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We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be flee to inquire. We know that in secrecy error undetected will flourish and subvert.
J. Robert Oppenheimer
The shadows flickered on the walls to his left and right, just inside the edges of his vision, like shapes stepping quickly back into invisible doorways. Despite his bone-deep weariness, they made him nervous, almost made him wish that Dr. Corsi would put out the fire. Nevertheless, he remained staring into the leaping orange light, feeling the heat tightening his cheeks and the skin around his eyes, and soaking into his chest.
Corsi stirred a little beside him, but Senator Wagoner's own weight on the sofa seemed to have been increasing ever since he had first sat down. He felt drained, lethargic, as old and heavy as a stone despite his forty-eight years; it had been a bad day in a long succession of bad days. Good days in Washington were the ones you slept through.
Next to him Corsi, for all that he was twenty years older, formerly Director of the Bureau of Standards, formerly Director of the World Health Organization, and presently head man of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (usually referred to in Washington as "the left-wing Triple A-S"), felt as light and restless and quick as achameleon.
"I suppose you know what a chance you're taking, coming to see me," Corsi said in his dry, whispery voice. "I wouldn't be in Washington at all if I didn't think the interests of the AAAS required it. Not after the drubbing I've taken at MacHinery's hands. Even outside the government, it's like living in an aquariumin a tank labelled 'Pirhana.' But you know about all that."
"I know," the senator agreed. The shadows jumped forward and retreated. "I was followed here myself. MacHinery's gumshoes have been trying to get something on me for a long time. But I had to talk to you, Seppi. I've done my best to understand everything I've found in the committee's files since I was made chairmanbut a nonscientist has inherent limitations. And I didn't want to ask revealing questions of any of the boys on my staff. That would be a sure way to a leakprobably straight to MacHinery."
"That's the definition of a government expert these days," Corsi said, even more dryly. "A man of whom you don't dare ask an important question."
"Or who'll give you the only the answer he thinks you want to hear," Wagoner said heavily. "I've hit that too. Working for the government isn't a pink tea for a senator, either. Don't think I haven't wanted to be back in Alaska more than once; I've got a cabin on Kodiak where I can enjoy an open fire, without wondering if the shadows it throws carry notebooks. But that's enough self-pity. I ran for the office, and I mean to be good at it, as good as I can be, anyhow."
"Which is good enough," Corsi said unexpectedly, taking the brandy snifter out of Wagoner's lax hand and replenishing the little amber lake at the bottom of it. The vapors came welling up over his cupped hand, heavy and rich. "Bliss, when I first heard that the Joint Congressional Committee on Space Flight was going to fall into the hands of a freshman senator, one who'd been nothing but a press agent before his election"
"Please," Wagoner said, wincing with mock tenderness. "A public relations counsel."
"As you like. Still and all, I turned the air blue. I knew it wouldn't have happened if any senator with seniority had wanted the committee, and the fact that none of them did seemed to me to be the worst indictment of the present Congress anyone could ask for. Every word I said was taken down, of course, and will be used against you, sooner or later. It's already been used against me, and thank God that's over. But I was wrong about you. You've done a whale of a good job; you've learned like magic. So if you want to cut your political throat by asking me for advice, then by God I'll give it to you."
Corsi thrust the snifter back into Wagoners hand with something more than mock fury. "That goes for you, and for nobody else," he added. "I wouldn't tell anybody else in government the best way to pound sandnot unless the AAAS asked me to."
"I know you wouldn't, Seppi. That's part of our trouble. Thanks, anyhow." He swirled the brandy reflectively. "All right, then, tell me this: what's the matter with space flight?"
"The army," Corsi said promptly.
"Yes, but that's not all. Not by a long shot. Sure, the Army Space Service is graft-ridden, shot through with jealousy and gone rigid in the brains. But it was far worse back in the days when a half-dozen branches of government were working on space flight at the same timethe weather bureau, the navy, your bureau, the air force and so on. I've seen some documents dating back that far. The Earth Satellite Program was announced in 1944 by Stuart Symington; we didn't actually get a manned vehicle up there until 1962, after NASA was given full jurisdiction. They couldn't even get the damned thing off the drawing boards; every rear admiral insisted that the plans include a parking place for his pet launch. At least now we have space flight.
