish's vision for these books was pretty awsome (again for when they were written) and compares well with Poul Anderson's excellent Tau Zero. However I didn't think the writing was particularly good and whilst I again have tried to make allowances for their slightly odd genesis (not written in order and much of them originally written as short stories) I still felt they were not well written. So I am left feeling his vision was classic but his stories were not.

Thats interesting. I thought the first in the series was the one where the kid gets stuck in Scranton when it takes off. This is a terrific novel. The next two are not quite so good.
That one is actually the second in the series and bizarrely the last one actually written! I think I actually preferred the last book.
 

Fried Egg

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I read this quartet as separate books, not as an omnibus, but I read them in order.

The first part felt like an extended prologue. It set the scene for the two major scientific breakthroughs that were required in order for interstella space travel: Anti-gravity and longevity. It was fairy weak as a story in it's own right and could quite easily be skipped without missing out. You can always go back to it if you read and like the rest of the series and want to see some background behind it all.

The second part was actually my favourite of the lot. Although it still feels like a kind of preliminary to the main story, it's a great story in it's own right following the rise to power of a lowly homeless man to mayor of the space faring city of "New York".

Book three, was the meat of the matter, as it were, although I found it quite poorly executed. In some ways it resembled Asimov's "Foundation" series as the city had to face and overcome a series of crises. Blish just didn't pull it off as well which I guess is why this series isn't as well remembered as Asimov's.

The final part things picked up again and it felt like a satisfying conclusion to a series that varied in quality. I guess it is a classic but it hasn't dated well and doesn't have as much to offer the modern reader as other classics.
 

Vertigo

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Interesting FE, I would pretty much agree with your assesment of the books. I did find the final part a satisfying conclusion as well and I also found the thrid part the most disjointed with the largest number of inconsistencies. But to be fair it was the earliest writing and was originally all short stories so I guess it was difficult to bring them all together into a coherent timeline and plot.

What I'm a little surprised by here is that I was certainly under the impression that Cities in Flight was considered to be something of a classic (beyond just being in the Masterworks list) and therefore expected to see it get more defensive posts. However so far almost no one seems to have really liked it.
 

clovis-man

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I would say so. I can't say my memory of the series is fresh, (I read it about 40 years ago), but parts of the series still stick in my mind. The idea of entire cities breaking off from Earth and cruising through space in a hobo-like existence as well as the idea of anti-aging drugs made an impression on me I have not forgotten.
My experience mirrors yours. When I read them, I enjoyed them, but my recollections are murky. So I have now just picked up the omnibus edition and will revisit them soon. Hope I'm not disappointed.
 

chrispenycate

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I remember waiting impatiently for the next episode of "A clash of symbols" (I think now "the triumph of Time") to come out in – was it Analog? Some considerable time ago, anyway. And now I seem to own two copies of the Omnibus (different covers) but can't raise the enthusiasm to reread them.
 
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