Book Review: ‘Brilliance’ – Super-Genius Terrorists Fighting Fascist Cops

Reading “Dune” as a child, one of my favorite aspects of the distant future Frank Herbert created were the mentants–intense, human computational machines who functioned on pure logic. They were more human than human, a necessary function of the empire’s prohibition against thinking machines, embodied and given such great flavor and detail through only a pair of characters–the conflicted Dr. Yueh and the half-mad Piter De Vries.

In just a handful of scenes, Herbert invested these characters with life and unique conflicts absent the entire cast of super geniuses and savants in Marcus Sakey’s rote procedural “Brilliance,” a potentially explosive mix of “Days of Future Past”-style mutant oppression mingled with the freedom vs. security paranoia of “24” which… sounds kind of good when you lay it out like that. Unfortunately, Sakey’s fascinating alternate history where an increasing segment of the population has become mental savants capable of massive computations isn’t worthy of the characters, putting a bunch of very smart people in a very played-out plot.

Sometime around 1980, the world began to experience a massive spike in the birth of “brilliants,” children born with the ability to perceive and make sense of minute and grand patterns, creating savants in all fields and disrupting the status quo by being smarter than the average human. When the human animal sees that its successors have surpassed them, they freak out a little, and “Brilliance” imagines a present where the U.S. government has put strict controls in place to monitor brilliants after a terrorist attack by the master strategist John Smith.

Our hero is Special Agent Nick Cooper, employee of Equitable Services, whose doublespeak name doesn’t do a good job of hiding this government agency’s task: to control and sometimes clandestinely assassinate potentially dangerous brilliants. That Cooper is himself a brilliant–able to make predictions about people’s actions based on fine patterns in their movement–adds a layer of conflict. Nick thinks he’s one of the good guys, even if he knows he has to do bad things to protect his fellow brilliants.

Unfortunately, this is the blandest of post-9/11 stories (the terrorist attack of that day even gets called out in a piece of conjectural fiction in the book), not adding in any substantial way to the morally complex question of loyalty to brother and duty to state. After another major attack that leaves thousands dead, Cooper goes undercover to get close to John Smith, forcing Cooper to play the bad guy and see how the average brilliant lives. Does he come away from it seeing that he might be on the wrong side of the fight? And will a beautiful terrorist whose own skill allows her to avoid detection somehow find her way into his heart?

The problem isn’t so much that the story turns on the same kind of undercover/everything isn’t what it seems plot we’ve seen time and time again, it’s how all of the pieces fall into the same, predictable places. For such a smart character, you would think Cooper would have seen the pattern emerge in the routine story he’s forced to live through, every bland betrayal, every monologuing villain and sadistic henchman. It feels like a book that should be populated with next-level players outwitting one another (and the reader), but at no point will the reader feel anything less than two steps ahead of the heroes and villains.

By the end of “Brilliance,” Sakey has promised to revisit this world, the status quo dramatically disrupted by Cooper’s actions and a major change in the regime. Maybe, with this story out of his system, he’ll have something more interesting to say about his world of super-geniuses and the oncoming conflict with the rest of humanity.

“Brilliance” will be available on July 16.

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