Reviewed by Chris Loza
By Seth Fried
272 pages. Penguin Books.
The great thing about being in a book club of sorts is that you get to discover new authors you’d otherwise miss because he/she is not on your radar. It is typical for bibliophiles to eventually settle into a number of reliable authors that they read, exploring new ones only when they burst into the scene with such universal acclaim that it becomes imperative to read them if only to become part of the conversation.
I would have missed this delightful debut from Seth Fried if not for The First Look Club. It is hard to categorize The Municipalists into a genre of science fiction or urban thriller or even comic thriller, because of its comedic elements. You can also say that it plays like a buddy-cop novel, if one can get past the fact that one of the buddies is an Artificial Intelligence projection from a tie clip.
The novel opens with a bit of background story of the straight-laced protagonist Henry Thompson. How he ends up working in the US Municipal Survey, which is a government arm tasked to develop towns and suburbs into progressive urban territories. Briefly, it traces his childhood, the death of his parents from a train wreck, moving through the foster care system, and his eventual employment. Henry is portrayed as a hardworking, no-nonsense employee whose closest thing to a work friend is his mentor boss, Theodore Garrett. When a virus is uploaded to their central IT system, all their technologically advanced artifice collapse. But it only serves as a precedent for a major terrorist attack that threatens the gleaming city of Metropolis, their most advanced, highly integrated city in the whole country.
Henry is thus sent along with an AI named OWEN (Object-Oriented Database and Working Ekistics Network) named after the creator Klaus’s younger brother, who is only beginning to develop a personality as a conscious artificial intelligence. Where Henry is by the book and all work and no play, OWEN is break-the-rules erratic like a toddler and irreverent like a teenager, and has a tendency to faint at the sight of blood and assume the image of a French bulldog when scared or threatened. Initially, as with any buddy-cop story, the two have a strong distrust of each other, but soon, as they go after the suspected terrorist master, Terrence Kirklin, who works as the station chief in Metropolis, they develop an unusually beautiful rapport that transcends human-machine relationships. They know that the way to track Kirklin and his plans is through his girlfriend, Sarah Laury, a wildly followed celebrity in Metropolis who happens to be the mayor’s daughter.
There are explosions, car chases, groin kicking, and more explosions that are tropes of a buddy-cop narrative, but it goes deeper into the relationship (and one might say dependency) of humans with technology. The repartee between Henry and OWEN, their chemistry, is evident and this gives the novel the life and heart it needs beyond the trappings of a futuristic thriller. The explosions, car chases, and even a fire in a library are given comedic flavors with OWEN’s antics of turning into monsters from old movies to scare off anyone chasing them.
The antagonist Kirklin is also given depth as his motivations behind the attack come to light. When you can’t fix a system deemed broken and oppressive, the best way is to eliminate it and build a new one. Kirklin’s eyes is set into a distant future with a new system geared to be more compassionate to the powerless and the disenfranchised, while the protagonists are concerned about the short-term destruction of innocent lives. To anyone who has seen Avengers: Infinity War this concept is not strange. Is it worth sacrificing the present for a better future or is the present worth saving future be damned?
This deeply existential dilemma is tackled with humor and levity in The Municipalists, a book that is a perfect addition to your reading list. If you are looking for a debut novel from an author brimming with wit and humor, it is this. It won’t burn your brain cells, but it will leave you feeling glad and satisfied that you’ve read it. And then you go on into the rest of the new year thinking about your own relationship with technology, how it dominates your life, and the moral authority we ascribe to when we judge something as right or wrong.
The Municipalists by Seth Fried is available at Fully Booked branches and Fully Booked Online.
Chris has written on Wattpad, yellowpads, and notepads. A few of his articles are in the dusty archives of Inquirer’s Youngblood and Philippine Star’s My Favorite Book, while one story got lost among the Kindles on Amazon. He works as a Systems Administrator by day and a recluse at night. You can reach him on Twitter and Instagram @cd_loza.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]