Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut (1979)

The most embarrassing thing to me about this autobiography, surely, is its unbroken chain of proofs that I was never a serious man. I have been in a lot of trouble over the years, but that was all accidental. Never have I risked my life, or even my comfort, in the service of mankind. Shame on me. (p.178)

This is Vonnegut’s ninth novel, published 27 years after his first, Player Piano (1952).

A hell of a lot had happened in those years – most of the 1950s, the entire 1960s and most of the 1970s – sex and drugs and rock and roll, the swinging sixties, hippies, glam rock, prog rock, punk – the Vietnam War with all its student protests segueing into the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement morphing into the Black Panthers and Black Power, the entire Space Age from Sputnik through the moon landings to the Space Shuttle, the oil crisis, Watergate and the discrediting of the American presidency.

Reading Vonnegut’s novels in sequence is like following him and his country on an enormous bender, and then waking up dazed and incredibly hungover the morning after.

A return to sobriety

That’s how reading Jailbird feels (at first, anyway). In comparison with the freaky experimentalism of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and of his most fragmented and experimental novel, Breakfast of Champions (1973) which comes complete with Vonnegut’s own illustrations – and unlike the knackered sci-fi of the dystopian novel Slapstick (1976), Jailbird seems like a return to sobriety and convention.

For example, unlike those three novels whose texts are split up into fragmented sections and paragraphs by asterisks or arrows, garnished with illustrations, packed with digressions, including the author’s speculations about his own characters – Jailbird is visually a return to convention, the prose arranged without gimmicks into consecutive paragraphs, themselves grouped into 23 normal-length chapters (unlike the page or half-page-long chapters of its predecessors). Jailbird looks like a normal book.

The long preface

And it does indeed turn out to be a much more conventional read, in tone, mood and style. This is signalled by the thirty-page preface.

Vonnegut hadn’t been shy of writing prefaces to his novels which, as the 60s turned into the 70s, had contained more and more personal, almost intimate, information (for example, about his mother’s suicide and his own depression).

In striking contrast to the ‘letting it all hang out’ approach of those introductions, the introduction to 1979’s Jailbird is strikingly serious and earnest. In tones close to that of a history book or journalistic feature, it recounts the story of the Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre, in which, in 1894, peaceful and mostly female protesters outside an iron works which had laid off their menfolk for rejecting a pay cut, were shot down by freelance ‘security men’ brought in from outside the state.

The link to the rest of the book is that one of the sons of the brutal Scottish immigrant who owned the iron works – Daniel McCone – who was, therefore, responsible for the massacre, is Alexander Hamilton McCone. Well-meaning and well educated Alexander had tried to intervene to break up the protest but is forced to watch the massacre take place, nonetheless.

This results in him withdrawing to live as a traumatised recluse cut off from society, from even his own wife and daughter, by an extreme stammer. His only company is a young boy, the son of the McCone family’s cook and chauffeur Walter F. Starbuck. In return for keeping him company, Alexander promises to send the lad to Harvard when he grows up.

And Jailbird turns out to be the story of Walter F. Starbuck’s life, as told by himself.

First person memoir

In this respect it is like the first-person memoirs which make up Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle and Slapstick. In all of these an ageing man (66 at the time of writing, p.47) looks back over his life from a current situation in which it is drawing to an end. Use of this retrospective point of view means the narrative can jump around from scene to scene, can set up expectations of the future, can signpost major incidents coming up numerous times before actually getting round to describing them.

And it leaves the narrator free to lard the text with his own comments, thoughts and interpretations, something Vonnegut was very inclined to do in those earlier books.

So this memoir or biography is being written by by Walter F. Starbuck.

Right on the first page he gives us the straightforward chronology of his life (just as he did the life of Billy Pilgrim on page one of Slaughterhouse-Five). He was born in 1913, went to Harvard in 1931, got his first government job in 1938. In 1945 he was sent to Germany ‘to oversee the feeding and housing of the American, British, French, and Russian delegations to the War Crimes Trials’ (p.51) and ends up spending four years in Germany.

In 1946 he married a Jewish translator he met in Germany and quickly had a son from whom he is estranged. In 1953 he was sacked from the federal government and ended up helping his wife with her interior decoration company throughout the 1960s. In 1970 he was offered a job in the Nixon White House, and in 1975 tried and convicted of involvement in the Watergate conspiracies, followed by early release from prison in 1977.

