Marcus Sakey's first science fiction novel, Brilliance, opens with headlines ripped from the newspapers of an alternate 1986: A small percentage of children born in 1980 onwards exhibit some extraordinary abilities: pattern recognition, extracognition, and more. They're called Brilliants, and they're at the heart of this gripping thriller.
So what happens when this alternate 80s generation grows up? The answer comes when the book fast-forwards to the present day, where the United States is coming to terms with a population of individuals who can outthink, outsmart and outmaneuver the rest of us. Sakey's book takes a hard look at disruption in society, the dark choices which are made and the bright potential that accompanies any major change.
Agent Nick Cooper is a gas man, working with the Department of Analysis and Response, whose job it is to track down and eliminate Brilliants who pose a clear and present danger to society. Cooper is loyal to the cause, and a Brilliant himself: he can read body language to predict where someone’s going to move before they even know it. From the first foot chase in the opening pages of the novel, it's clear that he's at the top of his game. Recruited by the DAR’S director, Drew Peters, in the early days of the program, he's fielded to take out for home grown terrorists who are looking to violently strike back at those looking to restrict their rights.
He's got good reason to work for the program. Shortly after he joined the DAR, a fellow Brilliant named John Smith walked into a crowded Washington DC restaurant and coldly executed 73 civilians. The nation reacted out of fear of additional violence, and the DAR's funding was increased exponentially. Its agents were given a free reign to track down and execute suspects without any legal consequence, backed up by a major surveillance apparatus. When another bombing occurs in New York City, Cooper goes undercover, working to track down Smith, with his entire agency hot on his heels as he passes through a crime-ridden Chicago, the Brilliant settlement of New Caanan in the southwest, and finally returns to nation’s seat of power in Washington for a showdown. All along the way, he finds that everything he's believed in might not be as it seems, that he’s been maneuvered into place.
The book's story reminds me quite a bit of films like Minority Report, and television shows such as Alphas, Fringe and Person Of Interest, in both its structure and content. The book has a real cinematic quality to it, and it should come as no surprise that the movie rights to the film were snapped up months before the book's release. Sakey weaves together a fast-paced and gripping story, balancing action and political intrigue.
The major theme that runs through the book is confronting change. Like the public’s response to mutants in the X-Men comics or the entire Islamic population following 9-11, there’s a sense of drastic, ill-intentioned overreach in the name of the greater good. Children who exhibit Brilliant-like behavior are shunned as freaks, twists. The governmental response to the population is akin to that of 9-11; powerful Brilliants are tested and sent to special academies, where they’re taught to distrust and hate their kind, conditioned to trust the rest of the normal population. A bill is introduced in Congress to microchip Brilliants to track their locations at all times.
The schools and conditioning are just one part of this response: the DAR is the enforcement wing, a sort of Homeland Security meets the NSA, granted incredible resources to protect the country. Phones can be tapped at will, without warrants, hostile individuals can be rounded up for questioning with the least bit of suspicion, or worse, executed on the spot if they’re deemed a high enough threat. Brilliance is as much a cautionary tale of the incremental decline of individual rights in the name of the greater good. This alternative country hasn’t reached the dystopian levels of the likes of 1984, Fahrenheit 451 or The Handmaid’s Tale, but it feels startlingly realistic, just a short hop away from the present day.
Indeed, there are hints that Brilliants have enhanced the country’s way of life: technological changes are everywhere, and the country seems to be on the brink of real science fictional advancement into the future. But, the country is divided: Brilliants aren’t trusted, and a number have moved out to the settlement of New Caanan, a sort of mashup of Israel and Eureka. It’s advanced, and people there remind Cooper that the oddness he finds in the place is down to his old-world way of thinking.
In many ways, the introduction of a growing minority of individuals with an different or advanced way of looking at the world is a shock to the preexisting systems that set up the world to run. It reminds me much of the changing demographics that we see throughout the United States, ethnically and politically. Indeed, there’s a tongue in cheek cameo of our world, spelling out radical extremism, Wall Street excesses, a failing educational system and economy, held up as an example of how a systematic reluctance to innovate and explore new ideas can cause major problems for a nation.
The clear message to take out of this novel is that major, disruptive change generally has the same response: fear, anxiety and an extreme response set to maintain the status quo before the inevitable happens. Despite the advances of Sakey’s world, there’s still people, and they’re holding onto what they know to the point where they warp what they have into something unrecognizable. Cooper blithely accepts the department line that he’s doing good, rather than questioning if the good that he’s working for is really something in the best interest for the country as a whole.
Interestingly, Sakey’s jumping off point for this novel came as his wife worked on a master’s degree in Childhood Development, particularly when it came to autism. What if something similar, akin to superpowers, came instead, at the same rates? Increasingly, I’ve not seen the question ‘How do we cure this problem’, but rather, ‘How do we learn, understand and adapt to this change?’, in the discussions about autism. While Brilliance doesn’t spell out a roadmap for that, it does present a couple of interesting scenarios that shows that not all change is bad, and that thinking in new ways may be the way forward.