The Man Who Used the Universe: Unlikable protagonist makes it hard to enjoy

The Man Who Used the Universe by Alan Dean Foster science fiction book reviewsThe Man Who Used the Universe by Alan Dean Foster

The Man Who Used the Universe by Alan Dean FosterI picked up Alan Dean Foster’s The Man Who Used the Universe because it was just released in audio format. It’s a stand-alone science fiction novel, set in the far future, about a man named Kees vaan Loo-Macklin. Kees is a brilliant tactician who is building a career and an empire for himself. When we first meet him, he’s the lackey of a local crime boss, but we watch for years as he works his way up, gaining riches and power as he rises. He even forms a trading alliance with a hated alien species called the Nuel.

But there are two strange things about Kees vaan Loo-Macklin. One is that he seems to form no real bonds with any individual human or alien. He doesn’t seem to care about anyone. The other, perhaps most surprising thing, is that his motive for gaining power and riches is not clear. He doesn’t seem to crave them or to use them to live extravagantly, yet he obviously has some sort of obsession that drives him. What is motivating this man?

That is the central dilemma that drives the plot of The Man Who Used the Universe. To enjoy the novel, you need to really want to know the answer to this question. If you, like me, find yourself thinking for most of the story that Kees is not only a reprehensible sociopath, but (worse) a rather boring reprehensible sociopath, you just may not care enough to want to know the answer. You may find that even if Kees does turn out, in the end, to be not quite as reprehensible as you thought for most of the novel, it may be too late to make you feel differently about him or your reading experience.

The Man Who Used the Universe by Alan Dean Foster


Kees vaan Loo-Macklin, with his flat affect and enigmatic ways is, unfortunately, the central feature of The Man Who Used the Universe. The various planets, cities, and societies the story took place in had the potential to be quite interesting but, as Foster focused almost exclusively on Kees’ actions, he missed that opportunity. Foster’s prose is unlikely to inspire rapture from readers, either, though I quite liked its spare matter-of-fact tone and expect that I would enjoy reading a different story written by Alan Dean Foster.

The Man Who Used the Universe was not a complete loss for me, though. I did enjoy the philosophical questions that Foster brings out. I don’t want to specify these too clearly so as not to spoil the novel’s secrets, but I’ll say that The Man Who Used the Universe asks us to consider ethical theories such as consequentialism and utilitarianism, and that’s always a worthy endeavor.

The audio version of The Man Who Used the Universe is 10 hours long. It was produced by Dreamscape Media and nicely narrated by Paul Ansdell.

Published in 1983. No one knows the true motives of Kees vaan Loo-Macklin. He’s a mastermind criminal who gave up his place at the head of the dark underworld to become a legitimate member of Evenwaith’s cities. But soon he was reaching out to powerful enemies—-the slimy aliens called the Nuel. Loo-Macklin negotiates an illusory peace agreement and gains precious alien secrets in the process. Is he after peace, power or pure evil? With enemy starships beginning to amass, we won’t have to wait long to find out. 

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. Kat, you might like some of his earlier works, like the “Flinx” series. I think Philip Lynx is a more likeable version of Kees, but he *is* likeable and he has a cute mini-dragon pet, so there’s that. They’re from the 80s at the latest, maybe 70s, and dated, but probably still fun.

    Nothing is worse than a boring reprehensible sociopath (to read about, at least).

  2. Michael /

    It’s a short book with a constantly moving storyline. Figuring out Kees IS the point of the story, so I don’t agree with this review. If you can’t get through a 200 page book without losing interest, then just watch tv

  3. Lez Manzel /

    I also listened to the audio version of the book and I think part of the difficulty of the Loo-Macklin character was Paul Ansdell’s voicing of him. He sounds flat and uninteresting to the point where he seems to have no emotion at all. All the other characters were voiced with a distinct personality although some of the regional British dialects were a little OTT (I’m not sure a woman living on a distant planet in the far future would have such a heavy Scots accent). I think this is a book that would be better read rather than listened to, however as a long-distance driver, I rarely have that privilege.

    • Lez, you may be right. Usually a professional narrator understands the author’s intention for the characters and voices them appropriately, but sometimes there’s a mismatch. I always try to dissociate the two, but sometimes it’s hard to do that. If I think there’s a mismatch and it might affect my reading, I mention that in my review. It’s been nearly three years since I read this, so I don’t recall exactly what I thought, but the fact that I wrote only that it was a “nicely narrated” suggests that I wasn’t sure and was giving the reader the benefit of the doubt. I THINK I remember feeling that way about this one.

      Do you drive trucks? If so, thank you for your service at this crazy time. (My husband is in the freight logistics business, so I know a bit about the industry.) It must be nice to have a job that allows you to read while you do it!

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