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Written in Fire by Marcus Sakey

25812667In the world of Brilliance, Marcus Sakey’s trilogy following the adventures of Nick Cooper, a federal agent, some people are born with extraordinary abilities. They don’t shoot laser beams from their eyes, or turn to steel, or anything like that. Rather, they have abilities that all of us have to some degree, but amped up to a much higher level. Some can see the patterns of people moving and thus can slip through a crowd without notice. Others experience time more slowly that normal, and so can react to events much faster than the rest of us. Cooper’s skill allows him to read body language and anticipate what other people are going to do, a useful skill when tracking down criminals.

In Written in Fire, Sakey takes Cooper on his biggest adventure yet. Without going into detail and ruining the plot, things have gotten out of control between the US government and the Wyoming enclave of the brilliant (the ones born with these abilities), to the point that war may be inevitable. Cooper has to both determine who is doing what — who are the bad guys — and try to stop it.

The problem is, it isn’t clear who the bad guys are. No one thinks of themselves as a bad guy, but rather as someone who has to change the way things are. In Sakey’s world, nothing is black and white — everything is grey. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends. No one is evil, per se, but rather commit evil acts in the name of some greater good, at least in their own mind. However, sometimes, events escape them, spinning out of control.

I really like the greyness of Sakey’s world, as it reflects my own views of the world. Further, while Sakey has created a world of extraordinary people, the themes touch on real world concerns: meritocracy, the rights of minorities, the fear of a changing world, terrorism, the government response to terrorism, personal freedom and responsibility. While Sakey’s world is one of science fiction, the foundation of his world is our own world. He has much to say about the world, but in an even way that presents a nuanced and, yes, grey picture that maybe can help promote dialog.

A couple of quotes that I liked that illustrate this point:

Mostly, people believe they’re doing the right thing. Even the ones who are doing bad things usually believe they’re heroes, that whatever terrible thing they’re doing is to prevent something worse.

When people are scared, it’s easy for them to decide anything different is evil.

He’s broken. Most real-life villains are. Usually it’s not their fault. But that doesn’t matter.

That’s the risk of summoning a demon; they don’t tend to follow orders.

Written in Fire is a fitting end to the Brilliance trilogy, taking it to the greatest of heights and the deepest of depths. It is a great ride that provokes reflection, the way all great fiction should.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

9781611099690_custom-9ba9bdb4ab35cd10ff6b1ac6d3ca5b74c98bf343-s6-c30The conceit of stories like the X-Men is that there are people who are born that are different than the rest of us, and that difference makes them both special as well as a potential threat. In the case of the X-Men, they have extraordinary powers — shooting eye beams, controlling the weather, walking through walls, turning into metal — that give them enormous advantages over the rest of humanity. In some ways, that is the same conceit of Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance, though here it is treated in a much more subtle and realistic manner.

Imagine a world where, instead of being born with the ability to fly, the special people do have extraordinary talents, but they are essentially ampped up versions of things all of us can do. Recognize body language, but so well that you can anticipate the actions of others. See patterns in the movement of people that you can walk through crowds of people without being noticed. Or identify patterns in computer code such that you can make the computer do whatever you want. People like this would be viewed as both an asset and a threat. Or both at the same time. At some point, it would be inevitable that the government becomes involved in the lives of these people. And some of them would rebel. That is the basic premise of Brilliance.

Some of these people, so-called brilliants, in an effort to make sure their lives are peaceful, have decided to work on the side of the devil, so to speak, working for the government to keep other brilliants in check. And keeping them in check means some heavy handed involvement by the government, including taking potentially brilliant children to special schools. One of these agents, Cooper, is on the trail of a brilliant terrorist. But, as he discovers, reality is quite a bit more complex and nuanced than his black and white view of the world.

My understanding is that this is the first in a series of novels developing and exploring this world of brilliant people. If the first one is any indicator, we are in for a dramatic ride that touches on themes such as individual freedom and responsibility, the role of government, and how we treat people who are different than ourselves.