"But there's something far more radically wrong now. If space flight were still a live proposition, by now some of it would have been taken away from the army again. There'd be some merchant shipping maybe; or even small passenger lines for a luxury trade, for the kind of people who'll go in uncomfortable ways to unliveable places just because it's horribly expensive." He chuckled heavily. "Like fox-hunting in England a hundred years ago; wasn't it Oscar Wilde who called it 'the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable'?"
"Isn't it still a little early for that?" Corsi said.
"In 2013? I don't think so. But if I'm rushing us on that one point, I can mention others. Why have there been no major exploratory expeditions for the past fifteen years? I should have thought that as soon as the tenth planet, Proserpine, was discovered some university or foundation would have wanted to go there. It has a big fat moon that would make a fine baseno weather exists at those temperaturesthere's no sun in the sky out there to louse up photographic platesit's only another zero-magnitude starand so on. That kind of thing used to be meat and drink to private explorers. Given a millionaire with a thirst for science, like old Hale, and a sturdy organizer with a little grandstand in hima Byrd-typeand we should have had a Proserpine Two station long ago. Yet space has been dead since Titan Station was set up in 1981. Why?"
He watched the flames for a moment.
"Then," he said, "there's the whole question of invention in the field. It's stopped, Seppi. Stopped cold."
Corsi said: "I seem to remember a paper from the boys on Titan not so long ago"
"On xenobacteriology. Sure. That's not space flight, Seppi; space flight only made it possible; their results don't update space flight itself, don't improve it, make it more attractive. Those guys aren't even interested in it. Nobody is any more. That's why it's stopped changing.
"For instance: we're still using ion-rockets, driven by an atomic pile. It works, and there are a thousand minor variations on the principle; but the principle itself was described by Coupling in 1954! Think of it, Seppinot one single new, basic engine design in fifty years! And what about hull design? That's still based on von Braun's workolder even than Coupling's. Is it really possible that there's nothing better than those frameworks of hitched onions? Or those powered gliders that act as ferries for them? Yet I can't find anything in the committee's files that looks any better."
"Are you sure you'd know a minor change from a major one?"
"You be the judge," Wagoner said grimly. "The hottest thing in current spaceship design is a new elliptically wound spring for acceleration couches. It drags like a leaf-spring with gravity, and pushes like a coil-spring against it. The design wastes energy in one direction, stores it in the other. At last reports, couches made with it feel like sacks stuffed with green tomatoes, but we think we'll have the bugs out of it soon. Tomato bugs, I suppose. Top Secret."
"There's one more Top Secret I'm not supposed to know," Corsi said. "Luckily it'll be no trouble to forget."
"All right, try this one. We have a new water-bottle for ships' stores. It's made of aluminum foil, to be collapsed from the bottom like a toothpaste tube to feed the water into the man's mouth."
"But a plastic membrane collapsed by air pressure is handier, weighs less"
"Sure it does. And this foil tube is already standard for paste rations. All that's new about this thing is the proposal that we use it for water too. The proposal came to us from a lobbyist for CanAm Metals, with strong endorsements by a couple of senators from the Pacific Northwest. You can guess what we did with it."
"I am beginning to see your drift."
"Then I'll wind it up as fast as I can," Wagoner said. "What it all comes to is that the whole structure of space flight as it stands now is creaking, obsolescent, over-elaborate, decaying. The field is static; no, worse than that, it's losing ground. By this time, our ships ought to be sleeker and faster, and able to carry bigger payloads. We ought to have done away with this dichotomy between ships that can land on a planet, and ships that can fly from one planet to another.
