(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 56.)
Apart from his adaptations of classic Star Trek episodes published under generic titles like Star Trek 7 and Star Trek 11—books that filled the paperback spinners at my local library growing up—James Blish is best known for two series of his own invention: The “pantropy” stories, and the Cities In Flight cycle. I covered, probably too briefly, the pantropy stories in an early Box Of Paperbacks entry on The Seedling Stars. Collected in 1957, these stories concern the alteration of human bodies to live in inhospitable environments. The Cities In Flight series, begun in 1956 with They Shall Have Stars (a.k.a. Year 2018!), essentially turns that premise on its head. Rather than changing humans to better fit in to planets other than Earth, it sends big chunks of Earth out into space. The name is no joke, as this old cover of Analog makes clear:
A Life For The Stars is the second book in the series, which is now usually printed as one big omnibus. In his introduction, Blish talks about the series being “primarily for older readers” but about this entry being “a sufficient key to admit anyone into the world of the interstellar wanderers.” I think that’s code for “this works just fine as a book for kids” because at heart A Life For The Stars is a boys adventure tale. It even opens with a boy and his dog, even if the dog doesn’t make it so far.
The boy, on the other hand, gets to live a life, well, read the title again, even though he’s born into circumstances that don’t seem filled with promise. A resident of Scranton’s outskirts, Chris lives an impoverished, ill-educated existence thanks to a worldwide shift toward totalitarianism. Democracy has failed in all but name and the two sides of the Cold War have gotten entrenched in a death struggle with one side becoming unrecognizable from the other. So what’s a right-thinking city to do but take off for the space using ant-gravity devices called “spindizzies”?
Chris doesn’t join Scranton on its get-the-hell-off-Earth quest by choice. He’s pressed into service by a bunch of thugs who don’t think twice about killing his dog in the process. Well, one of them, their less-than-thuggish leader Frad, does think twice about it, but can’t always control his trigger-happy charges. He can, however, help Chris adjust to life on Space Scranton as the city tries to find a planet where it can find gainful employment. Sensing the kid might be better off not laboring in Space Scranton’s equivalent of the salt mines, Frad makes an appeal to the mayor that lands Chris an apprenticeship with the town astronomer. (Presumably Scranton's paper supply businesses have also closed by this point.) It’s a far-from-cushy gig, however, filled with constant study and the persistent fear that his apprenticeship could end as violently as his time in Scranton began.
Blish’s Cities In Flight series is also known as the “Okie” stories, since that’s the name taken by those who treat space as the place to retreat from economic devastation and a land that seems determined to turn against them. A Life For The Stars, however, reads more like a Horatio Alger story than The Grapes Of Outer Space Wrath. Our young hero starts out on the bottom of society then has to learn the rules needed to succeed, or at least survive. Then the rules change. Traded to another, larger city as part of an exchange of supplies and information, Chris, like so many before him, finds himself seeking his fortune in the city of New York.
The city has changed, but Chris finds it to be a far more functional place than Scranton. It is, however, just as harsh in some respects. Humans have the final say but large portions of the city’s functions have been given over to computers called “The City Fathers” who immediately confront Chris with the question that will help shape the rest of his life: “Do you want to be a passenger, or a citizen?” It’s not just a philosophical question, either. A passenger has to work for his or her ride but a citizen, someone who’s undergone intense education and a rigorous series of tests and proven invaluable to the city, gets to work even harder. But citizens also get to live forever, or at least as long as the city’s anti-aging drugs will allow.
It’s an interesting concept in a book filled with them and the book seems quite sincere in presenting New York’s extreme meritocracy as a workable, even necessary, answer to the collapse of democracy and the tight quarters of the flying metropolis. (There are also flashes of wry humor, like a city hall sporting New York's weirdly workable town motto, "Mow your lawn, lady.") As with the pantropy stories, Blish seems more comfortable doling out ideas than delving into his story, which plays out as a series of hastily resolved incidents that move Chris from poverty and obscurity to a place of prominence. And he doesn’t always seem that interested in dealing with the implications of his ideas. Would all those passengers, who presumably outnumber the citizens, really be happy in their place? And what about the psychological impact of living forever?
Maybe it’s asking too much of the book to consider the shadows created by its future’s brilliant innovations. It’s a book seemingly designed to get its young readers dreaming of what’s out there, while acknowledging that the ground under their feet might fall to blight and decay.
One final note: It got at least one artist thinking. Illustrator Roger Huyssen, surely must have had these books in mind when he created this:
Hitch a ride.
"All Lustadt was in an uproar."
"The visitor, making his way unobserved through the crowded main laboratory of The Hill, stepped up to within six feet of the back of a big Norwegian seated at an electrono-optical bench."