The Cities in Flight – Earthman, Come Home by James Blish

The Cities in Flight by James Blish
The Cities in Flight by James Blish

The novel “Earthman, Come Home” by James Blish was published for the first time in 1955. It’s the third novel in the “The Cities in Flight” tetralogy, following “A Life for the Stars” in its internal chronology.

The City of New York travels among the stars in search of work to keep on surviving, led by Mayor John Amalfi for centuries. Dealing with a planet isn’t always easy, indeed it’s sometimes dangerous but so is dealing with pirate city and the police is far from friendly.

For many centuries the cities in flight have faced dangers of various kinds and after a long time the status quo has changed, causing a general crisis that will test their survival skills. Mayor Amalfi and his assistants have to make difficult decisions to save New York.

Chronologically, “Earthman, Come Home” is the third novel in “The Cities in Flight” series but it’s the first written by James Blish. It takes place several centuries after the second novel, “A Life for the Stars”, and barely mentions its protagonist Chris deFord, who is remembered in a negative way.

Actually “Earthman, Come Home” is composed of four stories published in the previous years: “Okie”, “Bindlestiff”, “Sargasso of Lost Cities” and “Earthman, Come Home”. The last one was awarded a Retro-Hugo Award in 2004 as the best novelette published in 1953. For this reason it’s a pseudo-novel that tells four different stories that have in common New York with its Mayor John Amalfi. As a result, it’s the longest in the tetralogy but inevitably reading it you notice that it’s not a real novel.

The basis of “Earthman, Come Home” is an old-fashioned space opera with a strong sci-fi adventure and various inventions. In fact, James Blish puts in these stories his most famous inventions: the spindizzy antigravity technology, drugs that prolong life and the Dirac radio for instant communication with any point in space.

In some ways “Earthman, Come Home” is outdated, in particular because it doesn’t take into consideration the relativistic problems of the acceleration of the cities in flight. In fact they easily exceed the speed of light and on this point there’s only a hint about this limit being arbitrary. James Blish remains consistent throughout the tetralogy about that point, therefore it can only be considered with the suspension of disbelief needed more than ever reading decades old science fiction stories.

In these long trips, New York is led by Mayor John Amalfi, aided not only by other human beings such as Mark Hazleton but also by the City Fathers, a group of highly sophisticated computers that ensure that administrators do the interests of the city. Amalfi and Hazleton are the protagonists of the stories of “Earthman, Come Home” along with Dee, a girl met on a planet at the beginning of the novel who starts a relationship with Hazleton and decides to travel with New York.

The adventures of New York are the adventures of Amalfi, who’s ready to make tough sacrifices in order to ensure the survival of the city. The stories of “Earthman, Come Home” are very focused on him and his closest collaborators so we only see their points of view. This makes it difficult to make a real opinion about the whole New York population but at the time it was impossible to write a science fiction story with many characters, especially short fiction like the stories that compose “Earthman, Come Home”.

Considering that these stories belong to the genre of space opera it’s already a lot that James Blish put in them various ideas concerning history and economy. The author was able to put in his stories various elements mixing the sense of wonder of adventure with scientific speculations but also more humanistic ones.

Despite some flaws and its age, “Earthman, Come Home” is a good space opera. Because it’s the real beginning of the saga of “The Cities in Flight” and it has a prologue that explains the history of the next centuries it can be read independently but the best thing is to read the whole tetralogy.

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