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Cities in Flight, Pittsburgh on Mars

on Mon, 07/21/2014 - 00:00

Science fiction writer James Blish is best remembered for his short-story adaptations of episodes from the original Star Trek of the 1960s, and he even authored the first novel based on characters from the television series in 1970, called Spock Must Die! Blish was also a trained biologist who made his living in the 1940s, 50s and 60s within the scientific realm while likewise writing science fiction pieces for the various pulps of the era. In 1959, Blish received the Hugo Award for “Best Novel” from the World Science Fiction Society for his religiously-tinged A Case of Conscience, and was further acknowledged the following year as Guest of Honor at the 1960 World Science Fiction Convention held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

James Blish’s appearance in the Steel City occurred two years before the publication of A Life for the Stars, which became the second “chapter” in Cities in Flight, a four volume omnibus that details mankind’s exploration of space that is arguably Blish’s greatest achievement. The quartet of novels that encompass Cities in Flight span millenniums, from the development of an anti-gravity device in 2021 that enables the human race to literally reach for the stars, to the inevitable end of the universe in the year 4004. The narratives contained within Cities in Flight are often referred to as James Blish’s “Okie” stories as they follow the journeys of New York City—which has been able to “lift” itself from planet Earth—as it travels the galaxy in search of work, in much the same way that millions of Midwest farm laborers migrated around the country during the Great Depression in the hopes of finding employment.

The initial They Shall Have Stars was published in 1956, and is an obvious byproduct of its era. Set in the early part of the Twenty First Century, the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union continues to rage on. Alaskan Senator Bliss Wagoner, however, has come to the realization that the Soviets have already won the war, as decades of hostilities between the two nations has led the United States to take drastic measures within its own borders, resulting in the curbing of civil liberties and in effect transforming the country into a political mirror image of the Soviet Union. Wagoner thus believes that the future of freedom and democracy resides not on Earth but within the stars, and secretly authorizes two research studies—the first of which leads to the discovery of the “spindizzy,” a device capable of enabling spaceflight at previously unforeseen speeds, while the second results in an antibiotic that is capable of stemming the aging process within humans and making them immune to death by natural causes.

Armed with the ability to transverse great distances, coupled with a new lifespan that can potentially last hundreds—even thousands—of years, mankind does indeed slowly make its way across the galaxy, becoming the dominant species in the universe in the process. The migration, as well as diminishing natural resources on Earth, has even led to entire cities making the journey in the hopes of finding work within the stars. The bulk of Cities in Flight thus follows New York City and its immortal Mayor John Amalfi as Manhattan struggles to survive in a universe filled with pitfalls, decaying societies, a once-dominant alien race and other Okie cities in need of food and supplies as much as any other.

While New York City is the central focus of Cities in Flight, the four novels that encompass the omnibus still provide details regarding the larger history of mankind. Over the course of 2,000 years, both Earth itself and the entire galaxy has witnessed a plethora of political, religious and philosophical movements, as well as many self-proclaimed emperors and kings, while New York City often finds itself trapped between warring planets, undeveloped civilizations and fundamentalist uprisings. But just as Senator Bliss Wagoner believed that the future of freedom and democracy did not rest with politicians fighting an unwinnable Cold War, author James Blish makes the case that in spite of centuries filled with conflict and unrest, it is still everyday people personified by the Okie city of New York that holds the true future of the human race.

Despite the emphasis on New York City, Cities in Flight does touch upon the city of Pittsburgh within its pages as well. It turns out that the Steel City was one of the first to utilize the spindizzy to launch itself from the eastern United States, not to become an Okie like New York but to continue its dominance within the steel production industry on the planet Mars. In the second novel of the series, meanwhile, it is the city of Scranton’s turn to find work away from Earth with a mission similar to that of their fellow Pennsylvania brethren. “There was still native iron on Mars, of course, but none of that was available for Scranton,” James Blish writes. “Pittsburgh was already on Mars, as well equipped with guns as with blast furnaces. Besides Mars was too small a planet to support more than one steel town, not because the red world was short of iron, but because it was short of oxygen, which was also essential for the making of steel.”

The next installment of Cities in FlightEarthman, Come Home—likewise makes a reference to Pittsburgh. “Earth itself became a garden planet, bearing only one city worth noticing, the sleepy capital of a galaxy,” Blish continues. “Pittsburgh valley bloomed, and rich honeymooners went there to frolic. Old bureaucrats went to Earth to die.”

The eventual fate of the Steel City is never made clear, although sixteen-year-old Chris DeFord, the main protagonist of A Life for the Stars, does allude to the former Pennsylvania metropolis becoming an Okie city like New York at some point in the future. “Pittsburgh had made its fortune on Mars to be sure, but it was a poor sort of fortune that kept you sitting in a city all your life, with nothing to see beyond the city limits but an ochre desert, a desert with no air you could breathe, a desert that would freeze you solid only a few minutes after the tiny sun went down,” DeFord reflects. “Sooner or later, too, his father said, Pittsburgh would have to leave the solar system as all the other cities had—not, this time, because it had exhausted the iron and the oxygen, but because there would be too few people left on the Earth to buy steel. There were already too few to justify Pittsburgh’s coming back to the once-golden triangle of rivers it had abandoned thirty years ago; Pittsburgh had wealth, but was finding it increasingly hard to spend on the Earth, even for necessities.”

Although those words had yet to be written when author James Blish made his way to Pittsburgh for the 1960 World Science Fiction Convention, it is only fitting that it was Blish who received the title of “Guest of Honor” at the only such gathering ever held within the Steel City. Who else, after all, has ever envisioned Pittsburgh someday becoming a galactic power and the dominant city on the planet Mars?

Anthony Letizia

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