"Every end," Wagoner wrote on the wall of his cell on the last day, "is a new beginning. Perhaps in a thousand years my Earthmen will come home again. Or in two thousand, or four, if they still remember home then. They'll come back, yes, but I hope they won't stay. I pray they will not stay."
One of the many, quieter triumphs of Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) - you know, chest-bursting aliens and kick-ass lady lead aside - is its vision of a decidedly scrappy, blue-collar future. No shinier-than-thou hotshot pilots or pouting space princesses here; they really are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. (Yes, fine, except Ash.) Even flying through space, they're bitching about the pay and the rations. If humanity ever spends a substantial amount of time among the stars, one suspects, this (killer aliens with acid for blood aside) is what it would end up being like for most people: uncomfortable, tedious, and seriously lonely if something goes wrong. Just another way of making ends meet.
This emphasis on the lived experience of the human future, on what might drive people to the stars, and keep them there, besides the view, is very much a theme of the four-book sequence Cities in Flight (1955-62) by James Blish (1921-1975). Blish, who was a microbiologist before he was professional writer (and also a critic, later, under the pen-name William Atheling, Jr.), was as interested in social dynamics and economic pressures as he was in swashbuckling exploration and space battles. The sense of wonder is here in spades - whole cities! flying through space! really, if that image doesn't make you grin there is no joy in your soul - but the narrative focus rarely strays from the human perspective: what it means to live, day-to-day, on a city in flight.
This omnibus edition collects the books in narrative, rather than publication, order; I will follow suit here. First, then - though written second - is They Shall Have Stars (1956), which deals with the twenty-first century build-up to those flying cities. Blish imagines a near future in which the demands of 'fighting' the Cold War have warped both the US and the USSR into a pair of police states - politically-repressive, economically-depressed self-parodies. A powerful sense that Western civilisation as it stands is in irreversible decline - that the Earth is now a dead end - leads a US senator named Wagoner to hatch a scheme to send a small group of individuals farther out into space than ever before, to "scatter the West throughout the stars, scatter it with immortal people carrying immortal ideas".
The tools he needs come in the form of a pair of scientific break-throughs. Both are shown, and their implications explored, primarily through characters in a less elevated position, and with a much more limited idea of what is going on, than Wagoner: a soldier on leave, a receptionist, a skeleton crew of grunts aboard an experimental spacecraft near Jupiter. The receptionist is a woman, named Anne - although, as is not uncommon for female characters in Cities in Flight, she is repeatedly referred to as "the girl" and first introduced by (a critique of) her physical appearance. Her role and characterisation turn out to be rather better than these initial details suggest, however; Blish seems rather more comfortable than some of his contemporaries with the notion of women as people, although their options remain limited in these stories.
Through their eyes, we glimpse the development of the anti-aging drug ascomycin, which will eventually make human beings effectively immortal, bar accidents, and the successful testing of the anti-gravity device known as the spindizzy, which will power those cities through space:
"I won't bother to trace the succeeding steps, because I think you can work them out for yourself. It's enough to say there's a drive generator on board this ship which is the complete and final justification of all the hell you people on the Bridge have been put through. The gadget has a long technical name [...] but the technies who tend it have already nicknamed it the spindizzy, because of what it does to the magnetic moment of any atom - any atom - in its field.
"While it's in operation, it absolutely refuses to notice any atom outside its own influence. Furthermore, it will notice no other strain or influence which holds good beyond the borders of that field. [...] In deep space... well, it's impervious to meteors and such trash, of course, it's impervious to gravity; and - it hasn't the faintest interest in any legislation about top speed limits. It moves in its own continuum, not in the general frame."
The language, here, is important - ships employing spindizzies are indifferent to and unaffected by "legislation". They operate on their own terms. They are, in other words, frontiersmen (and here I wonder if the name Wagoner is a coincidental choice): self-regulating pioneers, sailing forth to the new Wild West, to carve out their fortunes in freedom.
At least, that is how they are envisaged; the American dream writ large.
The outcome is rather different, as the subsequent books demonstrate. A Life for the Stars (1962) picks up the story several centuries later, and in theme and language is redolent of Blish's other major real-world influence, besides the Cold War: it is a Dustbowl coming-of-age tale in space. A second Great Depression has left humanity with no choice but to leave Earth and look for work elsewhere, using the spindizzies that powered the first interstellar spaceships to launch whole cities skyward. Its wonderful opening shows us both sides of the coin, the sensawunda and the socio-economic:
From the embankment of the long-abandoned Erie-Lackawanna-Pennsylvania Railroad, Chris sat silently watching the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, preparing to take off, and sucked meditatively upon the red and white clover around him.
It was a first time for each of them. Chris had known since he was a boy - he was sixteen now - that the cities were deserting the Earth, but he had never seen one in flight. Few people had, for the nomad cities, once gone, were good for good.
Teenage Chris, it soon emerges, is gawking in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is pressganged into Scranton's workforce, and whisked away aboard the flying city before he has time to mourn his dog (shot for trying to defend him, sniff). A harsh life awaits him, albeit one with a much broader potential than his terrestrial upbringing held out; these cities are the migrant workers of their time, travelling from planet to asteroid in search of short-term mining and refining contracts. They are hobos, viewed with suspicion and sometimes downright contempt:
There was a well-known ugly term for that among the peasantry of the Earth, expressing all the contempt it felt for any man who abandoned his land, no matter how unrewarding it was, to tread the alien streets and star lanes of a nomad city: it was called, "going Okie".
