The most impressive thing about Seth Fried’s genre-adjacent new novel The Municipalists is his careful avoidance of genre clichés. Dwelling as it does on the logistical problems that will be faced by the metropolis of the future, you can imagine the book as a sort of Blade Runner tribute, if Philip K. Dick had decided to focus on city planners instead of robot-killing cops. Instead, The Municipalists excels because it inverts your expectations—not only in what it is about, as a science fiction novel about the workings of a future city, but also how it goes about it.
It’s protagonist, Henry, is a public official and a municipal fanboy, believing in the inherent power and safety of the city as a structure to an almost fanatical degree. The first chapter provides specific insight into his credo, and explains why running efficient cities has become, for Henry, a moral imperative: “The closer trauma victims are to population centers and dense infrastructure, the more likely it is that their lives will be saved.”
Fans of Sherlock Holmes will recognize this sentiment from the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”; in that story, Holmes and Watson ride out into the countryside, and as Watson admires the beauty of being away from urban London, Holmes scoffs: “You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed here.”
This debate occupies a fair amount of Fried’s attention throughout The Municipalists. Just as most modern readers are inclined to side with Sherlock Holmes, they will likewise be encouraged to agree with Henry here; the power of cities makes them feel undeniably, sociologically safer. It might not be the most exciting topic for a science fiction novel to tackle, but Fried deftly speculates not only on the ways technology might enhance future cities, but more interestingly, how the organization of government interacts with city-planning technology. Holograms, drones, and artificial intelligence are no longer simply common provinces of science fiction; these days, they’re real-life tech. Fried knows this, and so does his best to avoid being too proud of his own subtle worldbuilding. Though the Rhode-Island sized city of Metropolis bears a passing resemblance to the multi-city “Sprawl” of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Fried’s vision of the future is decidedly not cyberpunk.
That’s an accomplishment in it of itself, if only because the plot finds Henry investigating the technological failure of Metropolis’s infrastructure, aided by a sentient AI program named OWEN. Henry wears a company-mandated fedora, which gives the book a retro-noir feel, but it doesn’t dwell in the grimey dystopia of cyberpunk. Instead, it takes place in a believable—and occasionally hilariously mundane—future world that has more in common with Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano than it does with hard sci-fi.
Fried displays some of Vonnegut’s humor, too. The idea that Henry seems super-unqualified to investigate a massive drone accident in Metropolis is just part of the book’s offbeat charm. We learn to like Henry as he recalls cracking a mystery that involved beaver deaths, or when he makes reference to the drawings his co-workers have made that depict him joyfully sniffing his boss’s farts. Henry is the kind of character that feels like he has no place being the main character in a science fiction mystery, and yet here he is, and the book is infinitely richer for the choice. Even if you can’t relate to Henry, he’s likable for being so set in his fuddy-duddy ways.
By necessity, the plot seriously interrogates Henry’s dogmatic belief in cities. For readers who are wondering about their own futures—perhaps debating about where to live next—this book will invite interest and provoke moments of reflection; if all the trains ran on time in the greatest cities in the world, would what we give up to live in them—communion with nature, freedom from distraction, the peace of silence— still be worth it? Just how afraid should we be of drones falling from the sky? The Municipalists doesn’t answer these questions definitively, but it does ask them with wit and charm.
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