Somewhere in the blurbs for the book it says that this is Vonnegut’s Watergate novel but that is wildly misleading. That makes you think you’re going to be taken into the labyrinthine complexities of the Watergate conspiracies, meet the various bad guys in the Nixon administration, maybe there will be some thriller-style suspense and uncovering of new evidence.

Imagine how thrilling and exciting a write like Robert Harris would make a thriller about Watergate.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Jailbird is neither thrilling nor exciting, it is weird and – the temptation is to say ‘surreal’, but really it is nonsensical in the Edward Lear sense of putting nonsensical, non-sequitur and bizarre ideas together to see what effect they give.

RAMJAC Corps

Thus throughout the book we keep hearing that almost any company you can think of is being bought up by the huge and anonymous RAMJAC Corporation. It is only at the end of the book that we realise RAMJAC is run by one of Starbuck’s old girlfriends, in fact one of the only four women he’s ever loved, Mary Kathleen O’Looney. She lives as a bag lady on the streets of New York, wearing enormous black trainers in which she keeps all her legal documentation, and carrying six stuffed filthy bags around. She stinks, her hair is falling out and she is physically disgusting as Starbuck discovers the day after he is released from prison and a friend hails him in the street.

O’Looney hears his name, grabs hold of his hand, refuses to let go, and takes him down into her secret hideaway in a disused train station beneath Manhattan (to be precise, an abandoned locomotive repair shop beneath Grand Central Station). She reveals that she is the CEO of RAMJAC Corp and sends instructions by mail to the lawyer who administers her wishes under the pseudonym of Mrs Jack Graham. These are verified by including fingerprints of all her fingers and thumbs. This means that criminals who have learned about this system, try to kidnap her and cut off her hands in order to use the fingerprints to steal her money. This is not as paranoid as it sounds: one time she was staying in a hotel suite in Nicaragua waited on only by Mormons, the only people she trusts. She met a woman whose husband had just died of amoebic dysentry and put her up in her rooms, while she (Mary) went to make arrangements to ship the body home.

When she came back the Mormon had been murdered – and both her hands cut off and stolen (p.217).

In the couple of days after being released from prison Starbuck receives kindly treatment from a number of people – a prison guard, the chauffeur who brings him into Manhattan, a waiter at a restaurant, the owner of a deep fat frying joint, and so on.

Chatting to the disgusting, half-bald, filthy O’Looney he mentions their names only to have her straightaway write a letter to her executive lawyer, Arpad Leen, instructing that these eight people (including Starbuck himself) be immediately made Vice Presidents of various divisions of RAMJAC Corps, and that’s how the book ends, with a party attended by this random selection of eight guys who now find themselves executives in a massive American corporation.

Starbuck himself ends up as Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, along with Clyde Carter the prison guard, Cleveland Lawes the limousine driver, Dr Israel Edel the night clerk at the Arapahoe Hotel, Frank Ubriaco owner of the Coffee Shop who once deep-fat-fried his own hand when his expensive watch fell off into the fryer and on impulse he reached in to get it – all Vice presidents of one bit or another of the multinational corporation.

Hopefully, this summary of the RAMJAC/O’Looney thread of the novel shows you that this is not a book about Watergate, nor a thriller, nor really a conventional novel at all.

Satire or ridicule?

And it’s not really a satire on corporate America. A satire usually aims to undermine its target by making accurate, insightful hits on it. Inventing the idea that the most powerful corporation in America is run by a baglady hiding out in a derelict station under Manhattan isn’t really satirising corporate America, it is ridiculing it. This book – maybe all Vonnegut’s books – are less satires than ridicules.

In his view the whole world is so absurd and nonsensical that ridiculing it is the only rational response – including ridiculing the very idea of being a writer and writing novels (which is why I think I like Breakfast of Champions best of the seven novels I’ve read). There is no subtlety or insight to it.

I will say further, as an officer of an enormous international conglomerate, that nobody who is doing well in this economy ever even wonders what is really going on.
We are chimpanzees. We are orangutans. (p.123)

This is not satire. It is the despairing ridicule of a man who has given up trying to understand.

Watergate

The Watergate theme, such as it is, is limited to the following. Starbuck tells us that back in the 1950s he was called on to testify about communists in government. Before the famous House Un-American Activities Committee Starbuck lists a number of colleagues who he knows were communists in the 1930s buthave changed their views and present no threat to the American people. Among these he mistakenly includes a colleague named Leland Clewes. Clewes in fact had never been a communist and tries to clear his name.

