The novel “A Life for the Stars” by James Blish was published for the first time in 1962. It’s the second novel of “The Cities in Flight” tetralogy, following “They Shall Have Stars” in its internal chronology.
Crispin “Chris” deFord is a boy who lives on Earth who wants to see the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, leave and go into space. Unfortunately for him he gets too close to the city and is forcibly recruited by a Scranton patrol in search for more workers so he’s forced to leave too.
Chris has some knowledge of astronomy so he manages to avoid the worst jobs but he must study hard. After some time he’s handed over to New York, another city in flight, where he has to study even harder and try to show he has useful skills to try to become a citizen and get access to drugs that prolong life.
Chronologically, “A Life for the Stars” is the second novel of “The Cities in Flight” series but it’s the last written by James Blish. It takes place centuries after the first novel, “They Shall Have Stars”. The development of antigravity technology has led many cities to leave Earth, at that time in perpetual economic depression and subjected to a repressive political regime, in search of fortune.
The cities in flight, commonly called “Okies”, travel among the stars trading among themselves and with the colonized planets but only some of them really get rich while most of them are rather poor and don’t necessarily have a government more democratic than the Earth’s.
“A Life for the Stars” is a juvenile, more precisely a coming of age story, in which Chris lives various adventures that take place mostly against his will. However, thanks to his skills, his courage and his commitment, eventually Chris takes his destiny into his own hands and finds his place among the stars.
One of the key points of the novel is that having pure knowledge is an important phase of education but isn’t enough. When he arrives in New York, Chris is subjected to intense lessons in which receives a huge amount of information on various topics through a hypnotic device but that’s just the starting point. His future depends on how much Chris will really understand the information he learned and connect them through reasoning to show the level of his intelligence.
Chris’s education also serves as an excuse for James Blish to tell the story of the coming centuries, starting from the first colonization that took place after the events told in the novel “They Shall Have Stars”, obviously giving particular importance to the expansion of the cities in flight.
“A Life for the Stars” is the shortest of the four novels of “The Cities in Flight” series – a little over a hundred pages – so the story takes place at a high pace despite the inclusion of all the information about future history. Chris is by far the most developed character as even the other characters of some importance are only in a part of the novel.
“A Life for the Stars” is a bit too short to excel in terms of sense-of-wonder and especially in the second part the plot seems too centered around Chris. If James Blish had developed the story further, perhaps the result would’ve been at the level of the best Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles, as it is I think it’s a pretty good novel but not extraordinary. For this reason, I think that more than ever it makes sense to read it along with the other cycle of the cities in flight saga.