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Literature / Cities in Flight

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Cities in Flight is a series of Science Fiction stories and novels by James Blish. Originally four volumes, it was later released as an omnibus edition under the series name.

The original volumes, in internal chronological order, are:

  • They Shall Have Stars (1956)
  • A Life for the Stars (1962)
  • Earthman Come Home (collection, 1952)
  • The Triumph of Time (1958)

The series is a grand, sweeping epic, based on the development of a form of Applied Phlebotinum called "the Spindizzy drive", which provides cheap artificial gravity, force-fields, and faster-than-light travel. So cheap and powerful is the Spindizzy that most of the major cities of Earth decide to take off and head for the stars.

This series provides examples of:

  • Apocalypse How: Universal/Physical Annihilation: The Triumph of Time ends with the destruction of the entire Universe. However the Multiverse endures, as everyone is given the opportunity to shape a new universe themselves. The main character believes so much in free will that he refuses to give any shape to his own new universe and blows himself up, thus creating a totally random universe.
  • Arcology: Cheap and easy anti-gravity and faster-than-light technology leads to most of Earth's major cities converting themselves to arcologies and setting off for the stars.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: This is done with cities and indeed entire planets, when a new law of physics shows that the larger an object is, the easier it is to move at hugely FTL speeds. At one point it is stated that a spacecraft is crossing the solar system at FTL speeds powered by a few ordinary batteries.
  • Colony Drop: The rogue city known as Interstellar Master Traders does this with a flying city in Earthman Come Home. Inverted When New York City sticks a bunch of Spindizzies on an uninhabited planet, and flies it into the Vegan Orbital Fort.
  • Cool Starship: The devices called "Spindizzies" can lift up whole cities and send them into space at FTL speed. It's just as cool as it sounds. In Earthman, Come Home, the citizens of New York City fit out several planets with spindizzies. Since the great the mass means greater velocity, the planets travel at ludicrous speed.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The first of the novels was written in The '50s and has the Western world ruled by a McCarthyist government that purges anyone who has "anti-Western" views, or for associating with such people. Scientific research is hamstrung by excessive secrecy, affecting the freedom of information necessary for the scientific method to work. Ideology is not "democracy" or "capitalism" but just "anti-communism"; ironically both sides end up merging because they aren't that different.
  • Domed Hometown: Many Earth cities, including Pittsburgh and New York, use the spindizzies to travel through space looking for work.
  • Doomed Hometown: After the invention of the spindizzy, Earth's economy collapsed. This leads to cities installing spindizzies and heading into space to look for a better life. So each of them is a town with a Doomed Hometown.
  • The Exact Center of Everything: In The Triumph of Time, the Universe is about to be destroyed by collision with its antimatter counterpart, after which a new Big Bang will create a new Universe. The protagonists discover a way that they can influence the creation of the new Universe, but it has to be performed at the centre of the current Universe. So they set out for it, racing against time and an enigmatic and hostile alien civilisation.
  • Failed Future Forecast: The series involves the Western democratic government model becoming ever more intolerant, eventually resembling the Soviet model very closely, and then the Soviets winning the war (and absorbing the West) because they were better at being Soviets.
  • Floating Continent: The "spindizzy"—the Applied Phlebotinum that allows for Anti-Gravity, Force Fields, Artificial Gravity, and Faster-Than-Light Travel—works better with larger masses. As a result, eventually, entire Terran cities cut themselves free of the planet and soar out to the stars.
  • Hobos: Mayor Amalfi likens the titular cities to the migrants of the United States, saying that most cities are hobos (migrant workers), but some are tramps (basically petty criminals), and a few are the lowest sort: bindlestiffs, a type of migrant that lives by robbing other migrants.
  • "London, England" Syndrome: Earth's cities, fitted with antigravity generators and spacedrives, roam the Galaxy looking for work. Nevertheless, they still use names like "Chicago, Illinois" or "Scranton, Pennsylvania". This even becomes a plot point when one character spots the error in a city's name and realizes it's actually an alien battlestation.
  • Mobile City: The spindizzy works better with larger masses. As a result, eventually, entire Terran cities cut themselves free of the planet and soar out to the stars as independent, nomadic city-states.
  • Mundane Utility: The spindizzy drive is able to lift cities into orbit and generate a force field sufficient to retain their atmosphere against the vacuum of space. The same technology, at much lower power, is used to generate a force field that keeps gardens dry when it's raining.
  • New York Is Only Manhattan: The flying city of New York consists only of Manhattan.
  • Oppressive States of America: In the first book, America is rapidly becoming a totalitarian state ruled by the hereditary head of the FBI, Francis X. MacHinery.
  • Overdrive: The cities of the title can fly at faster-than-light speeds, but they're all equipped with a gadget called "Situation N" which can instantly teleport them away from trouble. Only thing is, it can only ever be used once per city. Situation N also has the great disadvantage of depositing the affected city in a completely unknown location, a very long way away. As it happens, this becomes a plot point but there is no given reason why the City would not find itself stranded in interstellar space, unable to navigate, seek work or even able to transit anywhere useful within its available supplies. Indeed, there is a specific penalty whereby a City can be broken up to prevent this being attempted, and City Fathers have been known to execute or otherwise depose city managers to prevent this.
  • Planar Shockwave: There is an explosive TDX that only explodes perpendicular to the local gravity field.
  • Remember the Alamo: In the series, it's "Remember Thor V!" We're never told just what happened on Thor V, only that the City known as Interstellar Master Traders did something terrible to the colony there. The only suggestion is the phrase "[IMT] made the sky fall" — which is all too possible if you have a city with a spindizzy drive.
  • The Remnant: The Vegan Orbital Fort, a hold-out from a long-past war which has become a sort of legend in its own right.
  • Significant Monogram: It's likely no coincidence that Alois Hrunta, self-proclaimed Emperor of Space, had such a similar name to Adolf Hitler.
  • Urban Legend: The passengers have a legend of a Lost City that will take them away to a planet where antiaging drugs can be found in the local plantlife. The protagonist is sworn to secrecy about this, only to find that everyone knows about this legend anyway. Some urban legends are obviously cautionary tales—rogue Cities and City Fathers—while others turn out to true.
    • the Vegan Orbital Fort is widely regarded as this, Cities which disappear are sometimes attributed to having been destroyed by it - but it makes a dramatic reappearance during the March On Earth
  • When Things Spin, Science Happens: Implied in the Spindizzy drive. Spindizzies are based on P. M. S. Blackett's work on planetary magnetism, correlating magnetism, gravity, and angular momentum. Some writers (like this one) say that "spin [it] dizzy" is what the device does to the subatomic particles: changing their angular momentum. However, because the device itself is never actually seen or described in canon, itís possible that it, itself, spins.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Played With. The protagonists carefully save up germanium for use as currency. After they come back to "civilization" some time later, they are told that it's a "fine and useful metal, but you buy it, you don't buy things with it." Ironically, the sellers want a "valuable" metal Later, a sign that the galactic economy has collapsed is when the New Yorkers are told the only currency accepted is the anti-aging drugs that keep them all alive.