Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sunday Classic -Cities In Flight Mega-Dungeons In Space

Through out college most of my players & people I played with were into a series usually fantasy or Dragonlance or whatever. I remember walking back to class & they were having a book sale for the library at the time.
 I found some Arthur C. Clark & this book by James Blish.
This book was actually a collection of the Cities In Flight book put out in 1970 which is the same year that I was born. I devoured this book!
Here's the concept from Wiki : 

Cities in Flight

Perhaps Blish's most famous works were the "Okies" stories, known collectively as Cities in Flight, published in the science-fiction digest magazine Astounding Science Fiction. The framework for these was set in the first of four novels, They Shall Have Stars (first UK publication under the alternative title of Year 2018!), which introduces two essential features of the series. The first is the invention of the anti-aging drug ascomycin; Blish's employer Pfizer makes a thinly disguised appearance as Pfitzner in a section showing the screening of biological samples for interesting activity. (Pfizer also appears in disguise as one of the sponsors of the polar expedition in a subsequent book, Fallen Star). The second is the development of an antigravity device known as the "spindizzy". Since the device becomes more efficient when used to propel larger objects, entire cities leave an Earth in decline and rove the stars, looking for work among less-industrialized systems. The long life provided by ascomycin is necessary because the journeys between stars are time-consuming.
They Shall Have Stars is dystopian science fiction of a type common in the era of McCarthyism. The second, A Life For The Stars, is acoming of age story set amid flying cities. The third, Earthman, Come Home, is a series of loosely connected short stories detailing the adventures of a flying New York City; the title piece was selected as one of the best novellas prior to 1965 by the Science Fiction Writers of America and included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two.
For his fourth and final installment, The Triumph of Time (UK title: A Clash of Cymbals), Blish set the end of his literature's universe in AD 4004.[3] (The chronology in early editions of They Shall Have Stars differed somewhat from the later reprints, indicating that Blish, or his editors, may not have planned this at the beginning of the series.) A film version of Cities in Flight was in pre-production by Spacefilms in 1979, but never materialized.[4]

Now at the time I was playing & Dungeon Mastering a hell of a lot of Vampire, Werewolf, & Mage. Here was a series of books about the major cities of the world taking flight to the stars! 
Then White Wolf Games came out with this :
I used this system with the Cities In Flight background for three years & took my players to the stars. See there were no "aliens" in Cities In Flight unless you count the Vegans who never made an appearance in the books.
They were long since dead & only their ruins remain in my universe

It is important to note that cities in flight is not within the public domain & this done as a fan campaign because almost none of my players had even heard of the books. 
Recently I've found my notes on this campaign. 
Three things jumped out at me. 
Blish used in his stories the idea of technology in three phases. Discovery, consequences, & absorption into society. From Wiki:

