Monday, July 15, 2013

X-Men, G-Men, X-Files, Gee Whiz!

Marcus Sakey, Brilliance

Agent 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.

Marcus 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 inevitability.

Cooper 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.

Sakey 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 blanche.

Where 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?”

The 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.

Cooper, 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 him.

Observant 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?

But 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.

Stories 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.

Surprisingly, 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.

Sakey 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.

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