"The whole question of using the planets for somethingsomething, that is, besides researchought to be within sight of settlement. Instead, nobody even discusses it any more. And our chances to settle it grow worse every year. Our appropriations are dwindling, as it gets harder and harder to convince the Congress that space flight is really good for anything. You can't sell the Congress on the long-range rewards of basic research, anyhow; representatives have to stand for election every two years, senators every six years; that's just about as far ahead as most of them are prepared to look. And suppose we tried to explain to them the basic research we're doing? We couldn't; it's classified!
"And above all, Seppithis may be only my personal ignorance speaking, but if so, I'm stuck with itabove all, I think that by now we ought to have some slight clue toward an interstellar drive. We ought even to have a model, no matter how crudeas crude as a Fourth of July rocket compared to a Coupling engine, but with the principle visible. But we don't. As a matter of fact, we've written off the stars. Nobody I can talk to thinks we'll ever reach them."
Corsi got up and walked lightly to the window, where he stood with his back to the room, as though trying to look through the light-tight blind down on to the deserted street.
To Wagoner's fire-dazed eyes, he was scarcely more than a shadow himself. The senator found himself thinking, for perhaps the twentieth time in the past six months, that Corsi might even be glad to be out of it all, branded unreliable though he was. Then, again for at least the twentieth time, Wagoner remembered the repeated clearance hearings, the oceans of dubious testimony and gossip from witnesses with no faces or names, the clamor in the press when Corsi was found to have roomed in college with a man suspected of being an ex-YPSL member, the denunciation on the senate floor by one of MacHinery's captive solons, more hearings, the endless barrage of vilification and hatred, the letters beginning "Dear Doctor Corsets, You bum," and signed "True American." To get out of it that way was worse than enduring it, no matter how stoutly most of your fellow scholars stood by you afterwards.
"I shan't be the first to say so to you," the physicist said, turning at last. "I don't think we'll ever reach the stars either, Bliss. And I am not very conservative, as physicists go. We just don't live long enough for us to become a star-traveling race. A mortal man limited to speeds below that of light is as unsuited to interstellar travel as a moth would be to crossing the Atlantic. I'm sorry to believe that, certainly; but I do believe it."
Wagoner nodded and filed the speech away. On that subject he had expected even less than Corsi had given him.
"But," Corsi said, lifting his snifter from the table, "it isn't impossible that interplanetary flight could be bettered. I agree with you that it's rotting away now. I'd suspected that it might be, and your showing tonight is conclusive."
"Then why is it happening?" Wagoner demanded.
"Because scientific method doesn't work any more."
"What! Excuse me, Seppi, but that's sort of like hearing an archbishop say that Christianity doesn't work any more. What do you mean?"
Corsi smiled sourly. "Perhaps I was overdramatic. But it's true that, under present conditions, scientific method is a blind alley. It depends on freedom of information, and we deliberately killed that. In my bureau, when it was mine, we seldom knew who was working on what project at any given time; we seldom knew whether or not somebody else in the bureau was duplicating it; we never knew whether or not some other department might be duplicating it. All we could be sure of was that many men, working in similar fields, were stamping their results Secret because that was the easy waynot only to keep the work out of Russian hands, but to keep the workers in the clear if their own government should investigate them. How can you apply scientific method to a problem when you're forbidden to see the data?
"Then there's the caliber of scientist we have working for the government now. The few first-rate men we have are so harassed by the security set-upand by the constant suspicion that's focused on them because they are top men in their fields, and hence anything they might leak would be particularly valuablethat it takes them years to solve what used to be very simple problems. As for the restwell, our staff at Standards consisted almost entirely of third-raters: some of them were very dogged and patient men indeed, but low on courage and even lower on imagination. They spent all their time operating mechanically by the cook-bookthe routine of scientific methodand had less to show for it every year."
"Everything you've said could be applied to the space flight research that's going on now, without changing a comma," Wagoner said. "But, Seppi, if scientific method used to be sound, it should still be sound. It ought to work for anybody, even third-raters. Why has it suddenly turned sour nowafter centuries of unbroken successes?"