Starbuck explains that the young assistant to Senator Joe McCarthy, one Richard Milhous Nixon, then spends two years hounding and investigating Clewes and eventually getting him convicted and sent to jail. This drew Nixon into the public eye. In a roundabout way, then, Starbuck takes the blame for having made Nixon’s career. This is why, a long time later, Starbuck finds himself offered a job at the Nixon White House. Nixon one day remembered his name, asked his aides what Starbuck was doing, wondered if he’d accept a lowly job.

This nothing job is ‘President’s special advisor on youth affairs’ (p.46). Starbuck was given a windowless room in the basement of the White House (‘a sub-basement in the Executive Office Building’), from where he churned out some 200 reports over five years about youth activities, none of which were ever read by anyone. Salary: $36,000 pa.

Starbuck’s sole connection with any of the Watergate conspiracy was twofold. Throughout his time there he could hear people stomping about upstairs. One day he coughed loudly and immediately there was a rumpus down the stairs and a couple of senior staffers burst in demanding to know whether he’d been listening in on their conversations. They then tested the soundproofing, with one of them shouting and swearing upstairs, while another one stood in Starbuck’s office until he was satisfied that even shouting didn’t travel through the floorboards and he could never have heard anything.

And then, in 1975, when police came to search the White House, some of the guilty staffers came rushing downstairs with several crates packed with cash. These were illegal donations to Nixon’s re-election campaign, which they thought they could stash in Starbuck’s out-of-the-way office. But the cops searched even down here, found it, arrested Starbuck, and that was what he was tried and convicted and sent to gaol for, conspiracy to hide, defraud, illegal contributions etc.

So you see, the book offers little or no insight into Watergate or Nixon, or the intricacies of the conspiracy (there is one scene where Starbuck attends a meeting of the entire cabinet, seated far away, the lowest of the low, and chain smoking so much that Nixon makes a joke about him – that is Starbuck’s one and only encounter and anecdote about Nixon pp.61-62. He takes the opportunity to name a number of the men around the table who would end up in prison. But it isn’t an insight or exploration or explanation of the Nixon White House. It is one joke and a list of names).

It’s more as if Starbuck is an innocent bystander, an inoffensive drone right on the periphery of the administration who gets sent to prison because the bad guys stashed some hot money in his office and he was too dutiful to reveal their names. This could have been the basis of a comedy if the rest of the book wasn’t so weird and nonsensical, and about so much else.

Ruth

For example, there is much more about is wife Ruth, her history, how they met and their life together, than there is about politics. Jewish, Ruth had been hidden for the first part of the war, but then discovered and sent to a concentration camp which she survived to be liberated by the Americans and Starbuck met her only hours after they had been requisitioned by an American army unit which needed a translator at a checkpoint. Starbuck himself requisitioned her, took her to a good hotel, fed her up, and employed her as a translator for his work with the War Trials. He takes ten or so pages to describe their work in some detail, to paint a picture of her earnest pessimism, and the determination with which she sets up an interior design company once they return to American in 1949.

Kilgore Trout

Trout was, by this stage, a well known recurrent figure in Vonnegut’s fiction, maybe his most eminent creation, having appeared in Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five. In Champions he is one of the two major protagonists and we learn a lot about his life. He is definitely a ‘real person’. So it comes as a surprise in Jailbird to learn that Trout is in fact one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves his two year sentence, in fact the only ‘lifer’ in the Federal Minimum Security Adult Correctional Facility near Finletter Air Force Base, Georgia. His real name is Dr Robert Fender and he has a doctorate is in veterinary science. While in prison, Fender also writes science fiction novels under another pseudonym, Frank X. Barlow (p.67).

I have seen the way Trout’s character changes in different novels as an example of Vonnegut’s use of ‘unreliable narrators’, but I think it’s far bigger than that. If we agree that Vonnegut’s strategy goes far beyond ‘satire’ into the realm I’ve described as ‘ridicule’, then Jailbird‘s revealing that Kilgore Trout in fact doesn’t exist, is another example of Vonnegut’s full-spectrum ridiculing of all stable and sensible ideas about fiction. It is an example of his ‘nonsense’ approach to fiction.

One strategy Vonnegut retains from earlier books, especially Breakfast of Champions, is that the narrator summarises entire novels or stories by Trout. The result is that, instead of having to read an entire trout novel, you can simply read the narrator’s one or two-page summary which are much zippier, funnier or wackier.

