The Man Who Used the Universe by Alan Dean Foster
I 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.
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.