"The time lapse," Corsi said somberly, "is of the first importance. Remember, Bliss, that scientific method is not a natural law. It doesn't exist in nature, but only in our heads; in short, it's a way of thinking about thingsa way of sifting evidence. It was bound to become obsolescent sooner or later, just as sorites and paradigms and syllogisms became obsolete before it. Scientific method works fine while there are thousands of obvious facts lying about for the takingfacts as obvious and measurable as how fast a stone falls, or what the order of the colors is in a rainbow. But the more subtle the facts to be discovered becomethe more they retreat into the realms of the invisible, the intangible, the unweighable, the submicroscopic, the abstractthe more expensive and time-consuming it is to investigate them by scientific method.
"And when you reach a stage where the only research worth doing costs millions of dollars per experiment, then those experiments can be paid for only by government. Governments can make the best use only of third-rate men, men who can't leaven the instructions in the cook-book with the flashes of insight you need to make basic discoveries. The result is what you see: sterility, stasis, dry rot."
"Then what's left?" Wagoner said. "What are we going to do now? I know you well enough to suspect that you're not going to give up all hope."
"No," Corsi said, "I haven't given up, but I'm quite helpless to change the situation you're complaining about. After all, I'm on the outside. Which is probably good for me." He paused, and then said suddenly: "There's no hope of getting the government to drop the security system completely?"
"Nothing else would do."
"No," Wagoner said. "Not even partially, I'm afraid. Not any longer."
Corsi sat down and leaned forward, his elbows on his knobby knees, staring into the dying coals. "Then I have two pieces of advice to give you, Bliss. Actually they're two sides of the same coin. First of all, begin by abandoning these multi-million-dollar, Manhattan-District approaches. We don't need a newer, still finer measurement of electron resonance one-tenth so badly as we need new pathways, new categories of knowledge. The colossal research project is defunct; what we need now is pure skullwork."
"From my staff?"
"From wherever you can get it. That's the other half of my recommendation. If I were you, I would go to the crackpots."
Wagoner waited. Corsi said these things for effect; he liked drama in small doses. He would explain in a moment.
"Of course I don't mean total crackpots," Corsi said. "But you'll have to draw the line yourself. You need marginal contributors, scientists of good reputation generally whose obsessions don't strike Ere with other members of their profession. Like the Crehore atom, or old Ehrenhaft's theory of magnetic currents, or the Milne cosmologyyou'll have to find the fruitful one yourself. Look for discards, and then find out whether or not the idea deserved to be totally discarded. Anddon't accept the first 'expert' opinion that you get."
"Winnow chaff, in other words."
"What else is there to winnow?" Corsi said. "Of course it's a long chance, but you can't turn to scientists of real stature now; it's too late for that. Now you'll have to use sports, freaks, near-misses."
"Oh," said Corsi, "how about gravity? I don't know any other subject that's attracted a greater quota of idiot speculations. Yet the acceptable theories of what gravity is are of no practical use to us. They can't be put to work to help lift a spaceship. We can't manipulate gravity as a field; we don't even have a set of equations for it that we can agree upon. No more will we find such a set by spending fortunes and decades on the project. The law of diminishing returns has washed that approach out."
Wagoner got up. "You don't leave me much," he said glumly.
"No," Corsi agreed. "I leave you only what you started with. That's more than most of us are left with, Bliss."
Wagoner grinned tightly at him and the two men shook hands. As Wagoner left, he saw Corsi silhouetted against the fire, his back to the door, his shoulders bent. While he stood there, a shot blatted not far away, and the echoes bounded back from the face of the embassy across the street. It was not a common sound in Washington, but neither was it unusual: it was almost surely one of the city's thousands of anonymous snoopers firing at a counter-agent, a cop, or a shadow.
Corsi made no responding movement. The senator closed the door quietly.
He was shadowed all the way back to his own apartment, but this time he hardly noticed. He was thinking about an immortal man who flew from star to star faster than light.
