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Literature / The Municipalists

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A tight laced, by-the-book human bureaucrat and his rebellious AI partner fight crime in the big city.

A comic-thriller from author Seth Fried, The Municipalists recounts the adventures of a neurotic, rule-following bureaucrat and his irreverent, freewheeling AI partner as they attempt to save the gleaming city of Metropolis from an unprecedented terrorist plot that threatens the American way of life.

Henry Thompson has dedicated his life to improving America's infrastructure as a proud employee of the United States Municipal Survey's Suitland Office. So when the agency comes under attack from a mysterious terrorist organization that seems to have suspicious knowledge of the USMS's inner workings, he dutifully accepts an unexpected mission to visit the insular Metropolis branch of the USMS to look for answers. But Henry's plans to investigate the Metropolis branch quietly, quickly, and carefully are totally derailed by his new partner: a day-drinking know-it-all AI named OWEN, who just so happens to be the digitally projected embodiment of the USMS's state-of-the-art supercomputer.

Personality clashes with his partner aside, Metropolis proves to be more treacherous than either Henry or OWEN could have predicted. Metropolis is the biggest, busiest, and most beautiful urban agglomeration in America, but the gleaming city hides a web of dark secrets and deadly traps. Danger lurks around every corner, and clandestine plots that involve everyone (from top personnel in the USMS to Mayor Laury's beloved daughter) are afoot. Henry and OWEN find themselves fighting to save not only their own lives and those of the city's 35 million inhabitants, but also the soul of Metropolis itself.

Book Trailer available here.

Some spoilers below are unmarked.

Tropes Appearing in The Municipalists:

