The novel “They Shall Have Stars”, also known as “Year 2018!”, by James Blish was published for the first time in 1956. It’s the first novel of “The Cities in Flight” tetralogy.
Colonel Paige Russell is an astronaut and Pfitzner, a major pharmaceutical industry, asked him for soil samples of the planets and moons on which he stopped for a research. When he goes to deliver the samples, by accident he overhears something he shouldn’t have and gets curious.
Russell tries to get information from Anne, Pfitzner’s receptionist, especially when he discovers that she’s the daughter of the most important company’s researcher. However in doing so he ends up being involved not only in top secret research but also in a power struggle between Senator Bliss Wagoner and the hereditary FBI Director Francis Xavier Machinery. The outcome of that struggle will determine the future of humanity.
Although it’s the first novel of “The Cities in Flight” saga, “They Shall Have Stars” was the second that was written by James Blish. It’s basically a great prologue to the real stories of the cities in flight as it tells the story of the development of the technologies that led to their birth: gravity manipulation and aging elimination.
“They Shall Have Stars” is set at the beginning of the XXI century, a period in some ways different from what it’s in reality but similar in other ways. According to James Blish in the near future there’s still Soviet Union and the U.S.A. would become an increasingly oppressive regime similar to its enemies where the FBI spies on anyone, including members of the Congress.
In describing this situation there’s clearly a reference to McCarthyism and although it’s different from reality the similarities are a bit disturbing. In fact, today the focus isn’t on the fight against communism but Islamic extremism, however the U.S.A. is becoming similar to its enemy with a rise of religious extremism and there’s an erosion of civil rights justified by the alleged desire to ensure security for its citizens. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the FBI, Homeland Security or another agency that’s spying on citizens.
In the beginning of the XXI century described by James Blish there are space missions and even important scientific research carried out on other planets directly by human beings and not just by some probes but space technology is described as being in decline.
In this situation, the U.S.A. Senator Bliss Wagoner decided to finance scientific projects to develop technologies invented by scientists considered crackpots because sometimes they’re the only ones who can think of something that can truly influence the future of humanity. In doing so however Wagoner ends up under scrutiny by the FBI director, a position that over time became hereditary. It’s a clash between those who want progress, which also involves the freedom to spread scientific knowledge, and those who want to maintain control over this knowledge because they consider it as a weapon.
Sciences are a key issue of “They Shall Have Stars”. James Blish had a scientific background and it shows in this novel which is in some places a little heavy because the author gives a pseudo-scientific explanation of anti-gravity and anti-aging technologies. Blish tries to give a plausibility to the scientific discoveries of his novel to go beyond the super-science that was usual presented on science fiction magazines in particular in previous years.
Despite being science-heavy in some parts, the plot is fairly smooth but character development is far from exceptional, limited to a few main characters. Despite these flaws, “They Shall Have Stars” is a pretty good novel but I think it makes sense to read it along with the other novels of the cities in flight saga.