Book Review: They Shall Have Stars (Variant title: Year 2018!), James Blish (1956)

3.75/5 (Good)

They Shall Have Stars (1956) is the first of James Blish’s famous Cities in Flight novels (note: the series was not released according to its internal chronology — the third volume, Earthman Come Home was published first in 1955).

They Shall Have Stars is an intriguing early hard science fiction work which takes place in a somewhat well-realized future Earth society.  It suffers from pseudo-science babble bombardment (PSBB) — the weird 1950s dated grade school chemistry lecture sort of pseudo-science.

For example…

(invented molecule diagram)

“On Earth, such a compound, had it occurred at all, might had grown porous, hard, and as strong as rhinoceros-horn.  Here, under nearly three times Earth’s gravity, the molecules were forced to assemble in strict aliphatic order, but in cross section their arrangement was hexagonal, as though the stuff would become an aromatic compound if only it could.”

I’ve always been somewhat frustrated with hard sci-fi in general so many readers who want to read some early exemplars of the subgenre might have an entirely positive reaction to his chemistry lectures.  Blish was trained as a biologist at Rutgers and Colombia University and was a science editor for Pfizer pharmaceutical company so these sorts of digressions are second nature…

Plot Summary

The plot is off the wall bizarre until about two thirds of the way through when the standard elements of 1950s sci-fi are introduced.  The West has devolved into a Soviet sort of state with extreme censorship.  Scientists, because all their experiments are classified, are prevented from dialogue and competition with one another resulting in scientific stagnation.  A senator, Bliss Wagoner, realizes this and funds “crackpot” scientists in an effort to create some radical new inventions.

Since science has suffered so horribly under the Western government religious movements are flourishing.  Some of Bliss best world building scenes involve the techniques the Believers use to “convert” people passing by.

“As the Caddy pulled up for the second time, a nozzle was thrust into the rear window and a stream of iridescent bubbles poured across the back seat directly under Paige’s and Anne’s noses.  As each bubble burst, there was a wave of perfume — evidently it was the “Celestial Joy” the Believers were using this year…”

Seemingly tangential to what is happening on Earth is the construction of a gigantic ice bridge on Jupiter built by men and women who use remote control vehicles from outposts on Jupiter’s moons.  Since they live under harsh conditions they’ve been “conditioned” by the government to cope.  The slow realization of the purpose of the ice bridge is the main thrust of the plot.

The main character is Paige, a spaceman, sent to find extraterrestrial soul samples for a medical company.  Delivering his samples he gets involved romatically with the receptionist (and daughter of the chief scientist of the firm) who reveals too much about the company’s activities.  Eventually the two main narratives intertwine.

Final Thoughts

This is a worthwhile early hard sci-fi novel with some genuinely well-written passages.  Blish is consciously attempting to move away from pulp science fiction — most explicitly with a main female character who is definitely intelligent and average looking (Blish repeats, in often frustratingly “1950s crude” language, how normal she looks).  At least our main character seems to genuinely fall in love with her.

The plot is rather minimal, the ice bridge on Jupiter concept absolutely outlandish, and the mini-chemistry lectures annoying.  That aside, Blish has some fascinating ideas and offers a somewhat new take on some central 1950s sci-fi cold war related themes.  Recommended.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: They Shall Have Stars (Variant title: Year 2018!), James Blish (1956)”

  1. Have you read the rest of Cities in Flight? I have the recent-ish Gollancz Masterworks edition; keep meaning to read it, but then the TBR *is* rather huge. It does sound interesting to me, but… there’s a lot of it.

    Anyway, main question is – should I stick to the chronology of publication, or read them according to the internal chronology of the series?

  2. I’ve not read the other Cities in Flight novels. Hence, I’ve decided to read them according to the internal chronology. Each book is seldom over 150 pages so it’s not time THAT big of an investment to read.

  3. As you could tell from my review, I was somewhat ambivalent towards this installment — it has moments of brilliance before slipping into boring chemistry lecture mode…

    I hope the series improves… And, I think two of the installations are short story collections — which are usually quick reads.

    I’d read The Seedling Stars — I wrote a review if you’re curious. It has some really good stories.

    https://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2010/08/04/a-book-review-the-seedling-stars-james-blish-1957/

  4. I just finished this novel and echo your sentiments. Indeed Blish was trying to write more than pulp sci-fi. Ironically, this may be what has caused him to fade with time while other writers like Asimov and Heinlein continue to receive attention…

    1. I read it so long ago…. But yes, I seem to have enjoyed this one so much more than the later volumes. The later (as in internal chronology) are much more pulp/silly.

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