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The YEARS OF THE CITY Paperback – December 1, 1994
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Top Customer Reviews
All public service jobs are drafted positions and chosen by lottery and aptitude. Training is provided, don't try to get out of it.
I want to live in a world where the president is is not bought and paid for by special intrest groups. Where the president is instead some slub who was minding his own business until his number came up and now just wants to do the best he can and get back to his own life.
This is not one of the masterworks, but it is fairly interesting in its own right. A series of stories about the future of New York, starting at some near future point and going fairly far into the years ahead, it shows the progression through the eyes of the inhabitants of the city, some of which wind up recurring from story to story.
Not all of this works completely. Part of it is the structure itself. Apparently two of the stories were previously published and the others were written to shoehorn into the concept. This gives it the impression of ducking in on an old friend on occasion to see what's going on, but doesn't make it very dramatically exciting. It's until the very last story that we really get a sense of THE FUTURE, with society changed to the point where jobs like the Supreme Court are selective service and frozen people are being brought back. Prior to that we have domes being put over the city and various other futuristic elements, but skipping around like it does we barely get any kind of sense of progression, we see projects being put into motion and then jump to the next story a hundred years after they're done. It allows Pohl to cover lots of ground thematically but doesn't give us much in the way of an emotional hook.
The other problem is that it's been done before, and with slightly more ambition and drive. At points the stories feel like poor cousins to James Blish's "Cities in Flight" sequence, where we had a real sense of society changing and adapting to a new reality. And not only adapting but surpassing it. Meanwhile, other stories like Silverberg's "World Inside" gave us a view of a city turning inward to accommodate a growing population and the effects it had on the people who live inside. Here, life seems to go on pretty much normal for the people inside the dome, and maybe that's the point but it doesn't give us much reason to get really worked up about it.
Several other reviewers have commented on the fact that it doesn't "feel" like New York City other than some name-dropping of the various areas of the city. Pohl grew up in Brooklyn so I can imagine that some of the things described were seen through first-hand experience but I do have to agree that for a novel that is supposed to take place in New York City, it doesn't have much of a sense of place. It comes in spurts, a certain rhythm and a certain dangerous vibe but more often than not it reminds me of what people imagined NYC to look like at the height of its squalor in the late seventies and eighties, when crime was rampant and the city was a gritty, dirty mess. Reading the stories today and trying to contrast them with the version of NYC that we're all familiar with is like hearing older adults tell us what the old bad times were like. It winds up dating the novel even though it's supposed to be taking place in the future. Which isn't Pohl's fault, at the time this was written the stories were probably remarkable extrapolations and prescient in their way, but that isn't the case anymore.
But it is true that the stories don't seethe and sing like we imagine New York to be. The attempt at a cross-section feels too mannered, lacking the steely glint and swaggering energy that we imagine New York City to have. It feels like it could be any fictional future city, when the book is trying to be a SF version of Dos Passos' "Manhattan Transfer", lacking that book's ability to make us see a compressed version of anything. For a story like this, where an entire city is being transformed, we need to see all the corners and not just the broad strokes.
That said, there is some wonderful stuff in here. His characterizations, while not totally deep, are often deft and his ideas are fun extrapolations, especially with stuff like hanggliding becoming an illegal act once the dome is built. A lot of it feels like ordinary people and most of the stories don't exist by showing us jetpacks and robot-men, but through more subtle and naturalistic ways. And he doesn't lose sight of the nitty-gritty that makes a big city run, showing the backroom deals and politics that allow any big project to get off the ground. And he grounds every story with a human touch, whether it's a jealous ex-husband or a sick child, that reminds us that SF is populated by people and not simply spaceships. The recurring elements, whether they are bits of technology or even people, are often nice touches, giving us a sense of continuity. And some bits are simply eerie, like the top of the World Trade Centers chopped off to make room for the top of the dome.
The last story winds up being the most and least radical. Taking place decently far in the future, it shows us a society where the language has undergone alterations and every public job has become like jury duty. It's interesting, but Pohl uses it to make some hamfisted commentary about how we have too many laws and while it's intended to make us think, more often than not it comes across a second-rate Heinlein. That isn't helped by a unfrozen early character who is a shrill harpy, railing on about abortion in a one-dimensional fashion meant to make them look ridiculous compared to these enlightened future people and only given a second dimension too close to the end. So it becomes by turns frustrating and fascinating, which if nothing else, is the book, and the future, and New York City, all in a nutshell.