Manhattan Transfer, John E. Stith

Tor, 1993, 381 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-51952-3

New York, New York.

Has a city ever exerted a greater fascination from the popular media? Whether in song, literature or film, New York has invaded the popular consciousness, coming to stand for the archetype of the Big City. One can easily mention multiple movies taking place there (1997: MIMIC, MEN IN BLACK and THE PEACEMAKER. 1998: ARMAGEDDON, DEEP IMPACT and GODZILLA. 1999: EYES WIDE SHUT and THE CORRUPTOR…)

People across the world can enumerate New York’s biggest attractions without ever having set foot on American soil: Lady Liberty, the United Nations, the Empire State Tower, the World Trade Center… Even the districts have acquired reputations of their own: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Harlem, the Bronx… (For bonus points, name movies whose title is inspired by these districts)

For a variety of reasons, New York has become a locus of multiple interpretations. Some of it is simple rural jealousy, though to be honest, in comparison to New York we’re pretty much all rurals. New York stands as the incarnation of all of our feelings toward big cities. Who hasn’t ever dreamt that New York’s problems could be solved by making it disappear?

That’s what happens one morning in John E. Stith’s Manhattan Transfer. UFOs appear and start severing Manhattan’s links with its surrounding: laser beams cut bridges, subway tunnels, roadways, solid earth… Then a bubble is installed over the city, and the whole package is lifted up in the sky, brought inside a spaceship and installed on a vast plain where dozen of other bubble cities are also lying there…

A team is quickly formed inside the human city to try to find out what the heck is happening. As they try to enter in communication with the other cities, they find out that the aliens are installing power, water, and waste conducts. Clearly, the aliens want to keep them around for a while… but why? Is this a zoo, an experiment or a grocery cart? (The alien’s true reason for taking Manhattan becomes far too obvious even at mid-book.)

All of this happens in the first fifty pages of Manhattan Transfer. If only the remainder of the novel could have been that good… Like many premise-driven SF novels, this one falters after the initial setup, and goes on for maybe a hundred pages too long. The middle section is sorely in need of some tightening up. (Maybe by cutting the unnecessary “preacher” subplot?) Fortunately, the novel picks up interest again as it advances forward. If the ending undergoes too many false climaxes, it wraps up in a satisfying, if abrupt, manner.

Adding to the fun, Manhattan Transfer is written with the can-do attitude exemplified by golden-age SF. The characters of the novel are almost invariably competent men and women, and they won’t stay kidnapped for too long! It’s one of the intellectual pleasures of the novel to see how Manhattanites end up coping with this radical lifestyle change. Though Stith is far more optimistic than it could reasonably be expected, his characters are so sympathetic that readers will forgive some easy rationalizations.

Devotees of the hard-SF school of thought will find a lot to like in Manhattan Transfer. Even though the writing isn’t as concise and as clear as it could be, the characters are above-average for this type of story, and there’s a clear narrative drive from cover to cover. An unusual, yet well-handled premise and some cool scenes make this a worthwhile read. Better yet; consider it as an alternate version of INDEPENDENCE DAY.

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