Buck Rogers had one. Flash Gordon had one. Batman has had one throughout the years, especially in the always-entertaining Brave and the Bold cartoon. Tony Stark certainly has one. Heck, even James Bond had one back in 1964. Know what I’m talking about? Jet packs. For as much as we’re living in the future of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, we still don’t have jet packs or flying cars. But in the world of Ghosts of Manhattan, at least one person possesses jet-powered flight in an alternate 1926. That would be the heroic vigilante, The Ghost.
In George Mann’s novel, America is in a Cold War with Great Britain since the end of the First World War. Coal-powered cars, with their black effluvia, clog the atmosphere above Manhattan, where the air is filled with dirigibles and biplanes capable of launching upright because of rockets on their wings. In this environment, the police have their hands full not only with run-of-the-mill crime but also with a criminal boss nicknamed The Roman. Like any good villain, he leaves a calling card: two Roman coins on the eye sockets of corpses.
Into this justice vacuum swoops The Ghost. Black-clad, with a duster-length trench coat, fedora, and enhance red goggles, The Ghost, in the opening chapter, foils a bank heist using deadly force and flechette guns (tiny steel darts). If you’ve seen Batman Begins, specifically the scene where Batman first does his thing, you’ll love this opening chapter. I did. It grabbed me, and I happily went with it.
What’s fun about this adventure with a masked hero is the steps Mann deploys to keep the reader guessing The Ghost’s alter-ego. I’ll admit it didn’t take a huge leap of logic to surmise the truth, but he still made it interesting. Gabriel Cross is a bored millionaire, known for his parties and his ladies. One lady in particular is Celeste Parker, a singer at a night club and a necessary component in The Roman’s plans. Felix Donovan is a detective in charge of the investigation into the murder of a famous senator. It doesn’t take too long for Donovan to meet the famous vigilante. From there, they team up to battle strange things and, with any luck, survive.
The book is fast-paced, a true modern pulp novel in the spirit of The Shadow and Batman. The history of this alternate America is delivered piecemeal and mostly in shorter paragraphs and bits of dialogue, a helpful way to show the broader world without stopping the action for pages and pages of tedious world-building. The Ghost is a believable hero. He relies on his wits and his gadgets–he’s got jet packs on his legs, allowing him to fly!–more so than martial arts and fighting ability. He also adjusts his strategies along the way as he encounters adversaries who cannot be defeated using his conventional weapons. In fact, these particular adversaries almost overcome The Ghost in their first encounter.
The book isn’t without some flaws. I thought the lead-up to the big finale seemed to come out of nowhere. Unlike, say, Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity or Dan Brown’s more famous novels, there aren’t a lot of clues that build upon one another, stumping the reader and the heroes along the way. It was almost as if Mann just needed a few action set pieces in order to build a larger story. True, the set pieces were good, and the down time wasn’t boring. I just felt a lot of drive to get to the end, even though I was not given a lot of clues as to what the end was going to be.
One of the things I liked about this novel is that Mann doesn’t feel the need to explain everything. Bi-planes have rocket packs for vertical lift-off. Okay. But there’s no mention of Robert Goddard or the history of the invention of the rockets. They just are. I’ve been told that this 1926-era world is the extension of Mann’s earlier, Victorian-era novels featuring Maurice Newbury and Veronica Hobbes. I’ve not read those books, so, perhaps there’s a longer explanation there.
Speaking of unexplained things in Ghosts of Manhattan, halfway through the book, I kept waiting for something science-fictional to occur. This novel is released by Pyr Books, a prominent publisher of science fiction and fantasy novels. I’ve seen the gorgeous covers (this cover art should stop people in their tracks) and read some of Pyr’s books, so I know what I’ve come to expect from them. Frankly, Ghosts of Manhattan is the exception. You take away the rockets, the coal-powered cars, and other paraphernalia decorating the scenery (including the big finish), and you end up with a book Lester Dent might have actually written in 1933 for Doc Savage. I don’t consider Doc to be science fiction. What’s so science-fictional about this book? Moreover, what’s so science-fictional about this type of alternate history?
When it comes to alt-history, I see two categories. There are stories like Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South, which has time travel. Obviously, that’s SF. But what about Turtledove’s other Civil War book, How Few Remain and its sequels, which take a “what if” question and answer it from a non-SF point of view? Same could be said for Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which was nominated for an Edgar (mystery) and a Hugo (SF), winning the latter. There’s no SF trope in Chabon’s novel, just alt-history.
I posed this question to Pyr editor Lou Anders, and he gave me some food for thought. Citing a Norman Spinrad article from Asimov’s magazine, Anders wrote the following:
Basically, alt history has historically been maligned by at least a subset of SF culture as pretend “What if” stories that, as you point out with the Chabon, don’t have any other SFNal tropes/elements in them. But these days, when you have every physicist using the word “multiverse” and the most likely explanation for all the quantum weirdness is that we are in only one of a number of possible realities, while at the same time have people like Charles Stross debunking the idea that we will *ever* achieve human-crewed ships engaged in interplanetary travel, suddenly all the space opera starts to look like make believe wish fulfillment and the alt history like that which actually has some bearing in science.
But these are quibbles, hair-splitting when what is really important is whether or not the book in question is entertaining, moves you, and has something to say besides.
Ghosts of Manhattan is certainly entertaining, a true summer thrill-ride of a book. I’m looking forward to future installments of this character and his world. Do yourself a favor this summer: see Thor, Captain America, and all the other superhero films, and then head on over to a bookstore and pick up a copy of Mann’s book. In this day and age, you just can’t have enough heroes.
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