Thursday, February 15, 2007

Reading into things

A lot of people seem to use their blogs to review books/films/tv shows/video games/restaurants/foods/drinks/whatever and I've decided to join in by reviewing (or at least briefly commenting on) the book I finished reading last night. It was Cities in Flight by James Blish. This book is actually a collection of four Blish novels following man's expansion from being bound to our solar system to having a galactic civilisation, and it spans an approximately 2000 year period of future history from around the present day to about 4104. The books weren't quite written in their internal chronologies' order, with book two being written first, followed by book one, and then three and four. I may give some spoilers here, but I'll try not to give away anything major.

Firstly I should say that I did enjoy this book, but it's definitely a book of two halves (I know I already said it's made up of four books, so in reality it's a book of four quarters). The first novel follows the development of the technology that allows humans to eventually begin flights to other stars i.e. faster-than-light (FTL in sci-fi speak) drives - called spin-dizzies - and what Blish calls antiagathics, or drugs that prolong human life almost unlimitedly. This book only covers a short time-span of a few years and holds together very well, with enough characterisation for you to appreciate the main characters and a really well developed plot that stays interesting throughout. The second novel jumps forward about a thousand years and we get to hear about the cities in flight of the title. Many worlds have been colonised in a first wave of expansion after the invention of the spin-dizzies, however things on Earth are fairly bleak. The spin-dizzies enable entire cities to lift themselves off Earth and fly about the galaxies to look for work on colony worlds. We hear of one city and a boy press-ganged onto it as it takes flight to find work. This story also takes place over a relatively short period of time and concentrates on this boy as the main character as he experiences first the harsh life aboard the city he was press-ganged onto, and then the completely different experience of being on New York - which had taken flight many years before and was well used to the wandering lifestyle. Again it all hangs together well and is a very compelling story which makes you want to hear more about the characters.

Things start to go a bit wrong in the third book. This is set a few hundred years after the previous novel and now concentrates on the travels of New York in its searches for work, with the major player being its Mayor Amalfi. The main problem with this book is that it spans several hundred years, which leads to the reader feeling that there are quite large inconsistencies in the time frame. This is because the characters don't seem to evolve as you'd expect that they would over such a period of time - this is on purpose, I expect, because the characters have such long lifespans (due to the antiagathics) that it's natural that things take such a long time to unfold. Unfortunately Blish a) doesn't really give the reader a consistent grasp of the time frame, so things seem to happen at very weird rates and b) the characters start to grate on you a bit. You just feel that you're missing something. This feeling caries on into the fourth and final novel, which mainly however grates because of the very weird physics it invokes (I know that FTL travel is weird physics, but it's a mainstay of much sci-fi)!

So basically I'd say that the first two novels are very good reads. The second two are ok, but just seem poor after what's preceded them. You basically end up wishing that Blish had carried on in the same vein, with maybe some of the characters, as the first two novels. If you've read the book and think that I'm completely wrong (or right) then let me know.

You can now look forward to my next review. I'll be reading Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson which is pretty thick, so it may take a while to get through. I hope it's on a par with Cryptonomicon which was very good.