The Haertel Scholium

This term describes the background of a number of Blish's short-story science fiction. Three distinct technologies, their invention, and consequences are outlined. There is a modicum of overlap between The Cities in Flight saga and that of The Seedling Stars, mainly through one piece of technology : The Dirac Radio. Another unifying concept is the first trans-luminal drive — The Haertel Overdrive.
Adolph (Dolph) Haertel developed the drive in order to reach Mars rapidly (Welcome to Mars!). Haertel Cosmology, the result of Haertel's science, in Blish's words, "swallowed Einstein the way Einstein swallowed Newton — that is to say, alive." Haertel goes on to develop the drive to allow the entry of men into interstellar space. The DFC-3, piloted by Garrard, reaches Alpha Centauri, where extraterrestrial first contact is made with the Clinesterton Beademung (Short Story: "Common Time"). The Drive at this stage is not well developed, and initially suffers from dramatic chrono-swings from almost complete time-freeze to the hyper-time of pseudo-death. With refinement, the drive becomes a valid method of interstellar travel, though not without mishap and adventure as other forms of travel are tried, such as the near-useless (though fascinating and instructive for the quantum physicist) Arpe Drive ("Nor Iron Bars").
Refinement of the drive allows the exploration of the near-stars, as well as the Coal-Sack Nebula, wherein the beings known as Angels are first encountered by the hero Jack Loftus, Sylvia McCrary and Dr. Challenger, as well as a long lived and powerful civilization, the Hegemony of Malis (The Star Dwellers). Ultimately deduction, and a first hand experience of a planet deliberately maintained in a state of genocidal savagery ("A Dusk of Idols"), coupled with expert reasoning reveals that the Hegemony is malignant, and Humanity rebels. Journey to the Heart Stars reveals the true nature of the Hegemony, and with the help of a stowaway Angel, Hesperus, humanity is freed of its bondage, and made companions of the Angels.
The stories considered part of the Haertel Scholium include A Case of Conscience, and the Pantropy series (see below). Both are anomalous in that they do not appear to have the Dirac Radio, though it is plausible to assume that A Case of Conscience takes place before the development of the Dirac.
A unifying force of galactic civilization is the Dirac Radio, developed by Dr. Thor Wald. This radio is able to permit faster-than-light radio transmission. It has an additional and unsettling ability — within every transmission, is the sum total of all transmissions from the device, throughout all of time and space. The Department of Intelligence, headed by Captain Robert Weinbaum, and aided by the beautiful video reporter Dana Lje, make this shattering discovery. Three hundred years later, the "Service" is the dominant government of the Galaxy, and Dirac is the center of their power, with a network built from Haertel Overdrive spacelanes. ("Beep").
4000 years in the future, Human civilization has met its first full antagonist — the Green Exarchy. A system of many civilizations ruled by a non-human emperor, the Green Exarch, this represents a significant threat to High Earth. The Green Exarch has at his employ the extremely dangerous shapeshifting (protean) agents known as Vombis, who will appear human, but do not revert to their true shape when killed, giving them an air of great mystery and menace.
The Haertel Overdrive is now called the Imaginary Drive, and the Dirac is still in common use. High Earth remains the center of Human civilization. That civilization is remarkably advanced — for all practical intents, humans are now immortal. A memory cleanse known as Baptism permits those filled with ennui to begin lives anew, though there are side effects from subconscious recall. A quasi-religious group known as Sagittarians also play a part. The most important financial force in the empire of High Earth is the Traitor's Guild, who permit money to flow from system to system in reward of treachery to system governments, producing a Feudatory system between worlds, though not at the expense of internal stability. Traitors skillfully employ advanced biotechnology to further their aims, and are known to employ fungal cytotoxins, DNA reverse transcription mutation agents (to inject false memories and appearances in order to forestall recognition and testimony during interrogations), as well as technology to petrify dead bodies in order to make up wall fortifications in far offworld planets. The Traitors Guild may be found on all planets (A Traitor of Quality, Section in The Quincunx of Time with a lecture about the Traitor's Guild, andThe Green Exarchy).
5000 years later still, Human civilization has gone through many Rebirths, or Renaissances. The chance infusion of a mentality from 1949 through a freak combination of the active mode of the Dirac within a Radio Telescope results in the formation, after many adventures and an ultimate resurgence of Man, the Quint, the Autarch of Rebirth V. A computer of this far future time uses the Dirac as both a means of communication and infinite memory storage (Midsummer Century). Its existence was foretold at the time of Capt. Weinbaum, though no-one could interpret its messages then (The Quincunx of Time, novella expansion of "Beep").
2.  The plot device of the spindizzy is fantastic & allows one to create all sorts of ruined space cities based on "real world" places. Imagine slogging through the sewers of a ruined Tokyo as giant alien space slugs hunt the characters.  The party scavenging over a dead space city circling a dead star in decaying orbit. The party racing to  get the spindizzy started as the crushing gravity of a gas giant is about to turn them & the party to paste. What is a spindizzy? 
From Wiki : 
The Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator, known colloquially as the spindizzy is a fictitious anti-gravity device imagined byJames Blish for his series Cities in Flight. This device grows more efficient with the amount of mass being lifted, which was used as the hook for the stories—it was more effective to lift entire cities than it was something smaller, such as a classic spaceship. This is taken to extremes in the final stories, in which an entire planet is used to cross the galaxy in a matter of hours using the spindizzy drive.
According to the stories, the spindizzy is based on principles contained in an equation coined by P.M.S. Blackett, a British physicist of the mid-20th century. Several other Blish stories involving novel space drives contain the same assertion. Blackett's original formula was an attempt to correlate the known magnetic fields of large rotating bodies, such as the Sun, Earth, and a star in Cygnus whose field had been measured indirectly.[1] It was unusual in that it brought Isaac Newton's gravitational constant and Coulomb's constant together, the one governing forces between masses, the other governing forces between electric charges. However it was later disproved by more accurate measurements, not to mention new discoveries such as magnetic field reversals on Earth and the Sun, and the lack of a field on bodies such as Mars, despite its rotation being similar to Earth's.
Blish's extrapolation was that if rotation + mass produces magnetism via gravity, then rotation + magnetism could produce anti-gravity. The field created by a spindizzy is described as altering the magnetic moment of any atom within its influence.
The spindizzy was also used in at least two novels by Jesse Franklin Bone, The Lani People and Confederation Matador and appears as the nickname for fictional Heim Theory devices in Ken Macleod's The Execution Channel.
3. I did a huge number of conversations over to the storyteller system: There are notes about alien creatures from Talislanta , devices from The Buck Rogers rpg, the early Star Trek ships from the Space Seed episode, & all kinds of stuff that seems very much like an OSR effort today.
I certainly was an opinionated asshole back then as well. The random encounters tables were brutal. Yes a random encounter table in a storyteller game! 
Random Okies Encounter Table Roll 1d10 
  1. Earth Cop's Ship armed to the teeth. They wish to "talk"! Open -Dirac communication channel.. Now 
  2. City in desperate need of supplies. See supply matrix 
  3. Bindlestiff city armed with Bethe Blasters 
  4. Ore Traders turning pirate on the attack 
  5. Religious traders roll for zealot or pacifists
  6. Alien Artifact see table 
  7. Another city willing to trade citizens 20% bandlestiff city looking to sucker punch your city 
  8. Garden city willing to trade food stuffs 
  9. Earth Cops looking for an easy mark. Armed & waiting near the cornea of a sun! 
  10. Gas Giant for mining! Lots of life forms
One advantage of the cities citizens was they were immortal. This allowed me to "reward" a player with a family at the end of a campaign. We were able to use a  variation of the Pendragon generation idea where players could expand their character's holdings with family. The city fathers would grant a permit for this. City Fathers, which are supercomputers who regulate the day-to-day life of the flying city.