  • Afraid of Blood: Although OWEN is an artificial intelligence that runs on a massive supercomputer (and a fan of classic Gangster & Western films), he can't stand the sight of real wounds up close. He panics when he tries to advise Henry on how to treat his injuries, and eventually overloads and "passes out". (Later he gets a patch that makes him less squeamish, which ends up saving Henry's life.)
    ...More difficult were the splinters in my shoulders, which I had to dig out with the first aid kit's tweezers while looking behind me into the vanity mirror over the sink. By the time I was finished, my back and leg were running with small rivulets of blood. OWEN was sitting with his hands covering his face. The tie clip on the counter was making a whirring noise and his projection began to flicker.
    "You're so—vulnerable—I mean—I understood—on and intellectual level—but this—"
    It seemed the films he watched with Klaus had only managed to prepare him for casual violence. He'd barely been phased when Biggs jumped to his death, but now watching me bleed from a few minor puncture wounds in that bathroom seemed to be more than he could bear.
  • A.I. Getting High: Overlaps with Logic Bomb — OWEN wrote himself a program that generates complex math problems that divert his processing power away from boring stuff like "social inhibitions". When he activates it, he pairs it with an animation of his holographically generated avatar sipping whiskey (and later, directly out of a bottle of ominously black liquid labeled "190^10 Proof").
  • Androids and Detectives: Zig-Zagged — it's a holographic AI working with a government agent assigned to quietly investigate another branch of their Government Agency of Fiction, but the tone is similar.
  • Androids Are People, Too: AI in this case, but OWEN considers himself to be as human as Henry, if not more so. And he was well liked by the staff at the Municipal Survey's Suitland campus before the virus caused him to malfunction.
    OWEN waved his hand to tell me he was being rhetorical. "Half your colleagues gave me nicknames. Some of them called me Odie. Others called me O-man. On account of my eyes, Emma Ackerman in Renewable Energy got her whole department calling me Deep Blue."
    "I never realized you were so popular."
    "You didn't notice that the team who won the agency's softball league last year called themselves the Supercomputers?"
  • Artificial Intelligence: OWEN is the supercomputer system that runs the day-to-day operations at the Municipal Survey's Suitland office.
  • Attack Drone: The monitoring drones maintained by the Municipal Survey are weaponized by Kirklin's forces during the car chase that Henry and OWEN get sucked into. Even without missiles or firearms, the drones are basketball sized lumps of metal that can be dropped from a great height.
  • Classy Cane: Discussed — After Henry injures his leg taking down the Metropolis branch of the USMS, doctors tell him that he'll walk with a limp and need a cane for a while. OWEN immediately jumps on the idea of Henry having a cool cane. He offers suggestions for outrageous mobility accessories with handles shaped like chrome eagles or brass jaguars or golden lion's heads over shafts of blue ash, or walnut, or beech wood. When OWEN's final letter to Henry is delivered, he makes explicit mention of Henry's "amazing cane."
  • Computer Virus: The attack on the Suitland office is facilitated by a virus uploaded to OWEN's network, causing the facility's automated programs to go haywire. Doors lock themselves shut, lights turn off, and the Self-Destruct Mechanism embedded in all agency phones is activated remotely. The virus is also what allows OWEN to develop more self-awareness.
    "They would have had to reboot my interface to get rid of it, which would erase the O_1 memory cache."
    "The O_1 is who I am. It's my memories. My configuration. To get rid of the virus they'd have to kill me and some guy named O_2 would get my body."
  • Eyepatch of Power: Terrence Kirklin, director of the Metropolis branch of the Municipal Survey, has a eyepatch covering the right eye he lost while in the Coast Guard. It adds to his general demeanor of bad-assery (or supervillainy, later in the book) paired with his goatee and the fact that he's 6'-5".
  • Faint in Shock: Played for Laughs — OWEN quickly discovers that all the violence and gore in the classic Gangster & Western movies he's watched haven't prepared him to observe when Henry has to treat the injuries he sustained in Biggs' failed assassination attempt. The AI simply can't stand the sight of Henry's puncture wounds and it briefly overloads his circuits.
    "It looks like you've got this covered," he said. "So I think it'd be best if I just—"
    Before he could finish his sentence, he turned into a French bulldog and fainted.
    He lay their motionless in his dog's body with his tongue hanging out. Above him in bold white text was a slowly rotating error message.
  • Fun with Acronyms: OWEN, for "Object-Oriented Database and Working Ekistics Network" — Discussed in Henry's narration:
    OWEN's name purportedly stood for Object-Oriented Database and Working Ekistics Network, though many suspected that Klaus had just retrofitted the acronym so he could name the supercomputer after a beloved younger brother.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: The United States Municipal Survey, a fictional government agency that researches, investigates, advises on, and optimizes everything that has anything to do with the health of America's urban environs — from traffic and public transportation to school test scores to crime rates to disaster preparedness to carbon emissions to sanitation to resource management, the USMS has interest in every aspect of a modern city's health and wellbeing.
    The agency had begun seventy years back as a plucky arm of the DOT, a few dozen policy wonks who took pride in punching above their weight. But at the rate the world was urbanizing, cities had become the new space race. Our budget had exploded and we now coordinated with state and local governments to fund and advise thousands of major city improvement projects every year.
  • Holographic Disguise: Since OWEN's physical appearance is a projection, he can disguise himself in the blink of an eye. He can change the color & cut of his suit or his hair, he can instantly disguise himself as a sniper or a doctor, or even change his size and appearance to resemble a bulldog or a bear. He also uses the projector to put embarrassing disguises on Henry (much to Henry's chagrin).
  • Identification by Dental Records: Mentioned specifically by OWEN when Biggs' teeth turn out to be dentures. The radicalized members of the Metropolis branch of the USMS have all had their teeth removed to prevent being identified in this manner.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Henry's modus operandi in the last few chapters. Normally he's a pencil pushing bureaucrat who balks at the thought of violence, crime, and wanton property destruction. But in order to deal with threat of the radicalized Metropolis branch of the USMS he starts shoplifting, burning down munitions dumps, and throwing himself into fistfights with Kirklin's agents.
  • Logic Bomb: Downplayed — OWEN created software that generates complex mathematical problems designed to tax his systems, diverting processing power away from "social inhibitions" and other non-essential personality features. He modeled the program on his creator's drinking habits, and pairs it with an animation of his avatar sipping whiskey.