There are other echoes of earlier techniques as well. You know I said that Jailbird looks more conventional in the sense that the prose is arranged into consecutive paragraphs and the chapters are a sensible length (unlike all three of his previous novels). Yes, but he redeploys the catchphrase. In Slaughterhouse many paragraphs or anecdotes ended with the phrase ‘So it goes’. Here it is ‘And so on’. Similarly, it doesn’t happen often, but every now and then Vonnegut just inserts a one-word paragraph saying ‘Peace’. Just to remind us that the same wacky nonsensicalist of the earlier experimental books is still there, lurking.

And the spirit of the nonsensicalist emerges more and more as the book progresses. There is an extended description of the night in 1931 he took the ‘Yankee clock heiress’ Sarah Wyatt to dinner at the swanky Hotel Arapahoe in Manhattan. Partly because he remembers it all when, having just been released from prison in 1977, Starbuck returns to the same hotel to see it much reduced, shabby and dingy and half boarded up. In fact, the receptionist tells him, the entire area where the restaurant used to be has been converted into a porn movie cinema which specialises in gay porn, many of the movies climaxing with scenes of anal fisting, something which, unsurprisingly, shocks and horrifies the narrator (p.130).

When he expresses an opinion, Starbuck just sounds dazed at what his country has come to.

Mary Kathleen O’Looney wasn’t the only shopping-bag lady in the United States of America. There were tens of thousands of them in major cities throughout the country. Ragged regiments of them had been produced accidentally, and to imaginable purpose, by the great engine of the economy. Another part of the machine was spitting out unrepentant murderers ten years old, and dope fiends, and child batterers and many other bad things. People claimed to be investigating. Unspecified repairs were to be made at some future time. (p.151)

Sacco and Vanzetti

He’s obviously been thinking, or reading, about the celebrated case of the Italian-born American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti who were controversially convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during the April 15, 1920 armed robbery of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts. They were both executed in the electric chair just after midnight on August 23, 1927.

Vonnegut refers to them in the preface to the book, and the preface ends with a quote from Nicola Sacco writing to his 13-year-old son Dante, a quote which went on to be turned into a song, and rallying cry for the Socialist cause in America.

Help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because they are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.

Towards the end of the book, the narrative stops altogether while Vonnegut gives an extended summary of the events surrounding the supposed crimes, trial and execution of the pair. This chimes with the fact that Starbuck, although a Harvard man, was himself a student activist, and an actual member of the communist party.

This is par for the course in Vonnegut’s novels all of which contain large chunks of random subject matter thrown in from all sides. It’s part of what makes them surprisingly chewy and dense.

But it’s difficult to reconcile this apparent earnestness about Sacco and Vanzetti and the anarchist / socialist cause – the totally straight description of the 1894 Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre (fictional, although based on similar worker killings which took place around that time), and descriptions of Starbuck’s own student activism (it was while editing a communist student paper at Harvard that he first met the beautiful and idealistic Mary Kathleen O’Toole) — with the helpless nonsensicality of the main plot i.e. the way a ruined baglady turns out to be running the largest corporation in America. It doesn’t cohere. It’a as if they’re from different worlds – the serious, and the utterly nonsensical.

The nonsense is entertaining and sometimes funny but the trouble is it makes all his ‘serious’ criticisms of America or war or capitalism tremendously easy to ignore, take with a pinch of salt, and dismiss.

Epilogue

In the epilogue Starbuck describes how, soon after being made Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, he goes to see Mary Kathleen O’Looney in her secret base under grand Central Station and discovers her in a very poor way. In fact she dies in his arms. The epilogue then describes how Starbuck disposes of her body secretly and doesn’t tell anyone. RAMJAC Corporation continues for another two years before the discovery of its CEO’s demise is finally made. At which point Starbuck is taken to court once again, and convicted of not reporting her death, fraud etc.

The book ends with a party given for him by all the other vice-presidents, which has the effect of tying up any loose strands of the ‘plot’, before he is scheduled to be sent back to the slammer. And that is the story of this inveterate jailbird.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

They Shall Have Stars by James Blish (1956)

The second of the four Cities in Flight novels by James Blish, this is a ‘fix-up’ novel made by joining two long short stories, ‘Bridge’ and ‘At Death’s End’, which were originally published in sci-fi magazines.

