Much of the material making up Cities in Flight was published in other forms between 1950 and 1962 and in a different order from that presented in the completed tetralogy. The core of the story idea was published in a series of novelettes—“Okie” (1950), “Bindlestiff” (1950), “Sargasso of Lost Cities” (1953), and “Earthman Come Home” (1953)—which were revised and combined into Earthman, Come Home, the third novel in the chronological sequence. They Shall Have Stars, the first novel in the sequence, was formed by combining the novelettes “Bridge” (1952) and “At Death’s End” (1954). The second novel in the sequence, A Life for the Stars, was published as juvenile science fiction fours years after the fourth, The Triumph of Time.
The overarching conception melding these disparately written pieces into a single volume is James Blish’s elaboration of a complete future history that begins in the early twenty-first century, as the United States and the Soviet Union are about to merge into a single bureaucratic state. Blish conceives of a new galactic Earthmanist culture—a version of Western culture—formed on the basis of antigravity screens (spindizzies) that allow entire cities to take flight and anti-agathics (antideath drugs) that allow the long lifetimes required for interstellar flight.
Earth dominates the galaxy after the defeat of the previous hegemony, the Vegan tyranny, a vaguely defined humanoid/alien civilization. The galaxy is “pollinated” by Earth cities, which function as itinerant industrial bases (Okies) and are policed by the Earth “cops,” who exist in creative tension with the Okies. A basic plot idea throughout the series is that some cities are good citizens, such as New York City, the “protagonist” city of the series. Others have become rogues, or “bindlestiffs.” The worst of these, the legendary Interstellar Master Traders (IMT), have slaughtered an entire planet. As background to the narrative, Earth culture decays as Earth’s growing bureaucracy and fear of the Okies destroys the galactic economy. As time itself draws to an end, in the fortieth century, a new alien civilization, the Web of Hercules, rises to power.
They Shall Have Stars...
(The entire section is 938 words.)