    I was surprised by this comment, as I was by the fact that he was now holding what appeared to be a tumbler of whiskey, its cut glass glinting in the soft light of the cabin.
    "It's a program I wrote for myself," he said, noticing my interest. "When I take a sip, a series of complex math problems are generated that overwhelm my interface's processors. It diverts resources away from my less essential functions like social intelligence and inhibition."
    He described this process with pride, as if drinking on the job were an innovation that rivaled the lightbulb. Not wanting to take too much credit, he admitted that he had come up with it by watching Klaus drink in his lab late at night.
  • Mega City: Metropolis, a city of "over 35 million people squeezed onto 1,200 square miles of land."
  • Odd Couple: A "neurotic, rule-following bureaucrat" and an "irreverent, freewheeling artificial intelligence," as the blurb on the back of the book so succinctly puts it.
  • Orphan's Plot Trinket: Downplayed. Henry's first model train was a rare "Steam Beetle" given to him by his father right before his parents were killed in a train accident. Neither Henry nor his father were aware of how valuable the model was — it was Henry's prized possession because it was the last gift his father ever gave him. He kept it as he bounced from foster home to foster home until a school bully threw it out the window of the bus. So while the actual model Steam Beetle was lost before the narrative even begins, the plot trinket is what engendered Henry's interest in model trains. Part of the reason he takes an interest in Metropolis is the incredibly rare model Steam Beetle train on display at the transport museum - the same type of model train his father gifted him.
  • Projected Man: OWEN's physical appearance is generated by a projector disguised in Henry's tie clip.
  • Rail Enthusiast: Henry doesn't have many interests outside of work but he does like trains. Before his parents were killed in a train accident, his father gifted him a model "Steam Beetle" train, which was Henry's prized possession until a bully threw it out the window of his school bus. As an adult Henry keeps a model train on his desk to combat the stuffy reputation his coworkers have pinned on him, and is excited to see another rare model Steam Beetle on display in Metropolis.
    Next to my nameplate, I had placed a 1:64 scale model of an eight-axle C8 Manley & Wrexler. I had a reputation at the agency for being somewhat joyless and so I'd brought the model from home to liven up my workspace. It was from a series of collectibles called Trains of Yore, which depicted classic locomotives in scrupulous detail. They were generally marketed towards the elderly, but I was thirty-two and owned over two dozen of them. I liked the look of that handsome little locomotive on my desk and the C8 never had an accident while in use. So there was an inspirational element.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Much of OWEN's style of problem solving can be summed up as "go big or go home," thanks in part to his flair for the dramatic (inherited from his creator, Klaus, and the many gangster and western films they watched together). To his credit, OWEN's outlandish plans often work because he's got the confidence to pull them off.
    • When OWEN and Henry need to get through a crowded subway station, he projects a disguise of a surgeon in bloody scrubs holding a Styrofoam cooler and shouting that he's got a human brain for transplant.
    • When he needs to distract a campus librarian, OWEN projects an illusion of kodiak bear that chases her out to her car.
    • To slow down the grunts attacking the museum, OWEN projects an entire SWAT team and an 11-foot tall clown monster with fangs and tentacles for arms. He helpfully includes some architectural features scattered about the museum lobby in the holographic disguise, so that when he scoops up a fake SWAT sniper and tosses him through a fake museum display it looks convincing enough to confuse the attackers.
  • Self-Destruct Mechanism: Employees of the Municipal Survey were given agency-issued cell phones with a secret, explosive self-destruct function built in. The self-destruct function is hijacked in the attack on the Suitland Office, injuring several employees when their phones all explode simultaneously — Henry gets shards of phone-screen glass stuck in his face and hand.
  • Show Within a Show:
    • Sarah Laury's student play, "The Man in the Tower," is a plot point. The play was Sarah's love letter to Kirklin, with the characters of the beautiful runaway and the solitary wizard representing the two of them. Unfortunately, it was also filled with sophomoric metaphors for their real relationship — so Henry and OWEN are able to figure out that Kirklin has been hiding Sarah in an unlisted train line after reading how the wizard and the beautiful runaway placed themselves in the stars as a figure-8 constellation.
    • Several in-universe works of art are mentioned, including famous postcards and photographs from Metropolis' history.
  • Surveillance Drone: The Municipal Survey maintains a fleet of drones to monitor cities in real time. During the attack on the USMS at the beginning of the book, all of the drones in Metropolis fall out of the sky, damaging buildings and injuring dozens of people. The drones are later used by the militarized members of Kirklin's Metropolis branch of the USMS as Attack Drones.
  • Teeth Flying: With OWEN's prompting, Henry punches Biggs during the interrogation on the roof of the Census Bureau parking garage, and Biggs' teeth go skittering across the pavement — all of them. Turns out his teeth were replaced with dentures, as have many members of the radicalized Metropolis branch of the USMS, to prevent Identification by Dental Records.
  • Virtual Sidekick: Henry Thompson is accompanied on his investigation by OWEN, the handsome holographically projected avatar of the highly experimental supercomputer built by Henry's government employers. OWEN is most helpful when he's assisting Henry with research, reconnaissance, and navigation. Whenever he "helps out" by projecting embarrassing disguises onto Henry or threatening interrogation suspects with a very convincing holographic katana, OWEN tends to make a mess of things. Much of OWEN's personality and understanding of human mannerisms comes from the classic Gangster, Western, and Samurai films his creator loved, which means OWEN has a flair for drama and escalating situations that puts him at odds with his neurotic, rule-abiding human partner.
    "Okay," he said, sounding reluctant to get down to business. "How can I be of assistance?
    "Actually," I said, "could you start by telling me what you are exactly?"
    He considered the question.
    "What am I? Well, I'm a 3-D projection of the agency's supercomputer. And what you are is a bipedal ape with high manual dexterity and a brain that's only really impressive if you take into account the fact that you grew it yourself. Now maybe you'd prefer to ask a slightly less insulting question, like who am I?"
    "Oh," I said, "I didn't mean any offense. Who are you?"
    "I already told you. The name's OWEN. Try to keep up."
  • Western Terrorists: The attacks carried out on the Suitland & Metropolis branches of the Municipal Survey and the bombing of the Metropolis Museum district are carried out by the radicalized Metropolis branch of the USMS. Their goal is to "destroy the continuation of western civilization" and disrupt capitalism.
  • Wunza Plot: A stuffy human bureaucrat and his day-drinking AI partner have to work together to stop a radicalized branch of their government agency from terrorizing the largest city in North America.