What if the X-Men were real? And what if they weren't mutants in spandex, but people like you and me and Bob in accounting, just endowed with superhuman talents for things like pattern recognition, programming and strategy?
That's the premise of Marcus Sakey's new novel, Brilliance — yes, "brilliants" are among us, and their outsize abilities have knocked our society off balance. One brilliant money whiz has broken the stock market. Others have jumped medical research forward by decades in just a few years. And in a topical twist, a government agency — the euphemistically named Department of Analysis and Response — hunts down troublesome brilliants with all the resources of an overgrown surveillance state.
I chatted with Sakey via email, and he told me that he's fascinated by savants, people who can reproduce complex drawings after just a single glance, or pick up an instrument and master it in moments. "Of course, in real life, most of them have terrible challenges," Sakey writes. "But I got to thinking: what if it was just an attribute, like hair color or height? And what if it became commonplace, say 1 percent of everyone born since 1980?"
Brilliants are, essentially, superheroes. And in the comics, we mostly accept that superheroes are there to help us, and while there are supervillains, you can usually count on the Avengers to ward them off. Or the X-Men, or Batman — and so on. But it seems like your book inverts the traditional superhero narrative (or if you want to get really nerdy about it, there are some echoes of the Marvel Comics "Civil War" storyline, which involves a Superhuman Registration Act).
"Oh, I want to get really nerdy about it. I'm a card-carrying nerd, a gamer and sci-fi geek.
"One of the rules I made for myself early on, though, was that while the brilliants have amazing abilities, they are all rooted in things the human mind is actually capable of. So no flying, or laser-beam eyes. But if your brain is able to read the patterns of body language and the vectors of people's movement, you could essentially move invisibly just by being where no one is looking.
"The other factor that was important to me is the fact that unlike most superheroes, this isn't a small band working together. It's millions of people worldwide, people who don't otherwise share attributes or beliefs. Not only that, but they are born randomly, which means that you can't distance yourself. You might feel one way about the brilliants most of your life — and then discover your daughter is one.
"Complicating things further, the brilliants aren't just considered better. They are. They're objectively superior to the rest of us. Which is a scary concept to normal people.
"Of course, we outnumber them 99 to one ..."
And as long as we're playing the literary reference game, the "I am John Smith" graffiti that appear throughout the book make me think of John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. Was that intentional?
"Absolutely. I love burying references.
"I also had great fun satirizing our current political situation, and 'I am John Smith' is partly that as well. When I was writing the novel, the Occupy movement was in full swing, and 'I am the 99%' signs were everywhere. In fact, you often saw them in places that might technically have fit the definition, but not by a very wide margin. Spotting one in the window of a stately Lincoln Park [Chicago] graystone cracked me up.
"So 'I am John Smith' was also a way to turn that on its head, and to lampoon that sort of easy affiliation. In my mind, most of the graffiti artists weren't even brilliants. They meant it as support, and with noble intentions, but the truth is that they aren't John Smith any more than those Lincoln Parkers are the 99 percent."
We discover during the story that one financially talented brilliant has amassed enough money to buy a large chunk of Wyoming and establish a private sanctuary for his kind — and there are lots of interesting details about what it's like to live in the middle of the desert with a bunch of supergeniuses. Tell us a little bit about the New Canaan Holdfast.
"That was probably my favorite part. It was world-building at its purest, and I spent a week just playing with ideas. I wanted it to really feel like what a group of smart, well-funded people might build if they had carte blanche.
"What really cracked it open for me was that it was founded and largely peopled by brilliants, the oldest of which is about 32. So besides rational design and adaptation to harsh conditions, one of the biggest driving factors of the Holdfast is youth. These are kids building a brand-new new world in the desert. They're brilliant in every meaning of the world, but still kids.
"Which means it's a place completely free of nostalgia. Nothing is done 'because that's the way we do it;' instead, every choice is conscious, and tied to the character of the people building it. Plus, it's done with enthusiasm and vigor and no shortage of celebration. I saw it sort of like the rise of Israel, when teenagers were building kibbutzes by day and partying and having sex by night."
I got to the end of Brilliance and was so excited to see the words "End of Book One." Care to drop any little hints about what might be coming next for Nick Cooper and his family?
"I don't want to give too much away, but it's clear that the world has been heading toward a precipice. In the sequel, we step off the edge. One thing I've learned in researching this book is that as amazing as the modern world is, it's also incredibly fragile.
"The book picks up about six weeks after the end of the first, and things are getting worse. There are direct repercussions to Cooper's actions, and they aren't all good. John Smith has remade himself as a high-profile activist, but his real motivations are in question. A terrorist organization called the Children of Darwin has sprung up out of nowhere to wreak havoc on American cities. And the government, deadlocked by party differences and paralyzed by fear of political repercussions, seems powerless to act.
"In my book — and I'd suggest, in real life — there are people who would honestly welcome a civil war. Who feel like the 'other side' is so far from their own way of thinking that conversation and compromise are pointless. In the book, we're going to see that play out.
"Though I do hope that real-life red and blue states don't end up bearing arms against each other."
And last, I have to ask, Agent Cooper? Really? Please tell me that's a Twin Peaks reference.
"Gaa! Sadly, no — that one was an accident. I can't believe I missed that. Nice spot!"