In terms of internal chronology, these stories describe the two key discoveries which make possible the world of the flying cities which we met in Earthman, Come Home, namely anti-agathic drugs and the spindizzy anti-gravity drive.

Background to the plot

It is 2013 and the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West continues. It seems to be a big idea (or fixation, or worry) of Blish’s that this sustained animosity will undermine Western society and freedoms. It will require the West to spy on its own citizens, to curtail scientific enquiry, and to enforce voluntary censorship, not least because of the vast spying and political control enforced by the hereditary head of the FBI, Francis X. MacHinery (a character clearly modelled on the Red-baiting demagogue, Senator Joe McCarthy).

Characters are careful what they say to each other and, if speaking candidly, make nervous jokes about being overheard and reported.

(There’s a scene, mid-novel, where Senator Wagoner has reported to him the key discovery which enables the anti-gravity device and Blish says the characters had to speak more or less in code because both knew the senator’s office was bugged by the FBI (pp.52-54). Similarly, on their third date Anne Abbott shows her date, Paige Russell, that the powder compact she keeps looking into is in fact a device which detects bugging devices i.e. tells you when it is safe, or unsafe, to talk freely.)

There are roughly two locations – America, in either Washington DC or New York City, and ‘the Bridge’ on Jupiter, monitored from its control room on a moon of Jupiter’s, Jupiter V.

On earth

In Washington and New York we see Senator Bliss Wagoner take the helm of the Joint Congressional Committee on Space Flight and ask the opinion of Giusseppi Corsi, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, what he should do. Between them they make a number of points and recommendations. The basic one is that space travel is going nowhere. They’re still using the same rocket technology invented during the war. Rockets have now taken man to Mars and even Jupiter, but Wagoner is frustrated that no-one is thinking big, beyond the solar system: there’s still no viable kind of trans-space engine. Corsi replies that the entire existing structure of government sponsored science is fossilised, third rate men fine-tuning existing tech. He advises Wagoner to cast the net wide, to look at oddballs, freaks, weird experiments, renegades: the future has got to come from outside existing mind-sets.

In New York Colonel Paige Russell is waiting impatiently in the lobby of Pfitzner and sons, the big pharma company. He has in his pocket samples of soil from Ganymede and Jupiter V. He’s a rocketman, has been to those places, brought back these samples at Pfitzner’s request, and is irritated to be kept waiting. Eventually he is given a cursory guided tour by a flunkey but then superseded by a visiting general and more or less kicked out. Irritated, he hits on the receptionist and persuades her to come to dinner.

The dinner scene contains various bits of information: for a start we learn that there’s been a religious revival, because Paige and the receptionist’s taxi (her name is Anne Abbot) gets caught in a chanting crowd. The religious people are now called Believers and have developed perfume bubbles which they disperse at their rallies. When they burst they disperse narcosynthetic drugs which make people feel like repenting, make them feel guilty and self pitying.

Once at the dinner table Anne slowly opens up about work at Pfitzner which has been mainly focused on developing new antibiotics which have worked very well at combating not only infectious diseases but some of the viruses which cause some cancers and so on. But eliminating infectious disease has just revealed a substrate of harder-to-cure conditions, degenerative diseases, circulatory diseases and so on.

This all hooks up with something Russell had heard while taking the tour of the labs: he thought he had heard a baby crying. Now, to his astonishment, Anne admits that they are experimenting on babies: after years of giving antibiotics to animals to make them stronger and healthier, experiments are taking place on newborn babies, giving them small doses of a range of antibiotics to see what happens.

Jupiter V

Meanwhile, some 600 million miles away, we meet two men who work on a space base on Jupiter V, one of Jupiter’s satellites. Robert ‘Bob’ Helmuth works four hours a day with headgear, visor and headphones on, monitoring the machines which repair and build ‘the Bridge’. His supervisor is Charity Dillon.

The Bridge lies six thousand miles below the top of Jupiter’s cloud layer. It is thirty miles high, eleven miles wide, and fifty-four miles long. Most of it is made of ice, Ice IV to be precise, existing under a pressure of a million atmospheres, at a temperature of 94 below zero Fahrenheit. It takes millions of megawatts to maintain it and keep it growing in Jupiter winds of 25,000 miles per hour.

