They Shall Have Stars

They Shall Have StarsThey Shall Have Stars by James Blish was published in 1956.  The edition that I read was the Avon 1966 paperback copy. They Shall Have Stars is the first novel in the Cities in Flight collection by Blish.  The four “novels” were collected into one omnibus by Avon in 1970, which I also own.  The trickiest part of understanding this collection is that several of the “novels” are actually fix-up pieces that Blish originally published in the famous Astounding Science Fiction magazine. For example, from what I could dig up, there are two relevant issues of Astounding that relate to They Shall Have Stars.  The February 1952 issue and the May 1954 issue contain stories that eventually became this novel.

Blish wrote a short three-paragraph author’s note for the front of the Avon 1966 edition.   It’s actually really helpful if you are attempting to read Blish’s work or attempting to read Cities in Flight. He writes:

This first volume of Cities in Flight is a prologue to the work as a whole, and hence contains neither any flying cities nor any characters in common with the remaining three volumes.  Instead, it undertakes to show the circumstances under which the two fundamental inventions which made the Okie cities possible were discovered. . . . . We begin in 2018 A.D.. . . .  and the events here cover about two years.  There is a leap of several centuries before Cities in Flight proper begins, and thereafter the action is continuous through the remaining three volumes, all the way to 4004 A.D.

The writing of Cities in Flight occupied me, off and on, from 1948 to 1962, and like many such long projects, the order of composition of its parts wasn’t orderly at all, and was further complicated by the publishing history.

I think that is about as good as an explanation of the chronology of these novels as any.  And it’s authoritative because it’s direct from the author himself.  So, what we have learned so far is that, though this was not an actual novel at first, nor was it the first novel in the series published, you read this one first.

However, you may be disappointed.  (As we science fiction addicts usually are with prequels/prologues, etc.)  Since this particular novel takes place prior to the “big events” in the other novels (which I have not yet read), it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of action and events in the storyline.  This is why I wrestled with giving this novel 2 or 3 stars for it’s rating.  As a prologue, it deserves three full stars.  It does everything a prologue ought to do – including not running on and on longer than it should.  This novel does a solid job of providing the setting; it presents the scientific and political milieu for the year 2018, which sets up the rest of the Cities in Flight storyarc.  Published in the mid-1950s, we are also given an image of rampant McCarthyism and Blish’s negative view of it.  I have always been rather hateful towards McCarthyism.  It’s, oddly, still alive and well even today and so I sympathize with Blish’s view.

This is the dystopian aspect in the novel.  There is a very clear-cut distinction made between The West and The Soviets.  This is all apropos of the 1950s. But what is surprising and refreshing is that while Blish utilizes this obnoxious us/them dichotomy, he also chooses to simply step outside of it.  This is how, in the novel, McCarthyism (represented by the character MacHinery) is defeated.  The novel tells us that The Soviets (knowingly or unknowingly) have defeated The West – not by overcoming them in military struggle, but by gradually developing the zeitgeist of The West into one similar to The Soviets. i.e. secretive, stagnant, repressive, and full of witch-hunting. There is a lot of identity/alterity philosophy combined with political ideology inherent in this idea that would be great for someone to make a thesis out of.  Blish doesn’t really preach at us at all, though. He just tells us this is what has happened and we calmly step on outside of this paradigm with him.

On Jupiter the reader is treated to the “hard science” of the science fiction side of this prologue story.  There are mathematical equations here. Chemistry diagrams depicting molecular structure.  There’s not a lot of them – but there they are, and Blish makes it seem like he really actually tried to make all of this believable and realistic.  In fact, one of the best things about this novel is the utilization of the scientific properties of ice.  Yes, ice – the frozen state of water, so to speak.  Did you know that ice actually has about fifteen stages of solidity determined by temperature and/or pressure? I feel like I knew some of this in a very vague way – but since I read this novel, my imagination is having a blast thinking about ice.  Anyway, because the phases are relative to pressure/temperature – Blish explores ice on the planet Jupiter, which has crazy temperatures and pressure that can challenge scientists.

Because that is the other really big idea being put forth in this novel:  the state of scientific inquiry under an era of Soviet-ideology/McCarthyism/1950s.  One character (a respected scientist) says that the scientific method no longer works.  Several characters wrestle, throughout the novel, with the problem of whether or not the “really big science experiments/projects” are a thing of the past and are no longer feasible or important.  Where does humanity stand with regard to “gigantic research projects”?  Some of this is political in nature, some of it is economic. Some of it is just plain biological – humans do not live long enough to bother with the gigantic project. So, this novel plays with some of these questions and presents a few tentative, subtle responses.

However, throughout this review, you’ll notice I have not talked about the characters or the action or the events in the novel. Because, really, there is not anything worth saying. While this novel is an excellent prologue, it is clearly a prologue that is solely designed to set up the rest of Cities in Flight.  Nothing really happens in this novel.  The reader will have a strong sense of the story never getting started, never going anywhere, and wondering if there really is a story in there at all.  At the end of the novel – there are some cool ideas and this is obviously an introduction to a future humanity.  So that is why it gets two stars for a rating as novel qua novel.  Ultimately, that’s what I have to give as the final rating, too, since I review novels here – not prologues.

2 stars

One comment

  1. The other books in the series are MUCH more of the young adult vein. I found this one, unfortunately, to be the best — I’ve only read the next two. This one at least tries to be more serious — and was published later than the next two.

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