Book Review: A Life for the Stars, James Blish (1962)

3.25/5 (Good)

A Life for the Stars is the second novel according to internal chronology in James Blish’s famous Cities in Flight series.  Unlike the much more serious first installment, They Shall Have Stars (1956), A Life for the Stars is generally regarded as a juvenile work (i.e. science fiction for a younger audience containing a positive moral message, an intelligent but poor teen boy struggling against all odds, etc).

The serious hard sci-fi edge which I found so appealing in They Shall Have Stars is replaced with a delightfully hokey premise accompanied by a genuine sense of wonder (only if you refrain from constantly laughing at the premise), and surprisingly little political moralizing which often plagues 50s and 60s juveniles.  I found this superior to Blish’s earlier juvenile, The Star Dwellers (1961).

And really, who can resist nomadic space-faring Earth cities heading for the allures of distant planets!?!

A solid juvie.  Although not as good as Heinlein’s Starman Jones (1953), Farmer in the Sky (1950), or Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) it’s worth reading for fans of this sci-fi “sub-genre”…

Brief Plot Summary

Future Earth — depopulated, economically depressed, poverty stricken, politically repressive — is covered with the shells of once thriving great cities.  Our young hero, Chris, lives near Scranton PN, once a mining hub.  Chris is an intelligent yet poor boy whose father, a onetime professor when universities still existed, teaches him everything his knows.

The previous installment of the series, They Shall Have Stars, concerned the development of two technologies — the spindizzies ( intersteller drives) and a life prolonging serum.

Scranton, and many other cities around the world, installs a spindizzie drive to transport the city to greener pastures in the reaches of spaces.   The inhabitants of the spacefaring cities are called Okies (i.e. historical migrations to Oklahoma, etc).

While Chris and his dog are watching Scranton prepare for departure he falls afoul of an impressment gang who kill his dog and take him onboard the departing city.  Scranton is ruled with an iron fist by the city manager who decides to find a planet to start a mining operation.

With little chance to rise in the ranks or get an education, Chris leaves Scranton for the spacefaring New York which they encounter on the way.  In New York Chris receives an education and decides to receive citizenship.  Unlike Scranton, New York is controlled by the mechanical “Founding Fathers” and the mayor Amalfi.

The “tension” arises when New York encounters Scranton on a distant planet violating its terms of settlement and mining rights.  It’s up to New York to set things aright by kicking Scranton out and for Chris to save the day!

Final Thoughts

The novel’s final dismount is tensionless and hasty even by juvenile standards.  However, the lead-up is on the whole quite enjoyable.  Yes, the premise is outrageously silly but the message is a positive one — despite having a lack of structured education, Chris is able to rigorously apply himself and eventually succeed.

The concept of mankind vacating one’s planet is powerful and alluring.  But, I couldn’t stop laughing because the question of food production for an entire city while in deep space is never mentioned.  Generally, Blish refrains from discussing technology…  And for good reason, the premise is outrageous!

An enjoyable, fast, read…  If only I read it when I was 11!

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: A Life for the Stars, James Blish (1962)

  1. “A Life for the Stars” is Blish’s most successful juvenile novel, a genre he pursued for several years with very middling results. (He was doing it for the money.)

    While it is the second of the four Cities in Flight novels in terms of internal chronology, it is most helpful to consider it the fourth written, and written after the series had been essentially concluded. Cities in Flight originally comprised a series of early novelettes, some pretty clunky, that were welded together into “Earthman, Come Home” (1955), and two mature SF novels, a prequel and a sequel: “They Shall Have Stars” (1956) and “The Triumph of Time” (published in UK as “A Clash of Cymbals”) (1958). “A Life for the Stars” is a nice subsequent addition, but not a crucial one.

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      I agree, A Life for the Stars is a “nice” addition but not a crucial one. I definitely would have loved it as a kid — that’s for sure.

      What is your favorite of the four Cities in Flight novels?

  2. “They Shall Have Stars” has brilliant sections–I still love “Bridge,” and wrote about it in my Introduction to the recent Blish omnibus “A Work of Art”–but the prose and characterization of “The Triumph of Time” might be stronger. Both are among Blish’s half-dozen finest novels.

    • I haven’t read “The Triumph of Time” yet. I have it in my to read pile.

      But yes, They Shall Have Stars has some brilliant sections. But, my favorite Blish has to be A Case of Conscience — predictable choice, I know. “Seeding Program” part of The Seedling Stars is probably my second favorite at this point…

    • Perhaps the legends of Philoctetes (and their component parts) have so integrated themselves into western lit that they crop up frequently… But who knows, Sophocles is widely read…

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