What People are Saying About This
"A compelling future history, a tale of thistledown cities blown by the winds of time. This is one of sf's most original concepts, an exciting tale deepened and made utterly plausible by Blish s craft and his mature understanding of people and history. If you haven t read this yet, I envy you. Blish s cities will fly through your dreams." Stephen Baxter
"In a century that brimmed with human short-sightedness, James Blish was one of the very first genuine visionaries of a new millennium. If the universe doesn tturn out to be as bold and vivid and wonderful as he imagined, well . . . it ought to!" David Brin
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book transverses the thousands of years and situations of the "Okie Cities". It is such a statement of the human condition that all real Science Fiction Buffs should have it in thier coillections. I have read it and reread it many times and enjoy it each time. The Science is good, the people in the novels like the person you have met before and the situations change and keep you involved in the story to the point you just dont want to put it down. James Blish has writen a true master piece in the annals of Science Fiction equal to anything Robert Heinlien, Issac Asimov, or the other great Si Fi writers produced.
In my continuing survey of the classics of SF, I've just completed Cities in Flight, by James Blish. This is an omnibus of four novels written in the 1950's and assembled by the author in 1970. Of the four, "Earthman Come Home" was written first, though it appears here as the third part. This was, by far, the best of the four, and if you're not up for a 600 page book, read just that part. You don't need to read the first two sections to understand what's going on. The first part, actually, I thought was pretty substandard stuff. It's the story of how the "spindizzy" (antigravity) and anti-agathic drugs (immortality) were created, amid Cold War politics extrapolated into the 21st century. (When I read these old books, it's always painful for me when the story shows the USSR still throwing it's weight around past 1990). Part two was a SF "juvenile" type, and was interesting. As a Pittsburgher, it was interesting to read about Scranton, PA, taking off for the stars. Part four was written in a very stiff, formal voice unlike the other three parts. Here, Blish throws in physics equations and terms like "Hilbert space" as if everybody knows what he's talking about. Indeed, he seems much more comfortable throughout "Cities" when his characters are talking about machines, enemies, and engineering problems than when they're relating to each other as people. His handling of love and romance is just awful. All in all, it was an interesting read. The plot, apparently, was mostly based on the work of the philosopher Spengler, which tells you a lot about Blish, I suppose. He claimed, in the forward, to not be good at plot and imagining things. Instead, he would just follow an idea through to its logical conclusion. A story based on "What if THIS were true...", like much of SF. This means, in Blish's case, the book's ideas are superb, but the story itself suffers at times by the extreme intellectual nature of its author. As Betty Ballantine says in the forward, (I'm paraphrasing), it's no wonder the man wrote so many Star Trek novelizations (which I read 35 years ago!) : he and Spock were much alike. As I read through the classics, it's interesting to see where some ideas from current-day novels were, um, borrowed. In the case of "Cities", recent novels which obviously owe Mr. Blish a tip of the hat (at least) are "Moving Mars" by Greg Bear, the unreadable "Tinker" by Wen Spencer (she even moves Pittsburgh, in that one), much of A.C. Clarke, and any book dealing with generation starships and/or immortality. There's a lot going on here, and it's all done with slide rules and vacuum tubes! Fascinating, as Spock would say.
The English author born in 1921 has basically written a science fiction book about applying logical reasoning to solving many types of problems. The author obviously has obtained knowledge in a wide variety of areas. Unfortunately, his logic is often very faulty and he attempts to disguise this through vocabulary (much of which I believe he invented), long rambling sentences, and often just 'skips' away from the problem to a new scene. The 591 page book does manage to hold your interest for awhile, but you soon find yourself wishing for 'The End'.
The writing quality of the four books that make up this collection varies but what does is the sense of wonder and excitement that underlies the entire series. For this reader the latter two books (Earthman, Come Home and The Triumph of Time) were, with Clake's Tales of the White Hart Inn, crucial in the development of an early and ongoing love of the entire field of science fiction.
