Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Psi

Marcus Sakey, A Better World (The Brilliance Saga, Book Two)

This review follows the prior review X-Men, G-Men, X-Files, Gee Whiz!

The Children of Darwin, a utopian terrorist organization of super-gifted genetic savants, manages to paralyze three major American cities. Nick Cooper, a former government agent whose fearlessness brought down an administration, gets drafted by the new President to help halt the escalating violence. But when he uncovers his own inadvertent responsibility, high office cannot shield his conscience. With two beautiful women’s aid, Cooper must go off the grid to resist the growing grip of anarchy.

Marcus Sakey’s prior book, Brilliance, combined science fiction, spy thriller, and political intrigue in ways that made readers re-evaluate the familiar stereotypes. It kept readers guessing, constantly throwing everything we thought we understood into doubt. Sakey tries to repeat that volume’s success, but in exactly the same way, meaning repeat readers will spot alleged twists a mile away. We start to wonder: if we saw that coming, why did Cooper, a supposed supergenius, get snookered?

Beginning around 1980, a generation of virtuosos was born, the so-called Brilliants. Less charitable citizens call them “abnorms” or “twists,” and their extreme mental abilities have earned them lasting enmity. Sakey established this backstory in his first volume, and briefly restates it here, so new readers can jump in cold. Sakey also established an important truth for Cooper, his viewpoint antihero: as Motown taught us, smiling faces tell lies. Sadly, Cooper appears a slow study.

Reviewing espionage thrillers provides unique challenges, because the elaborate, cantilevered plots are vulnerable to spoilers. So rather than recounting the plot, I’ll share my responses. Like first, conspiracy theories depend on the expectation that large groups essentially function much like small groups. Except they don’t. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Sakey’s entire plot would collapse if one terrorist sympathizer simply had an attack of conscience.

Worse, Sakey attempts the exact narrative twist-n-shout his first novel played well. Twice in the first novel, Cooper realized everything he believed was wrong. He’d committed acts of extreme violence, to support what he later learned was a lie. It shocked us once. This time, when he repeats the kind of strongarm tactics that America should’ve abandoned following revelations of Abu Ghraib, Cooper just looks thick. We await the big reveal Cooper frankly should’ve anticipated.

Near the midpoint, Cooper bridles when his sometime girlfriend, a terrorist moll herself, calls him “a stormtrooper.” But she’s not wrong. Cooper uses kidnapping, intimidation, and violence to support his vision of rectitude, treating law as an impediment to weaklings. He evidently believes that, if he’s morally right, any action, however anarchistic, is perforce justified. This Nietzschean bosh-and-twaddle might hold water in John Birch meetings, but regular Americans will recognize it for garden variety fascism.

Nor is Cooper alone in this attitude. Elsewhere, several ranking bureaucrats loiter around the Oval Office, watching riots unfold in Cleveland. They repeatedly blame the Children of Darwin for the escalating violence, claiming it legitimizes posse comitatus civil crackdowns. But whatever the original cause, the COD didn’t proximally start these riots; they began when police fired tear gas into crowds of unarmed protesters. When this happened in Tahrir Square, the developed world was justifiably outraged.

In a parallel narrative, geneticist Ethan Park, his wife, and their daughter, attempt to flee a Cleveland increasingly beset by violence, starvation, and paranoia. Sakey establishes immediately how much we should like Ethan because, in his first scene, he can’t buy baby formula. Everything goes from bad to worse for the Parks, a cascade of constant heartbreak and catastrophe. Ethan’s tale follows the beat breakdown in Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder’s annoyingly ubiquitous screenwriting guide.

I hesitate to say what comes next, but I must: Sakey’s narrative precisely embodies the kind of separatist phobia that propagates in mass media like shower curtain mold whenever a Democrat is elected President. Whatever Sakey’s personal politics (which I don’t know), the extreme anti-government sentiment and lone-wolf moralism feel familiar, from The X-Files during the Clinton years to The Fugitive during Camelot. Coupled with Snyder’s beat breakdown, Sakey’s story plays to existing media-driven paranoia.

Between his totalitarian philosophy and store-bought narrative arc, Sakey manages to undermine all goodwill he purchased with this series’ first volume. If I gave you that first book, Snyder’s guide, and any randomly selected season of Kiefer Sutherland’s popular right-wing action series 24, you could write this book yourself. Sakey’s first volume managed to set high standards in an admittedly repetitive genre, upending wheezy old boilerplates. This second volume embodies everything the first volume demolished.

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