Bob emerges from his shifts maintaining the Bridge’s equipment shell-shocked and drained. From the dialogue between him and Dillon, we learn that the crew who work on the Bridge project have all had ‘conditioning’; that the Bridge doesn’t go anywhere – it is built with giant pillars based on one of the few stable pieces of ‘land’ they could find on Jupiter’s surface – is more like a travelling crane which is just adding bits to itself not to ‘reach’ anywhere, but to increase its stability. Why? Because. To find out. To see if they can. Bob says the whole thing is a deplorable waste of time and effort. Dillon tells him to get some rest.

Washington

Back at the Pfitzner plant Paige comes to see Anne Abbot again, to apologise, but discovers MacHinery in the waiting room, the scary, Beria-type head of the secret police, who cross-questions him. But when MacHinery’s left, Anne and a Pfitzner scientist finally reveal what they’re investigating. They have established that all complex life forms secrete an aging toxin. Research has moved on to try and identify a drug or drugs which will neutralise this aging toxin: an anti-agathic, an anti-death drug.

Jupiter V

Bob Helmuth over-rides a more junior tech in the Bridge control room, responding to an ‘infection’ of one of the Bridge’s caissons with chemical ‘cancer’ by sending into the leg drills which locate the core of the chemical infection then detonate – badly damaging the caisson, but the cancer would have destroyed it. At least that’s what Bob argues to his boss, Dillon, who warns that Bob’s pessimism about the project is making him enemies.

Especially since a group of earth politicians is about to arrive to inspect the works. Bob is puzzled that they can skip out here to the edge of the solar system so easily and pushes Dillon who concedes that they are using a ship with a new anti-gravity rive. Anti-gravity!?

New York

Paige – now working closely with Anne and a scientist named Harold Gunn (vice president in charge of exports at Pfitzner, p.16) spots a Soviet spy in the lab, follows him to a vast camp of Believers which has is growing up in New York state, watches him go into a trailer, run up an aeriel and, presumably, broadcast his secrets to his controllers.

But when Paige tells Gunn and Anne they reveal that a) they’ve known about him all along, b) they actively don’t want to report the spy to the authorities because that will provide an excuse for MacHinery to close them down, and c) in a long passage Anne explains how the revelation of anti-death drugs will destabilise society, undermine the whole economic, legal, political and moral fabric of civilisation: i) as soon as it is revealed in the west, the Soviets will learn of its feasibility and eventually make their own anyway ii) leaking it to the Soviets will crash their system, so it is not treason to let the spy carry on spying.

Jupiter V

The subordinate he reprimanded, Eva, comes to Helmuth’s quarters to carry on the argument and to announce that she wants to have a baby. It emerges that they had been lovers some time in the past. Now he mocks her and they have a fierce argument. After the leaves Helmuth falls asleep and as his customary nightmare, of using an anti-gravity device on Jupiter which fails so that he is squashed flat – and wakes up screaming.

Book three – Entre’acte: Washington

Wagoner writes a memo to Giusseppi Corsi dated 4 January 2020 in which he explains in some detail how he followed Corsi’s advice from the Prelude, namely to seek out crackpots and radical thinkers, and how two lines of investigation led to a) the anti-gravity impact of spinning electrons and b) the discovery of anti-agathic drugs at Pfitzner.

New York

Knowing that he’s due to be posted to the remotest outpost of the solar system, the base on the newly-discovered planet Proserpine – and hearing mounting rumours that Pfitzner is about to be the subject of an investigation by Senator Wagoner, Paige heads to the company’s offices determined to make a clean breast of what he knows.

But instead he finds Wagoner already there, who briskly orders him and Anne to accompany him in a Cadillac taxi to the New York space port. Here they are bundled into a spaceship the size of a standard planetary ferry without much ceremony, told to strap in, and off they go! (In all these space operas people, completely untrained unprepared people, just get into ‘spaceships’ and off they whizz; as far as you can imagine form the reality which crystallised during the Apollo space programme, that you in fact need highly trained physically fit people to go into space.)

It’s a trick or gag: Paige can’t believe the ship is so small; he can’t believe they’re told they’re beyond earth’s atmosphere in moments; he can’t believe there’s proper one-G earth gravity on the ship, there never is on normal shuttle ships; and he is blown away when he goes up to the control and sees, through the viewing window between Wagoner and Anne – Jupiter appearing.

It is, quite obviously, a new breed of spaceship powered by an anti-gravity drive.