Chris had gone Okie. He had not done it of his own free will, but his father and Bob and the little girls would never know that.
Their inhabitants, meanwhile, if they choose to become citizens and thus get the anti-aging drugs, must find their place in the daily life of the cities, and find it early. The choices are not limitless; roles do not open up like they used to, what with death being rare; furthermore, the computer banks known as the City Fathers have a rather rigid outlook on life, their parameters being governed by the past knowledge and tradition they store, rather than the possibilities of the future:
"Now and then I wondered if they were right," Dr Brazillier told the heaped papers on her desk. "I wanted to be a composer. But the City Fathers had never heard of a successful woman composer, and it's hard to argue with that kind of charge. No, Chris, once the machines have fingered you, you have to be what they want you to be, the only alternative is to be a passenger - which means, to be nothing at all. I don't wonder that it makes you ill. But, Chris - fight back, fight back!"
But the system is not without flexibility, for a lucky and talented (and supported-by-friends) few, and Chris does indeed make a place - and find adventure - for himself, in the most engaging instalment of the story cycle. If you only read one, make it this.
The third and fourth books - Earthman, Come Home (1955) and The Triumph of Time (1958) - dwell in more detail on the escapades of one particular city, Manhattan, and the experiences of a small groups of individuals living on it, including its mayor, Amalfi, against a backdrop of drastic change for the Okies, and culminating - in the fourth book - in nothing less than the end of the universe.
Earthman, Come Home is episodic in structure, following Manhattan on its stop-start path through the stars. We see the city accept - and sometimes even finish without serious mishap, although (mis)adventures are much more common - work contracts on various planets. We see it encounter very different human cultures on these planets - the legacy of many waves of human migration and colonisation - and variously resist or give in to the temptation to meddle where it shouldn't; the temptation to involve Okie cities and their firepower in planetside political conflicts is strong, for both Okies and terrestrials. There are run-ins with the interstellar police (as Amalfi puts it, "'the police aren't against us exactly. We're just rather low on the social scale [...] our mobility makes us possible criminals by their figuring, so we have to be watched'"), and with rogue cities that prey on other Okies, nicknamed "bindlestiffs" (another Depression term).
At one point the Manhattanites even spindizzy a whole planet from one side of a vast tract of space to another, essentially to put it somewhere where it'll have a better climate. Well, if you're centuries old, you have to find something new to do, presumably. (Plus, it's cool. See above, re. joy in your soul.)
The timescales involved, given the distances that are regularly travelled by our immortal protagonists, are huge. While for stretches one can almost forget this, given that the narrative tends to fade out on the gaps between contracts and other incidents, Blish drops in occasional, vertiginous reminders of just how huge the scale is. It is also, of course, implicit in how our characters view the world, another factor contributing to the gradual change in what it means to be human aboard these spindizzy-driven cities. We see this particular through Amalfi, who - at well over five hundred years old - goes through periods of weariness: how does one's sense of purpose survive over centuries? how do one's friendships, and one's sense of self, change? Not surprisingly, it is often the apparently little things they struggle with; Amalfi finds himself lost over naming:
It was hard to decide the terms in which one thought about customary things and places after they had become utterly transformed by space flight. The difficulty was that, although the belfry of City Hall still looked much as it had in 1850, it was now the bridge of a spaceship, so that neither term could quite express what the composite had become.
Manhattan's inhabitants live through both lean times and windfalls, making ends meet: the city must be fuelled, the anti-agathics and other medicines must be funded (diseases haven't gone away, they are simply more cureable), the populace must eat. Further playing up this sense of ordinary life is the fact that the cities are surrounded by their own "spindizzy screen", an invisible filter that only lets through some polarised light, considerably lessening the view of the stars:
Except for the distant, residual hum of the spindizzies themselves - certainly a much softer noise than the composite traffic roar which had been the city's characteristic tone back in the days before cities could fly - there was no real indication that the city was whirling through the emptiness between stars, a migrant among migrants.
The precarious nature of this life is brought home when Manhattan emerges from its planet-moving hijinks to discover that there has been a catastrophic economic collapse while it was away. The financial value of the metal used as interstellar currency has crashed, and abruptly the flying cities find themselves destitute, unable to feed or fuel themselves. The cities crowd together in areas of space where there are rumours of work, scrambling for assignments; in one standout exchange, Okie solidarity - a shared pledge not to accept work below a certain level of payment, a barely-living - implodes in the face of the dying cities' sheer desperation. Tension builds, and violence breaks out; larger cities destroy the weaker ones. No-one gets the work.
Further changes follow in the final book, which feels rather more piecemeal and less satisfying than the middle volumes. Manhattan, for a time, becomes a settled city, aboard the planet, He, that it nicked during book three. Given room to expand at last, the characters begin to raise families, and a tedious strand of soap opera kicks off. But then, well, the end of the universe draws in.
Because nothing is too large, or too small, for the scope of Cities in Flight.