"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)
"The hugest loss of money the whole Jupiter Project had yet sustained had been accompanied by such carnage that it fell - in the senators' minds - in the category of warfare. When a soldier is killed by enemy action, nobody asks how much money his death cost the government through the loss of his gear. The part of the report which described the placing of the Bridge's foundation mentioned reverently the heroism of the lost two hundred and thirty-one crewmen; it said nothing about the cost of the nine specially designed space tugs which now floated in silhouette, as flat as so many tin cut-outs under six million pounds per square inch of pressure, somewhere at the bottom of Jupiter's atmosphere - floated with eight thousand vertical miles of eternally roaring poisons between them and the eyes of the living."
James Blish had a checkered career in science fiction. It wasn't so much that he fell out of favor as dropped off the radar. He wrote several inventive stories in the 50s, later combined these stories into a series of novels, and then went on to become a noted critic in the genre. In this respect his career overlapped that of Damon Knight - another author who never quite realized his full potential - at several junctures. Blish would end up making most of his money from a sequence of Star Trek novelizations, and I think it's fair to say that he's not well-remembered among modern readers of science fiction.
In They Shall Have Stars, the first book in Blish's Cities in Flight series, two scientific discoveries converge to trigger a new chapter in human evolution. The first of these discoveries is a cure for aging; the second is the development of faster-than-light travel. Both of these discoveries are made against the backdrop of Western collapse, in a society fraught with suspicion and paranoia.
In stylistic terms this novel is first-rate. Blish really had a way with words, and his impressive vocabulary and command of characters are about as polished as you can get. His skill with regard to the written word again brings his contemporary Damon Knight to mind, and even a casual perusal of this book brings home the fact that many science fiction writers of Blish's time were writing at a much higher level.
Blish was also a stickler for scientific accuracy, and that comes across in They Shall Have Stars. He was writing at the forefront of scientific developments in 1957, and his background in microbiology is very apparent. Sure, he writes about cells in the absence of DNA, and he writes about faster-than-light travel in the the absence of time dilation, but given the time in which he wrote I think he can be excused on both counts.
If I have a complaint about this book it's that it doesn't quite come together the way it ought to. At the center of the story is a bridge some of the characters are building on Jupiter, and this bridge is intended to symbolize - at least to some extent - the decay of Western civilization. But the book doesn't quite merge the Jovian bridge, the cure for aging and the faster-than-light narratives into a single theme, and as a result the conclusion feels very rushed. Summarizing the end of the Cold War, the discovery of immortality, a revolution in space travel, and the possible End of History is always going to be a tall order, and even a writer of Blish's skill isn't going to be able to do that in 159 pages.
With this aside, I still think They Shall Have Stars is one of the best science fiction novels I've read in quite a while, and I plan on reading the other Cities in Flight novels whenever I have the chance. Blish's intellect and interests were clearly wide-ranging, his writing ability was beyond question, and I'm eager to see what else he came up with during his brief career.
"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)
"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)
"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)
"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)