The novel “The Triumph of Time”, also known as “A Clash of Cymbals”, by James Blish was published for the first time in 1958. It’s the fourth novel in “The Cities in Flight” tetralogy, following “Earthman, Come Home” in its internal chronology.
In the year 4000 the inhabitants of the “Okie” city New York give up their space voyages and settle on a planet of the Greater Magellanic Cloud they name New Earth. They and their descendants spent decades of peace but then the new civilization is threatened by a group of religious fanatics and the former New York Mayor John Amalfi becomes once again the leader in a time of crisis.
As if the threat of religious fanatics wasn’t enough, there’s the discovery of a far more serious crisis: scientists have discovered that the universe is coming to the end of its life. How can they find a solution for a catastrophe of this kind?
Chronologically, “The Triumph of Time” is the fourth and last novel of “The Cities in Flight” saga but it’s the third written by James Blish. It’s set almost a century after the end of the previous novel, “Earthman, Come Home”. The main characters are in part characters already seen and among the new ones there are their descendants because the story is essentially a continuation of the previous one.
Despite the setting in space very far from Earth, the style of “The Triumph of Time” is more similar to what is chronologically the first novel of the cycle, “They Shall Have Stars”. This can be explained by the fact that James Blish wrote these two novels one after another to create a great prologue and a great epilogue to the cycle of “The Cities in Flight”.
These two novels have in fact some themes in common: they are stories of what now we call hard science fiction because the scientific part is important and there’s also the theme of the danger created by forces that work against scientific but also social progress. In “The Triumph of Time” more than ever the danger is given by religious fanatics, ready to use violence against those who don’t think like them and wish only to maintain a status quo in which the diffusion of ideas is very limited and controlled.
Despite the scientific descriptions, in “The Triumph of Time” James Blish goes far beyond what is plausible so you can say that some elements of the novel are metaphysical. All this makes the novel a little heavy however the author also develops a decent number of characters. At the beginning of the novel there’s the melancholy of John Amalfi, who spent many centuries traveling among the stars and struggles to live on a planet. The dynamics of the old characters have evolved, in part because they had children and grandchildren.
In some ways, “The Triumph of Time” ends the cycle of “The Cities in Flight” with a bang, however it’s a bit weak due to a certain heaviness of the various scientific and metaphysical elements. It’s also affected by the standards of ’50s science fiction, in which the ideas were more important than the characters.
In theory you can read this novel on its own because its story is independent but because it’s the end of a cycle there’s the significant risk of seeing its flaws more than its merits. Therefore I recommend to read it after the previous novels to enjoy the development of the whole grand story, particularly the one concerning New York.
James Blish added to this saga many scientific ideas but also historical and economic ones in a grandiose space setting. Today, the author could write a tetralogy in which each novel could have the length the whole cycle had at the time to fully develop the plots and characters but in the ’50s and early ’60s the publishing market was very different.
On the other hand, if today there are publishers who publish cycles consisting of very long novels for a total of thousands of pages it’s also thanks to the fact that in the past readers enjoyed works such as “The Cities in Flight”, which despite their limitations are rightly considered classics of science fiction and therefore should be read by fans.