How times change. In the good old days, UFOs were perfectly content to abduct drunk rednecks on lonely rural roads, perform some creative proctology, then turn them loose to be objects of ridicule for the rest of their lives. Hardly seems worth traveling thousands of light years for, frankly, and John Stith would, I am sure, agree. No such underachievers pilot the UFOs in his deliriously entertaining Manhattan Transfer, which offers perhaps the most over-the-top opening scene in all of SF: the abduction of the Big Apple itself.
There is only one thing to do when a novel delivers a premise like this with a straight face: go with it. Otherwise, the implausibilities would deliver such a battering to poor readers' brains that Stith fans everywhere might have grounds for a class action. It's like this: one fine morning, an Independence Day-sized alien spacecraft, which has winked into the solar system from a wormhole near Saturn, descends over Manhattan and, with the indelicate use of some pretty frickin' powerful lasers, cuts the entire island away from the earth's crust, drops a membraneous dome over it, and hoists it up and away. This takes everyone entirely by surprise, as you might well think. You might also think that, what with all of the military satellites and radio telescopes and what have you we've got running everywhere, someone would have noticed this vessel coming, much less making a controlled descent over America's largest city! (Even Independence Day got that part right.) But I guess we'll just have to let that one slide.
Why am I thumbs-upping this book when its very first chapter seems nothing less than a litmus test for readers' tolerance of the absurd? Because it's a crackerjack page-turner, that's why. Once we're past chapter one, and all of the most outlandish assumptions we're being asked to accept to get the story going have been laid out, the plot progresses in a fast-paced, utterly absorbing way. It's more than just a nifty new twist on the alien invasion story. The title alone, a pun upon the 1925 classic of Manhattan life by John Dos Passos, indicates Stith intends much of this with a nudge and a wink. You can easily picture the moment of epiphany when the idea first struck him. Perhaps he was gazing at the New York skyline wistfully, and the thought came, "Hey, what if....?" And then the smile, small at first, then rapidly spreading to full-blown, ear-to-ear shit-eating grin status. One wonders how many ideas throughout the course of civilization have first expressed themselves with such a grin.
The dazed denizens of New York find their city ensconsed within the vast alien vessel, its dome one among many others containing similarly captured cities from many other alien worlds. It's a vast menagerie. A team of explorers led by stalwart Army colonel Matt Sheehan tunnels its way out of the Manhattan dome towards the other domes, to learn more not only about the other captive species, but most importantly about their captors. And what they discover leads to a race against time to avert an even worse tragedy.
This is fearless high concept SF adventure, executed so deftly that before you're a hundred pages in you've already forgotten any nitpicks you might have about the fundamental believability of the premise, and are only too willing to curl up and enjoy the action. The clearest inspiration would seem to be Clarke's Rama novels, with their similar plots involving humans enclosed in a massive spacecraft operated by inscrutable aliens. Indeed, scenes in which our heroes tunnel through the enormous craft in an attempt to confront their captors are quite reminiscent of scenes in Rama II, where Rama's seemingly endless labyrinth of passageways was exhaustively (you might say interminably) explored. Here, though, there's a stronger sense of urgency, a greater focus to the search.
Stith's characters don't stray too far from action story archetypes — plug in any Hollywood A-listers for the roles of Sheehan and leading lady Abby Tersa, a UN linguist charged with trying to communicate with the aliens. The shallowness of the characters is a real weakness of the book; we're basically given action heroes to root for, bomb-throwing religious zanies to boo, and weird aliens to be creeped out by. But Stith makes his limited characters sufficiently sympathetic to carry the story. What is important is that the story moves. Throughout its length there is rarely a superfluous dull moment, the kind of lull that pops up in so many books, making you wish the author would get on with it already. Stith does nothing but get on with it, delivering a lean and sleek bit of expertly crafted escapism. What's more, there's a sense of humor here I think New Yorkers especially would appreciate. In a scene late in the book, when the mayor calmly goes on television to ask citizens to call 911 if anyone knows of "any hugely powerful weapon" that can help to fight the alien menace, there's no way not to smile. Hey, it's New York! Who knows where a nuke might just be lying around?
I suppose no review of Manhattan Transfer written at this late date should ignore the 9/11 factor. Given the real tragedy that struck Manhattan eight years after this book's release, is there any discomfort in reading a story with this kind of premise at all? I think the answer is an unequivocal no. For one thing, life goes on, and for another, I think most audiences are savvy enough to separate escapism from reality. (There is a subplot late in the book involving explosives and the Empire State Building, but since there's no such actual thing as clairvoyance, you can't exactly criticize a writer for not possessing it.) There will always be a bittersweet feeling to any reference to the Twin Towers — and this book features the Towers liberally — but I enjoyed being allowed to see them standing tall and proud again.
I have only one other criticism of substance: I wish Manhattan Transfer had, in the end, given us just a bit more Manhattan. I know that Stith couldn't have included everything in this book; to do so would indeed have undermined the leanness I praised. But it's a fact that, down through the years, fiction set in New York — whether it's the movies of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, the plays of Neil Simon, TV shows like NYPD Blue, or the novels of any number of writers — has always sought to convey the character and inimitable ambience of the city itself. As much as I liked this book as it stands, I would have really enjoyed seeing a subplot or two (apart from the one we get, which shows frightened mobs falling under the thrall of a fairly stereotypical manic street preacher) showing how everyday New Yorkers were coping with this bizarre and unprecedented event. But we only get tiny glimpses, some so brief they feel nearly superfluous. A little more in this department could have made Manhattan Transfer truly feel like a Manhattan story.