REVIEW: Orthogonal Procedures
Title: Orthogonal Procedures
Author: Adam Rothstein
Publisher: Underland Press, October 3
Paperback, 280 pages
Genre: Fiction / Science Fiction / Time Travel
I received this as an advanced review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my opinion.
“Everything you are about to read is true. Mostly.
After US Postmaster Theodore Roosevelt showed the Nazis who was boss in 1942, the Postal Bureau–part of the Department of Transportation–ushered in an era of scientific marvels: simulcast via satellite, sub-orbital transnational flights, dazzle pistols, and electromagnetic driverless cars. However, long-simmering feuds between the Shamans of Commerce and the Wizards of Technology were not forgotten, and it isn’t until the age of Sputnik and the Space Race that the secret organizations buried deep within the US Weather Service and Census Bureau make their move against the Department of Transportation. To regain control of the Administration, they’ll need to rely on older–more esoteric–technologies: astrology, blood rituals, and strange creatures long thought extinct.
It’s up to G-man Fred Mackey of the Electromagnetic Bureau, Domestic Interference Engineering Section, to figure out how to science America back on track. With the assistance of the enigmatic Assistant Secretary for Innovation and the world’s leading specialist in rocket science and all-around occultnik, Mackey tackles the byzantine bureaucracy of a vast government conspiracy that extends from deep space to deep beneath the earth.
Welcome to 1970. This is the history you were never taught . . .”
Orthogonal Procedures is the debut novel of Adam Rothstein. This speculative fiction is an imaginative retelling of America’s recent history: what if the US Post Office controlled the Department of Transportation and was the most influential governmental branch?
Orthogonal Procedures is pure speculative fiction. Its creative world-building draws on the past, but certainly isn’t bound by it. Adam Rothstein likes to play fast and loose with historical figures, in a manner similar Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon), inserting them in absurd re-enactments of the past and giving them a boost from his imagination.
Mackey, an engineer and expert at bureaucratic bullshit, is conscripted by the Department of Transportation to investigate the hacking of a prototype program. He soon becomes an unwitting agent working for the Postal Service against the Department of Commerce because of something called the “Orthogonal Procedures”, meaning that sometimes departments must act against the goals of other departments in order to further their own agenda.
“ ‘We’re all part of the same government, aren’t we? Why is this happening?’”
Mackey’s character was a refreshing break from the super-hero protagonists seen all too often. He was painted as a clever caricature of a government-issue employee: his obsessive attention to proper dress and protocol; his name (Fred Mackey); his status as a G-man.
“ ‘This is why I need you. Not only are you an engineer, but you are an engineer who can clearly cut through the muddle of bureaucracy, to see what is really happening.’ ”
For writing a novel that relishes in alternative facts, if you will, the author has a penchant for introducing his characters and remaining faithful to them throughout the story. Rothstein truthfully portrayed the disconcertion and discomfort that Mackey would feel during this type of predicament. The other characters, whether purely fictional or stylized portraits of real people, all had their own strengths and weaknesses. Happily, this was one of the few books where no one assembled during the orthogonal procedures was TSTL (too stupid to live). I genuinely liked all the people.
As someone who has spent their fair share of time in various governmental and bureaucratic jobs, I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek and absurd depictions of the “muddle of bureaucracy”. Even the narration felt government-issue, being at once decidedly precise and also intensely vague while relying on extensive repetition and long-winded exposition. The plot, however, does move a bit more efficiently, sometimes to the point of glossing skipping straight to the next plot point.
“Nothing in bureaucracy was very complex—it just required a strong memory to recall the exact interpretation of the various terms and mechanics, and the appropriate pathways between the myriad places on the organizational chart.”
Overall, I thought that Rothstein wrote a very entertaining debut novel. While the story got a bit muddled now and then, it was genuinely entertaining. That being said, I had two frustrations. One, there were many instances where, through a long passage of descriptions, I was instructed on what was going on or how I should feel. I wanted to be immersed in the story, not sit through a lecture. Two, neither the occult nor the space aspects were fully developed. Either the book needed to be longer to flesh out those aspects, or Rothstein needed to focus on one or the other.
I’m a fan of alternative-history, and this was one I never saw coming. How often do you get to read a story where the Post Office runs everything? I suspect my Uncle Tim, retired postal worker, would respond that there’s a reason for that.
Recommended for: Fans of Neal Stephenson, Anubis Gates, John Scalzi, Three Body Problem, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and the tv show “Warehouse 13”.
Grade: 3 stars/B-
As an aside, this book strongly reminded me of another book which I read in one of my upper level undergraduate classes: “The Anthropology of Work and Technology”. (Only Anthropology would spend a semester combining esoteric conversations about ‘What is work?’ while building complex datasets and learning basic coding.) This text for this class, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal by M. Mitchell Waldrop, was a fascinating (and factual!) read. I highly recommend it if Orthogonal Procedures piqued your interest in the history of computing or the influence of computers on the American government.
Order your copy here: Orthogonal Procedures