This volume contains two short science fiction novels, both set in the same universe, originally published in 1957 and 1962.The first, "They Shall Have Stars," takes place in 2018 and involves a secret project aimed at launching humanity -- or at least the minor subset of it that hasn't become mired in religious fundamentalism and paranoid Cold War politics -- to the stars. It's very much a product of its particular time and genre; both the science and the social aspects are dated, and the characters and plot are pretty thin, with the focus more on scientific speculation and abstract ideas than on storytelling. Which doesn't make for a very compelling read, but such things go, it's not too bad. If nothing else, it's interesting to compare Blish's imagined future, which was of course very much shaped by his own present, to our current reality. (The story opens, by the way, with a character lamenting that space travel has become stagnant and unambitious. This, in a world with manned bases on the moons of Jupiter. Oh, that Space Age optimism... ) Ultimately, I think what this really is, in a somewhat low-key way, is a type of story that has always been popular with SF fans in one way or another and was particularly so back then: a story that assures us, however implausibly, that people with enough vision and open-mindedness -- you know, people like SF fans -- can, with a bit of grit and determination, overcome the stifling pettiness of Earthly politics, defeat death, and conquer the stars. Which may be naive and simplistic, not to mention self-indulgent, but I'll admit that I do understand the appeal, having indulged in it from time to time myself.The second story, "A Life for the Stars," is set something like 1,000 years later. Earth has become deeply impoverished, and its desperate cities have begun encasing themselves in antigravity bubbles and setting out for an nomadic, interplanetary existence. It starts out much more readable than the first one, I think, but it, too, gets a bit bogged down in exposition somewhere in the middle. And the plot, which follows the adventures of a teenager who unwillingly accompanies Scranton, PA on its exodus, was rather unimaginative and ultimately failed to hold my interest. But the central idea, that image of whole cities tearing themselves free of the Earth to roam the stars, is wonderfully appealing, a truly classic science fictional invention. I just wish Blish had done something more interesting with it, as there's a lot of opportunity for terrific world-building that's never remotely realized here. Oh, well... Maybe in volume 2?
This sucker is actually four novels collected into a single volume. The collection starts with They Shall Have Stars. The year is 2013 and humanity is out among the solar system while, back on Earth, a quiet struggle is going on between the West and the Soviets. It's getting harder and harder to tell the difference between the two, however, as the Western governments seek to impose more and more control on their populace. Amidst this all is a scheme of Alaskan senator Bliss Wagoner, which is playing out in a lab on Earth and a gigantic construction project in the atmosphere of Jupiter. They Shall Have Stars was entertaining enough. The 1957 story seemed dated in many ways, but in others it seemed eerily prescient. A Life for the Stars is the second tale in the collection, set centuries after the first. Humanity has discovered the gravitronpolarity generator, or "spindizzy" and over the years, first factories, then entire cities have used this gravity cancelling device to leave Earth and propel themselves through interstellar space. Chris deFord gets press ganged onto the departing city of Scranton and begins a new life among the stars. Story #3, Earthman Come Home, is the first (and best) of the tales to have been written. It's the saga of the city of New York, an "okie" city travelling the stars and looking for work. Mayor John Amalfi and City Manager Mark Hazelton guide the city through a series of adventures culminating in a... well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?The Triumph of Time closes out the volume. Mayor Amalfi comes out of retirement to face a final challenge, one that will have significance for the entire universe. It was the least satisfying of the four stories. Overall, the book is good, classic science fiction. The concept of space faring cities is intriguing, though it failed to truly grab hold of my imagination. But it was enough to carry me through dozens of lunch breaks, so I can't really complain.--J.
I was givin this book by my mentor 35 years ago and I have read the book 6 times and am going to buy a e copy to read again. the collection of books that make this book up are perfectly able to unfold the story to the reader so that when the book is coming to the end I start to delay reading it as the charicters have become close friends of mine.
A truly brilliant saga. I was recently reminded of this and his "Welcome to Mars" by the tone and style of a wonderful new story ("Island Mine" available free at the finestories web site). I was glad to find that "Cities in Flight" is now available in ebook form and look forward to reading it again. I just hope that "Welcome to Mars" will be reissued as an ebook also. :-)
This is one of the best science fiction books out there. It's original, a golden tale. Blish's imagination captures you, the minute you pick it up, your flying through space at impossible speeds. Highly recommend it! Highly.