The Municipalists, Seth Fried (Penguin 975-0-14-313373-5, $16.00, 268pp, tp) March 2019. Cover design by Lucia Bernard.
Imagine Metropolis, the fictional comic book-based city that feels loosely based on Manhattan. Now imagine, instead of Superman flying around and saving the day, the hero is a city planner, one who only feels satisfaction when the sewer system’s efficiency is improved by 4.73 percent, which is .03 percent above requirements. In Seth Fried’s The Municipalists, that civic-minded nerd is named Henry Thompson.
Thompson, an orphan (and this detail magnificently informs why he does what he does), is content to toil away in Suitland, the nondescript small city outside of DC where all of the United States Municipal Survey does its work helping cities like Metropolis thrive efficiently. Agents travel from there to cities across the county and improve the non-sexy systems that make modern life possible. Helping the human agents is OWEN, the SIRI analog in Fried’s world.
But Thompson’s contentment isn’t meant to last. After an incident involving OWEN, Thompson is sent to Metropolis to get to the bottom of things – and things are decidedly dangerous for Thompson, whose love of order makes being a hero a challenge.
Fried’s work may be familiar, even if his name isn’t. He contributes to The New Yorker‘s Shouts and Murmurs column and his short stories have appeared in Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Those signifiers connote a certain sort of story, one set in Brooklyn, maybe, or Oakland. If this book is ever made into a film, it would likely be directed by Wes Anderson or Sofia Coppola.
Regardless of its reliance on a certain kind of literary style, The Municipalists is pure genre fiction, one where Fried’s imagined world is as much as of a character as the characters themselves. Thompson’s story is well told, but it’s the workings of the places around him that threaten to overshadow their savior, which might be Fried’s point.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the October 2019 issue of Locus.
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