Thursday, 31 March 2011

Lewes Book Bargains: James Blish, Cities in Flight Novels, Faber, 1965

Every now and again the charity shops of Lewes (the East Sussex town in which I live and work) really come up trumps. Don't get me wrong: there are always intriguing or interesting secondhand books turning up on their shelves – this first edition of Daphne du Maurier's Not After Midnight, for example, or this 1976 edition of P. D. James's Cover Her Face – but it's rare to come across something truly special (such as this first of Jackie Collins's debut). Earlier this year, however, the Lewes branch of Oxfam took possession of a fab collection of science fiction and fantasy books, mostly paperbacks from the '70s – I nabbed a huge stack of Michael Moorcock novels, which I'll be blogging about fairly soon – but also three splendid hardbacks, which I bought for a couple of quid apiece:


These are the UK Faber & Faber hardback editions of James Blish's They Shall Have Stars, Earthman, Come Home and A Clash of Cymbals, which, together with A Life for the Stars, form the Cities in Flight sequence. Spanning 2,000 years altogether, in its vast scope Cities in Flight takes in anti-aging drugs, gravity manipulation, spacebound cities and mining towns ("Okies"), alien attack and a matter-antimatter collision. So, y'know: there's a lot going on in it (innit).

These three particular editions are interesting for what they're not, i.e. first editions. They Shall Have Stars was first published by Faber in the UK in 1956; Earthman, Come Home in the same year (1955 in the US, I believe), and A Clash of Cymbals in 1959 (1958 in the US, under the original title The Triumph of Time). The editions you can see above, however, are all second impressions, and were all published as smallish (or "DuoDecimo" – or "12mo" – for the bibliophiles – or "nerds" – among us) hardbacks in 1965 under redesigned, photographic, thematically linked dustjackets (the original jackets all sported illustrations).


They're not terribly common in this edition/impression, so they were quite a nice find. Unfortunately none of them have cover design credits, so, despite much googling, I still have no idea who designed the dustjackets. But each of the books does have an Author's Note at the start – written specially for these second impressions – wherein Blish explains the publishing history of the stories. According to the Author's Note in They Shall Have Stars: 

The writing of Cities of Flight occupied me, off and on, from 1948 to 1962, and like many such long projects wasn't orderly at all, and was further complicated by the publishing history.... Briefly, however, the third volume, Earthman, Come Home, was written first, and was followed by the first volume—this one—to provide a "prequel." Then I wrote the ending, A Clash of Cymbals, and backtracked to the second volume, A Life for the Stars. Thus the novel as a whole contains some reminders of preceding events which economy would say it does not now need. But then, so does The Ring of the Nibelung, for similar reasons though to far nobler effect.

In the Author's Note in Earthman, Come Home (the third volume in the series), Blish reveals:  

The germ of Cities in Flight was a sketch for the last two chapters of this volume, in which—hindsight shows with its usual clarity—I set out to throw away an idea of Wagnerian proportions within the compass of 10,000 words. The alert magazine editor to whom EARTHMAN, COME HOME is dedicated refused to let me be so foolish. He rejected the story with a four-page, single-spaced letter in which he pointed out in detail the many questions I had failed to ask myself—thus involving me in a project which took me fifteen years to realize properly.

Blish goes on to note that Earthman, Come Home "shows my Okie cities at the height of their role" in Cities in Flight; that "how they got there is the subject of the two preceding volumes"; and that "the final volume... shows what use they made of their ultimate freedom". The Author's Note in that final volume, A Clash of Cymbals, details the book's changing title (apparently The Triumph of Time resembled the title of another Faber SF novel a little too closely), before ruminating on the nature of mortality: 

How would people react if they knew, with absolute certainty, the exact moment when they would die? I had already put my very long-lived characters through nearly every other possible test; this one, it seemed to me, would reveal each one of them at last in his essential nakedness. And, cruelly but inevitably, there would be young people too who would have to face the question.

Blish also states that "this is the only part of Cities in Flight (except for about a third of the first volume) that never appeared in a magazine; its U.S. book publisher got it into print too quickly to permit its serialization", before closing with: "Here, then, is how the cities passed. I shall miss them." Of course, as Oxfam Lewes only had three of the four Cities in Flight novels, that leaves one volume unexamined... or at least it would, if I hadn't subsequently bought this on Amazon Marketplace dead cheap:


The second volume in the series, A Life for the Stars. But as you can see by the dustjacket – illustrated by Robert MacLean – the design of the book is markedly different to the other three. A Life for the Stars was, you'll recall, the last novel in the Cities in Flight series to be written, although chronologically it is, as I say, the second. Which means it was only published by Faber in 1964 – so I'm guessing that the other three volumes were reissued by Faber in 1965 to capitalize on this new entry. It doesn't appear, however, as if Faber ever issued an edition in the same style as the 1965 ones; there was a second impression of A Life for the Stars in 1966, and the copy you can see above is the 1971 third impression – and ex-library too (from Skelmersdale Library in Lancashire, no less):


But insofar as I can tell, it had the same Robert MacLean jacket through each of those printings. So my little collection of Faber 1965 photographic jacket reissues of Blish's Cities in Flight can never be completed, because the second volume was never given that design. (And what's more, my copy of A Life for the Stars is a good half an inch taller than the other three books. How very annoying.) If anyone knows any different – or indeed if anyone knows who designed the jackets for the Faber '65 printings – the comments section awaits.

Now then. What shall we have next? How about... a Lewes Bookshop Bargain...?

2 comments:

  1. Oooh... are the Moorcocks the Mayflower editions with the bonkers Bob Haberfield covers?

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