REVIEW: The Orville: Sympathy for the Devil (2022)

A Book by Seth MacFarlane

NOTE: It’s pretty much impossible to talk about this without spoiling a big plot twist, so please read at your own risk:

The Orville: Sympathy for the Devil is a book that proposes an ethical dilemma I’m not sure I’ve seen fleshed out so fully in a science fiction story before. What would happen if a child were to be raised by a computer simulation to be evil? If that child were to grow to commit numerous atrocities that, while simulated, were every bit as awful as one can imagine, did they actually commit a crime? Can a person like that come back into society at all? This is exactly what happens in this relatively short but incredibly impactful story from Seth McFarlane that was supposed to be filmed as part of the third season of the television show, The Orville. The episode was cut due to delays caused by the Covid-19 global pandemic as well as a suspicion of mine that this would have been VERY expensive to film considering the historical setting. What we have has been reworked into a novel that was so good I read it all in one sitting.

“An original novella set in season three of The Orville—straight from the pen of Seth MacFarlane, creator of the beloved sci-fi TV show! When Captain Ed Mercer and the crew of the U.S.S. Orville come face-to-face with one of humanity’s most vile ideologies, they must solve the moral conundrum of who to hold accountable for evil deeds real… and imagined. Occurring just after episode 308, this is the Orville like you’ve never seen it before.”

This is the story of a young man named Otto Vogel, who rose to adulthood during one of the most turbulent times in U.S. history – the period between World War I and World War II. Vogel was abandoned in a New York hotel as a baby and initially cared for by hotel staff, his mother said she would be back, but never comes. The staff decide to give the child to Gunter and Ilse Vogel, a young married German couple who had recently lost a baby to a typhoid outbreak in their village. The Vogels are grateful for the baby boy, and they name him Otto after Gunter’s father. They travel back to Germany after the end of World War I and raise Otto like any German family would at the time, albeit with the looming specter of what happened at The Versailles Treaty making life hard. Time are tough for Otto, but he makes it work until he finds a new lease on life – The Fledgling Nazi Party that had just started gaining prominence in their village.

Otto becomes a devout member of the NSDAP and eventually is enlisted in the Waffen SS due to his loyalty and creates numerous connections. He marries a general’s daughter and rises through the ranks. He sometimes feels uneasy about the treatment of Jews due to being once saved by an old clockmaker that was Jewish, but ultimately succumbs to evil nonetheless. Becoming a commander of a concentration camp, having a child with his beautiful wife, and living a life many would be jealous of, Otto seemed to have it all until he was forced to host Red Cross inspectors on a possible humanitarian mission to the camp. These inspectors reveal themselves to be a man named Ed Mercer and a woman named Kelly Grayson. That’s when everything falls apart.

We find out Otto has been trapped in a simulation for thirty years, and was basically raised by a computer that unfortunately took a historic simulation of 1914 to it’s logical conclusion, all the way through World War II. His parents had to abandon him to save him from a Krill attack, assuming they would soon be released, only to find themselves in Krill prison for thirty years. They look at their son, actually named Adam, with a mixture of sadness and horror – why did this have to happen?

The plot of this somewhat reminds me of an old Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode called Hard Time, mixed with numerous Star Trek Holodeck episodes and even The Matrix. That Star Trek Episode dealt with the character Chief O’Brien coming to terms with the fact that he had been subjected to a simulated twenty year prison sentence in a matter of hours, only to be haunted by his experiences such as murdering his cellmate. Sympathy for the Devil takes a similar concept and makes it far more cruel as it focuses on a person raised in a simulation, led to a path of pure evil by an algorithm, and being forced to come to terms with their life being entirely fake and them a zealot for a cause that ended five centuries ago. This is handled expertly, and I seriously hope this script is able to be produced if a fourth season ever gets made.

I’m not sure what I was expecting in a book based on The Orville, but it definitely was not this. To me, this felt like something out of the old TV show The Outer Limits, and I was quite surprised with how dark this was, and the experimental nature of this considering this was to be a TV episode. I’m not lying when I say this is one of the better science fiction short stories I’ve read in a while, and perhaps a solid historical fiction book up to a point. If you are a fan of The Orville and have not read this, I fully recommend it. It’s different, it’s dark, and the characters from the show don’t show up until the end, but it’s definitely peak Orville storytelling, and for that I loved it.

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