Saturday, May 28, 2016

Review of A Life for the Stars by James Blish

An outward explosion of ideas (figuratively and literally), James Blish’s Cities in Flight sequence describes mankind’s transition from little Earth into the wide-wide galaxy via spindizzies—cities capable of interstellar flight. A Life for the Stars the last book of the four books published yet falling second chronologically, it tells of the young Chris deFord and the life aboard a spindizzy that befalls him.

Though published a few years after Heinlein had stopped writing juveniles, A Life for the Stars has a strong juvi feel to it. The teenage Chris press-ganged onto a spindizzy moments before it blasts off Earth into space, he soon finds himself receiving an education in astronomy, and on a path to becoming a leader and scientist in the interstellar community. Chris has several adventures on the way to discovering the worlds and cities mankind has settled in the universe, confirming, if not beating to death, the coming of age/young man in the wonders of space story. At times, the the story even feels like filler—an obligatory step in the development of the larger Cities in Flight sequence rather than an essential vision within that context. Which brings me to:

Introducing one of the main motifs of the Cities in Flight sequence, A Life for the Stars describes the breakthrough of anti-agathics—immortality drugs. While a nice narrative ploy to keep characters intact over long spans of time (something Kim Stanley Robinson would later borrow to great effect in his Mars trilogy), it likewise pushes forward Blish’s examination of social and cultural evolution and de-evolution over protracted periods of time. Later books in the Cities in Flight sequence examine the idea with more rigor, but the rudiments are at least introduced.

In Jack Vance’s Rhialto the Marvellous, a magician’s manse is described floating ethereally through the stars. James Blish’s creation, while more dry in flavor, is not far off; there is some hand-waving regarding the foundational science needed to spindizzy (verbing my own doing). But by and large the massive flying objects are intended as a representative step in humanity’s development. Not the strongest work in the Cities in Flight sequence (Joachim Boaz writes, and I agree, “the novel’s final dismount is tensionless and hasty”), A Life for the Stars nevertheless provides key waypoints for the two later works, as well as a solid enough juvenile story of young man discovering space.

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