Marcus Sakey, Brilliance
Nick Cooper (don’t call him “Nick”) cannot lose a fistfight. He sees
your plans before they crease your brain. This makes him the best agent
Equitable Services has, a supergenius keeping other supergeniuses in
line. So Cooper’s a deep cover natural, tracking John Smith, supergenius
terrorist. But only after he puts life, family, and nation on the line
does Cooper discover he’s facing a bigger enemy than anyone realizes.
Sakey’s sci-fi thriller uses story tropes we’ve all seen before—genetic
superpowers, rogue g-men, misguided freedom fighters, America in
jeopardy from within. But he remixes these common components in
meaningful ways, creating a story that feels intimately familiar, yet
new enough to keep readers hooked. It’s fun to watch his characters
crack by inches, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of
is one of the Brilliant, the Gifted, the Abnorms, the Twists. Around
1980, a tiny number of savants were born to ordinary parents. They
became mathematicians, artists, engineers, swindlers, athletes, leaders,
millionaires. Some became terrorists. Less than one percent of the
population, they nevertheless wield such skill that they unbalance
society. The masses fear such geniuses, and the state takes
extraordinary measures to condition and control them.
proposes a world transformed by its genius minority: superior
technology, advanced art, immense wealth and productivity. But it’s also
a two-tiered society, in which ordinary people cannot rise to the peaks
of accomplishment anymore. They respond by tearing down the Gifted,
forcing them into “academies” where teachers use operant conditioning to
render pupils docile, unambitious, and weak. Charles Xavier would
psychology doesn’t shackle the Brilliants, the government’s Equitable
Services steps in. Cooper is one of the True Believers, a Brilliant who
dedicates his gifts to preserving order and the system. He believes with
such fervor that we know, early on, he’s doomed to see his beliefs
dashed. The question, then, is not “what,” it’s “how?”
domestic insurgency doesn’t share Cooper’s dedication. In an alternate
world that never endured 9/11, New York is unprepared for an attack on
Wall Street. Equitable Services believes it’s at war with the Abnorms
(Cooper apparently has unrestricted license to kill), a metaphor the
Abnorms accept with discomforting aplomb. Whenever one side raises the
ante, the other side responds in kind. Nobody wants to appear weak.
as our first-person narrator, relays this with remarkable eye for
detail. He clearly relishes his job, believing he’s doing God’s work,
right up to the moment he doesn’t. And because he’s done such a bold job
explaining the Abnorm world around him, his description of his own
dawning realization brings readers through his difficult journey with
readers cannot help but notice Sakey’s real-world parallels.
Indoctrinated youth, made to depend on authority, which the state will
eagerly provide. Government agents tasked to enforce rules over which
they have no authority, for reasons bathed in official secrecy. Domestic
enemies hunted because their mere presence makes the majority feel
threatened, and a state that would rather maintain than assuage that
fear. Sound familiar at all?
in Sakey’s symbolism, as in real life, truth rejects simple
definitions. Everyone believes they’re serving the greater good, even if
doing so costs innocent lives. More than once, in pursuit of a quarry
he increasingly doesn’t understand, Cooper must choose between the
people before him, and society’s peace and preservation. As one
character intones, “Truth or power.” You can’t have both.
like this, of the banded masses stifling the greatness inherent in an
unappreciated minority, have enjoyed great popularity through the years.
Philosophers like Nietzsche and Ayn Rand have buttered their bread with
the proposition that a minority are born great, but dragged down by
humanity. In less extreme terms, franchises like X-Men and Ender’s Game investigate the struggle between individual greatness and collective necessity.
Sakey rejects this in practice. Cooper tries to fight the forces
threatening humanity alone, yet every step finds him surrounded by aides
and companions whose distinct skills smooth his way. It’s debatable how
much Cooper even realizes others help him at each step, as he believes
in his own self-reliance. Yet if he pays attention he’d realize how much
he needs his role in society.
tells an energetic, gritty story that doesn’t let readers slide. His
complex characters and fraught situations ask for moral judgments that
are much harder to actually render. But if we struggle, Cooper struggles
beside us. Sometimes, having no easy answer is the best answer possible.