The Orville: Sympathy for the Devil
Written by: Seth MacFarlane
Published by: Hyperion Avenue (Disney Publishing)
Would a mass murderer be guilty of a crime if none of the people they believe they killed were actually ever real? That’s the intriguing premise behind Seth MacFarlane’s new novella, The Orville: Sympathy for the Devil.
Season three of The Orville (or, The Orville: New Horizons) was initially planned to have eleven episodes, but the ninth episode (“Sympathy for the Devil”) was determined to be unfilmable. Apparently, what scuttled it was an inability to shoot on location outside the USA due to COVID restrictions, and the pregnancy of three cast members. Instead, Seth MacFarlane turned the script into a novella.
The events in the novella ostensibly take place between episodes eight and nine, but there are no references to events past episode five, “A Tale of Two Topas.” Also, a word needs to be said about the amazing cover by veteran comic book artist Bill Sienkiewicz. That word is, “WOW.”
The review contains minor spoilers
Fully the first half of this novella takes place without any appearance by the crew of the Orville. Rather, the story begins in New York City, 1904, in the lobby of the St. Regis hotel, as a frantic woman interrupts the calm of the day by rushing in with her swaddled baby, placing him in the charge of the desk clerk, saying, “Please! Take my baby!” As quickly as she ran in, she dashed out again, with a final, “I’ll come back for you! Do you hear me? I’ll come back!” and like that, she was gone.
The clerk and staff of the hotel, not able to care for the infant themselves, place the child in the care of a German couple staying at the hotel, who had recently lost their own baby to typhoid. And so it is that the newly-named Otto Vogel is taken to Germany, and raised by a kindly family, as that nation endures the turmoil of the Great War, the rise of German nationalism, and eventually, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler.
Where and how the crew of the Orville comes into all of this is one of the novella’s delightful surprises, and I will not spoil it here. Suffice it to say that the whole thing sets up an intriguing premise that could only be done in science fiction, and leads to penetrating questions about moral responsibility for one’s actions. What determines whether a deed is a crime or not? Is it the actual effect? Or is it the intent of the person performing the act? Underlying all of this are more profound questions about nature vs. nurture – does our genetic heritage determine who we will become, or does our upbringing play a larger role?
The strength of this novella lies in the premise, and in the first half of the book, watching an innocent child grow into a moral monster. It’s likely that all of us have said, “If I had lived in 1930’s Germany, I would have opposed Hitler?” But as we watch little Otto grow and face his challenges, we are led to wonder – given the right set of circumstances, would we really have been able to grow into the values we now hold?
The second half, wrestling with how to deal with Otto in light of his history, also has its charms – the moral questions are intriguingly explored – but struggles to come to a satisfying narrative conclusion. Once you have an Otto Vogel, is rehabilitation even possible? In a culture that has done away with punitive justice, how can justice be possible for someone responsible (possibly) for participation in genocide?
But if the novella is not sure how to land that particular plane, the journey along the way is immensely interesting. How a story like this would have worked as an episode of television is beyond me, especially with the main cast absent for the first half. But as a novella, it is a heck of a story.
Sympathy of the Devil was released on July 19, 2022, as an e-book as well as an audiobook read by actor Bruce Boxleitner. You can pick up the ebook at Amazon for $3.09. And the audiobook is available for $4.89 on Amazon or as part of your Audible subscription.
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