Book Review: The Municipalists by Seth Fried
I have mixed feelings about The Municipalists by Seth Fried. On the one hand, the book was a brilliant balance of comedy and philosophy. On the other hand, it fell into some very problematic tropes that caused me to not think the comedy so funny and tainted the nuance of the philosophy.
The main premise of the book is that there has been an act of domestic terrorism in the city of Metropolis, and play-by-the-book Henry, a senior member of the Municipal Survey, is tasked with a covert investigation by his supervisor. Assigned to aid him is OWEN, a projected manifestation of the artificial intelligence that makes up the data core of the Municipal survey and has access to every one of their secure files, all of their funds, and the entire internet. OWEN can project his image to be anything, from a dog to a bear to a huge clown. He can project his voice to sound like it is 100 feet away, become 100 people at once, or even choose not to project at all. (For the record, he prefers to appear as a blonde man or a small dog). Owen can also project onto people, changing their appearance, or bending light around them to become invisible. The only thing he cannot do is physically interact with the world, or control what happens to the tie clip that he projects from. Given that OWEN is so incredibly powerful with only these two critically crucial weaknesses, and with his moral character and autonomy as a unique entity under extreme scrutiny, OWEN is an absolute philosophical goldmine. OWEN is an exploration of what an entity with immense power and little oversight is capable of.
One way in which Fried hides a deep philosophical question that merits exploration within comedy is in that OWEN is constantly “drinking” and getting fantastically drunk, explaining to Henry that he is limiting his social functions via a subroutine that does unnecessary complicated math problems. OWEN’s constant drinking is played for laughs, but it raises the question of what exactly is OWEN trying so hard to make himself forget? What is the burden of overwhelming knowledge? How does one interact on a one-to-one scale with the universe while not able to level with it and unable to experience the most basic of experiences as drinking? What is the psychological burden of knowing that one was created and not born, and could be turned off at any time because their life is treated as having no worth?
The book is presented as a kind of buddy comedy, with Henry and OWEN going to investigate the mystery of the terrorism in Metropolis, and at the outset they are portrayed as being the “good guys”. But what I think the book does a good job of is pointing out the general hypocrisy of all of the characters, and at the end of it all I was left wondering if anyone was a “good guy”.
What I did know, though, was that almost all of them were guys, because there was a distinct lack of women in this book, with only three named, two with anything resembling a personality, and one who was significant to the plot. It could be argued that OWEN has no gender, and in fact OWEN does at one point take on a female persona, but that instance is mostly played for laughs, and honestly I don’t feel like giving the author that much credit given the general lack of gender diversity. I’m not saying that the main character and his AI buddy can’t both identify as male (though tbh an AI having a gender does feel odd to me, but that’s up to the AI) but I don’t think that it was necessary for the main villain, the boss, the AI’s creator, the named subordinates, the lackeys with lines, the overwhelming majority of the henchmen, and the mayor to all be men.
And that’s just the gender issue. After closing the book I couldn’t remember a single explicitly black person. There were people of color — the subjugation of the poorer and immigrant classes was a big plot point in the book — but the only POC we spend any time with is a Chinese woman who runs a safehouse for illegal immigrants. After destroying said safehouse, the white protagonists are able to run away to a fancy and ludicrously expensive hotel with a few injuries, but overall not too many personal consequences, and they actually gained information. Sorry for the spoiler, but that makes me so mad I can’t not mention it, especially because the book never brings up this woman or what happened to her again.
Further to the idea of race, the main antagonist is coded as black, but I hope he’s not because that takes the racist imagery even higher, considering his relationship with the eighteen year old, blonde girl he swept up into his cause. Given that she was barely over the age of majority and was a symbolic paragon of good in the city their relationship was already creepy, but if he is black this is even more problematic than it already was because it would add the racist stereotype of a black man abducting and raping a young white woman. Further to that, I think it would actually be almost impossible for him to have been black because there is no way that the police in 2020 wouldn’t have had a stronger reaction to his domestic terrorism.
All and all, this book is a mixed bag. I don’t regret reading it per se, but I do think that there are probably better things I could have done with my time. If you’d like some satirical philosophy that tries to complicate the world but really just feels like a beach read than The Municipalists is your jam. If you prefer your books to have diversity and some real meat to them I’d give it a pass.