Seth Fried’s new book, The Municipalists has been just sitting quietly on the shelves of bookstores for months, and I’ve heard little chatter, which, while disappointing, gives it an appropriately culty kind of charm. The Municipalists presents a bizarre buddy cop romp that whose main affiliation with the science fiction genre is the cool toys. In order to stop a domestic terrorist plot, civil servant Henry Thompson, so hipster that he sails over the line into poindexter, must team up with OWEN, an AI interface that likes project itself in a hologram as a high-functioning alcoholic G-Man. Putting the baddies back in their place will take all of Henry’s obscure knowledge and OWEN’s brute strength, but first they have to learn to rely on each other to survive.
Henry’s dramatic backstory – parents killed in a train wreck – leads him to work for the United States Municipal Survey, which recommends projects for cities to build in order to grow, foster community sense, and generally crap gold. But, of course, nothing goes according to plan, and so people like Henry need to be sent in. Henry operates out of the agency’s Suitland, Maryland, headquarters, where he has no friends even though he’s the most thorough, pedantic agent possible. Then the Survey’s main computers are attacked by a virus on the same day that Terrence Kirklin, the director of the agency branch in nearby Metropolis kidnaps the mayor’s daughter and declares war on American cities. It should be mentioned now that this individual has an eye patch and is bald. The very next day, Garrett, Henry’s boss, hands Henry a special tie clip with gives him access to OWEN, and they’re off to Metropolis to reel in Kirklin’s rebellion.
The store brand names and tropes can be a little to get used to, but the story’s bizarre turns quickly outpace its derpy tone. Yes, derpy. This little weirdo story just bounces along from fight scene to fight scene despite the best efforts of its ubernerd main character. Most of this strangeness comes from OWEN, who writes a program that allows him, a computer, to get drunk and decides that he’s afraid of blood, and also has a penchant for bringing virtual katanas when Henry really needs a sting op. Ridiculous as that might sound, the humor thankfully avoids careening off into campiness by sticking to its characters and not the formula. Sure, every buddy-cop story needs a serious man and a funny man, but Henry’s unrequited love for centralized bureaucracy creates pages of subtle digs, even as it sets up compelling internal conflict. Henry’s nerdiness and smothering progressivism combined with a pop-culture worshiping sidekick seems like the perfect hipster crime-fighting duo, but it’s a little too perfect. This can make it hard to tell whose being laughed at or with, but it creates an intriguing dynamic.
For a wonky humor-fuelled action ride, The Municipalists wholly satisfies. On the surface, this kind of book exists for people who’d rather watch a movie. However, once the bullets and bricks start flying, the bizarre cast of characters starts tripping over each other in fascinating ways. Overall, it’s been one of the best reads of the summer.
Visit Seth Fried’s website to check out more of his writing and more about The Municpalists!
Four stars out of five
Page count: 272
Favorite quote: “Learn to love the world you’re in, son. Trying to burn it down gets you life in a federal prison.”