Jupiter V

Bob Helmuth sees what he takes to be another ferry land on the landing platform, but is preoccupied by a particularly fierce outburst of interference near the Bridge, and sends a crawling bot equipped with camera down the nearest leg… and is flabbergasted to see a) white objects fleeting past at top speed and then b) a kind of large bubble attached to the leg. It’s a laboratory, manned by a many-tentacled robot. Nobody told him about this! There’s nothing in the blueprints or plans!

A call comes through on the switchboard, plugs his helmet in and hears Doc Barth, who explains this lab was set up top secret a year ago. They now know for sure there is life on Jupiter, a kind of ammonia-based jellyfish which seems to feed on microscopic plankton!

Wagoner reveals all

But this discovery is nothing to what comes next. Helmuth is politely invited over to the ferry ship (a short walk outside the command centre for which he has to wear a spacesuit), invited into Senator Wagoner’s comfy cabin and introduced to Paige and Anne Abbott.

Helmuth states the grounds of his gloomy pessimism to the threesome: his boss Dillon thinks the creation of the Bridge shows that Man can do anything he sets his mind to, and is also a testament to the power of the West. Helmuth radically disagrees, he thinks it is a sign of the West’s decadence.

Wagoner astonishes Helmuth by saying he is even righter than he thought: the Soviets have already won. The unrelenting pressure of the Reds has made the West into an identikit copy, complete with repressive spying apparatus exemplified by H’s FBI.

‘We Sovietised ourselves’

But this history and politics is beside the point. Wagoner tells Helmuth the Bridge project is complete. They’ll keep it up for a bit longer but it has fulfilled its purpose of confirming the Blackett-Dirac equations about the relationship between magnetism and the spinning of a massive body. It could only be tested on a spinning object of enormous mass – hence, Jupiter. And the experiment has proved it.

Hence, he goes on to explain, the functioning of the Dillon-Wagoner gravitron polarity generator which makes atoms within its field refuse to recognise the existence or function or forces exerted by atoms outside its field i.e. escapes gravity. It leads to both a faster-than-light travel and effective shielding for everything within the field of its operation.

Bring together a) the fact that the West is about to collapse with b) a new technology which permits superfast space travel and you come up with c) Wagoner’s plan to evacuate the West and send freedom-loving Americans to colonise the nearest star systems. The whole thing to be led by Paige, Anne and him, Helmuth!

The final part of the jigsaw is the anti-agathic drugs. Wagoner announces they’ve brought the entire existing supply in the hold of the ferry ship. Helmuth, Anne and Paige will take them, administer them to others, live forever and colonise the galaxy!

Meanwhile, Wagoner will return to earth to face the heat (accusations of treason), probably be executed: who cares; the job will be done.

The end of the Bridge

Helmuth explains all this to his former lover, Eva. They realise that their attachments to the Bridge were, in different ways, a result of the ‘conditioning’ all the Jupiter scientists were subject to. Now they both realise it is not work saving, but was a means to something greater. At this climactic moment, the alarm bells ring. The vast red spot on Jupiter is passing close to the Bridge and threatens to tear apart its fabric. Alarm bells deafen and they hear Charity Dillon’s voice calling for all hands on deck to man the repair bots and drones. Eva, the scales fallen from her eyes, says ‘Let it fall’. In the stunned silence, she and Helmuth both hear Wagoner’s dry chuckle.

Coda

One final page describes Bliss Wagoner’s last day in the atomic pile where, as he predicted, he has been locked after being found guilty of treason. (We realise that the letter date January 2020 which he wrote to Corsi explaining his actions, must have been written from prison). The narrative’s antagonist, MacHiney, has got his way when he announces later that day that ‘Bliss Wagoner is dead’. But Wagoner’s legacy will live on across the galaxy.

Chris Foss’s cover art

Back in the 1970s it was worth buying science fiction paperbacks purely to own the stupendous cover art by Chris Foss. Quite often though, as in this case, when you read the book you discovered the cover had almost nothing to do with the text inside. They Shall Have Stars concerns the bridge – which is buried deep in the stormy atmosphere of Jupiter – controlled from what appears to be a modest little cluster of space buildings on Jupiter V – but most of all in the labs and offices of Pfister Corp in New York – none of which look like anything in this fabulous illustration.

Cover of the 1974 Arrow Books edition of They Shall Have Stars, art by Chris Foss

Cover of the 1974 Arrow Books edition of They Shall Have Stars, art by Chris Foss


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1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
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1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars, where they discover the Selenite civilisation

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
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1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
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1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
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1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the stars

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1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

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