Friday, August 22, 2014

Review of They Shall Have Stars by James Blish

The optimism of Modernism expressed itself in a variety of fashions.  Silver Age science fiction perhaps the grandest of them all, the infinite potential of technology was a playground which hundreds of writers rushed to frolic on.  Jaunts to Mars, telekinetic communication, robot servants—a universe of ideas was the genre’s oyster.  Space flight perhaps the most utilized trope, there was no shortage of schemes and inspiration how mankind could achieve the stars.  Approaching in realist mode (chronologically, that is), James Blish and his Cities in Flight sequence posited that discoveries in mathematics and solar system exploration would be the ticket to the galaxy.  After publishing a series of short stories wherein mankind’s urban environments were ‘launched’ into space, he realized the larger potential, and in 1956 published They Shall Have Stars.  Essentially a prologue to the Cities in Flight sequence, it was followed by two additional novels rounding out the cycle.  This review is for They Shall Have Stars.

By the opening of the novel, mankind has achieved the solar system and set up a massive project called the Bridge on Jupiter V, one of the gas giant’s moons.  Paige Russell, an astronaut working with the government science department, has just returned with some fresh samples from the slushy planetoid and has submitted them to the pharmaceutical company Pfitzner for analysis.  Meeting with Senator Bliss Wagoner, he learns that the extended Cold War has had a cumulative and detrimental effect on the US’s space program, drastic measures perhaps needed to bolster support and keep funding in place.  Meanwhile on the Bridge, engineer Bob Helmuth oversees construction.  Even he unaware of the top secret reasons behind the project, the assumptions and discoveries slowly concatenate into a theory that just may be true.  What will happen to the Bridge, however, nobody knows.

Not only a science fiction writer, Blish was also a critic and scholar of literary fiction.  As a result, one perspective on They Shall Have Stars may be that the writing is ironclad and polished.  It’s also possible to be viewed as pretentious.  Blish did not choose an investigative reporter or fearless spacemen as his go-to characters unraveling the mystery of the Bridge.  Rather, a major politician, a government official, and an engineer tell the story.  Thus the dialogue and plot movement, as realistic as they may be, may not appeal to modern readers looking for another Isaac Asimov puzzle or E.E. Smith space opera.  Blish, like Algis Budrys, was writing fiction that he took seriously, and for whom the ideas had value beyond entertainment.  Therefore the main premise of They Shall Have Stars may be a pulp in origin, but the context, characterization, exposition, and dialogue are all realist in mode.  (Later stories in the Cities in Flight sequence are more pulp in methodology, which makes the series’ opening salvo interestingly anti-polar by comparison.)

The content of the novel is thus centered around discussion on the possibilities, exigencies, and realities of technology, knowledge, practice, legislation, and government policy.  Blish really unpacking conversation, the senator, for example, expounds lengthily on the difficulties of securing funding for the space program, world economics and politics.  Russell, and the relationship that develops between he and a Pftitzner employee, is both personal and technical; Blish includes actual chemical and mathematical formulas, as well as vignettes from futuristic society when they are in public.  Living on a moon where a structure that dwarfs Earth is being constructed, Helmuth’s perspective is the most ‘sci-fi’ of all.  Though instilling the sense of wonder many readers love the genre for, his interests and focus also integrate the technical details of the Bridge.

In the end, The Shall Have Stars is a subtle mystery that details the discovery of technology and knowledge later books in the Cities in Flight sequence depend upon.  Approached from a realist perspective, the content is largely centered on real-world problems regarding the feasibility of such grand schemes, namely funding and the possibilities and limitations of corporate pharmaceuticals.  Openly stated as the opening act to Cities in Flight, it remains for A Life to the Stars to continue the story of mankind’s modernist dreams of achieving the stars.

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