There are several ideas which I might be using for my Human Space Empire campaign rather soon. The idea of exploring a mega dungeon in space has great appeal to me. Ruined floating wrecked cities have a charm all of their own.
A brief overview from Wiki on the series : 
Cities in Flight is an omnibus volume of four novels written by James Blish, originally published between 1955 and 1962, which became known over time collectively as the 'Okie' novels. The novels feature entire cities that are able to fly through space using an anti-gravity device, the spindizzy. They cover a span of time of many hundred years, from a very near future to the end of the universe. 'Earthman, Come Home' was a winner of a Retro Hugo Award in 2004 for Best Novelette.[1]

The Cities in Flight Novels

They Shall Have Stars

They Shall Have Stars (1956) (also published under the title Year 2018!) describes the political and social conditions in the near future when several major technologies are developed which change society radically. These are 'anti-agathic' drugs, which defer or prevent aging, and the development of gravity manipulation, which leads to 'faster-than-light' spaceship drives. During this period the Western democratic government model becomes ever more intolerant, eventually resembling the Soviet model very closely. A principal protagonist of this book, Alaska's US Senator Bliss Wagoner, is eventually executed by an oppressive regime, but not before he has made the technologies which allow mankind to escape their home planet available to all. The book is notable for the detailed way in which it handles technology, providing a mathematical explanation of the principles behind the anti-gravity drive, and illustrations of chemical bonding for reactions in the Ice IV material which is used to build a fixed point 'bridge' on the surface of Jupiter during the drive testing. Politically, the book clearly expresses a strong opposition to McCarthyism, at its peak during the time of writing.
Reviewing a later edition, the Hartford Courant described the novel as "a skillful mixture of human reality and technological fantasy."[2]

[edit]A Life for the Stars

A Life for the Stars (1962) describes the adventures of a young farm boy Chris, co-opted into an Earth city (Scranton, Pennsylvania) which has begun travelling in space. The development of the anti-gravity (spindizzy) drives has now enabled very large objects to be enclosed and moved using gravity manipulation. Thus, for instance, mining factories together with associated towns can be moved to bodies of ore, not only on Earth but also amongst the planets in local space. Many of these 'Okie' cities are rejecting Earth jurisdiction, making interstellar journeys, and operating a trading economy out of reach of the Earth authorities. After many adventures Chris eventually becomes a resident of New York, now a major 'Okie' city under its charismatic mayor John Amalfi, being elevated to the newly-created position of city manager due to having a unique, problem-solving skill-set identified by the City Fathers, which are supercomputers who regulate the day-to-day life of the flying city.

[edit]Earthman, Come Home

Earthman, Come Home (1955, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York) is the longest book in the series, describing the many adventures of New York under Amalfi, culminating in the installation of a spindizzy drive system on a planet and its use to defend the Earth against an attack from an alien culture living around the Vega star system. Eventually New York is installed on this planet, which is projected out of the Milky Way galaxy towards the Greater Magellanic Cloud, where it encounters a gang of renegade traders who have enslaved the local population. Reviewer Groff Conklin praised it as "a real, honest, pure, gee-whiz space opera."[3]

[edit]A Clash of Cymbals/The Triumph of Time

A Clash of Cymbals (published in the US as The Triumph of Time) (1959) follows the passage of Amalfi and the 'New Earth' planet undertaking the first ever inter-galactic transit. In the less relativistically-distorted space between the two galaxies evidence of a collision between two universes is detected, a matter-anti-matter collision which reveals the cyclic nature of reality. An alien culture is also investigating this phenomenon, which will shortly accelerate to engulf all galactic space, in other words, the universe will end in a big crunch/big bang. It will be possible to modify the future development of the universes which will emerge from this singularity, and Amalfi directs the 'New Earth' residents to compete with the alien culture (the Web of Hercules) in order to prevent their manipulation of the future of the universe.
As with the other books, a detailed description of the technologies used is provided, including cosmological calculus. While there are some continuity slips, the series presents a unified story of humanity's expansion across the galaxy, and the birth of a new universe.

Personally I think that these novels would make a perfect backdrop for a game such as Star Frontiers, Human Space Empires, or Stars Without Number 


  1. The film Dark City is a city in space as well (though I guess that's a spoiler).

  2. Cities in Flight is an amazing concept. The unifying thread used to link the various stories is a little clumsy and parts are hit and miss, but it's really a compelling universe.

  3. I love Dark City Trey one of my absolute favorites which gives me an idea. Thanks for the comment & the idea! Stay Tune more to come!

  4. Cities in Flight is an amazing concept but you are right, its hit & miss in places. The totality of the universe is amazing. The series presents an awesome universe. Pick your favorite city & go from there! We used Singapore!

  5. Thanks for the comment Doomed! Stay tuned please!


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