Two new summer thrillers reimagine current affairs through a sci-fi lens
Marcus Sakey's "Brilliance" explores a world in which kids have supernatural abilities
Charlie Huston's 'Skinner" is an espionage thriller for the information age
Summer is the perfect time of year to dive into thrillers that will burn away the afternoon and make you forget about your job, the heat or your visiting in-laws.
Two new page-turners out in July fit that description, breaking new ground in the techno-thriller genre, which draws upon themes in science fiction, espionage and action.
Watching ‘the social dominoes fall’
Marcus Sakey’s “Brilliance” is part science fiction, part high-speed chase with a healthy dose of “Big Brother” paranoia.
Sakey imagines a world very much like our own, except the human species is just a bit more evolved. A tiny percentage of children are born with special gifts. They can tell if you’re lying and move unseen in a crowd; a few are smart enough to manipulate the stock market like a Rubik’s cube. To the families of these children, they’re called “brilliants.” To others who fear them, they’re “abnorms.”
There is no 9/11 in the universe of “Brilliance,” but there is still a war on terrorism in which the abnorms are the enemy – or are they?
Sakey said the idea for the novel came came from his wife’s research of childhood development. While some children with neural disorders face tremendous challenges in daily life, others have categorical knowledge of Latin dinosaur names or can find their way home just by looking at a map, he said.
“What if a small group of people have gifts like that only more powerful? What does that do to the rest of us?” Sarkey said. “I started building a whole world out from that idea and watched the social dominoes fall.”
After a string of successful crime novels, Sakey said “Brilliance” was a pleasant change of pace. He worried, though, that it was just a matter of time before agents showed up at his door because of all the time he spent on the phone talking hypothetically about blowing up buildings, assassinating politicians and Islamic fundamentalism, he said.
“One of the fun things about writing this book was to parallel quite consciously a lot of the developments that have happened in our world.”
Government agents haven’t knocked on Sakey’s door, yet but the book has grabbed Hollywood’s attention. Legendary Pictures, the company behind “The Dark Knight” and “Inception,” recently snapped up film rights.
Drawing inspiration from ‘current affairs rage’
Equally as fun and inventive is Charlie Huston’s “Skinner,” an espionage thriller for the information age with echoes of John Le Carre and William Gibson.
Skinner is a former CIA agent who specializes in “asset protection.” He’s part assassin, part bodyguard, part science experiment, having been raised by psychologist parents in a see-through plastic enclosure under 24-7 observation.
Huston says the idea came to him after reading about scientists who used their children as part of their research and took it to an extreme in which parents raise their kids in a “Skinner box.”
Skinner grows up to become a cold, ruthless and detached killer toward enemies and targets. But if you’re in trouble, you want him in your corner. Skinner guarantees the safety of those under his protection with a chilling maxim: “The only true way to secure an asset is to ensure that the cost of acquiring it is greater than its value.”
In other words, mess with Skinner’s friends, and he will make you pay – dearly. Even Skinner’s employers fear him.
Huston says the novel started out as a way channel his frustration with recent current events.
“I had what you might call current affairs rage, this kind of free floating anger directed at the faces of current events, politicians who can’t get anything done,” he said.
Huston wanted to capture the frenetic pace of the 24-hour global news cycle. He hits the reader with missing nukes, rogue agents, a cyberattack on U.S. infrastructure, plastic guns made on 3D printers and even violent clashes between political protesters and nervous governments.
There’s even a global genocide meme.
Through these touches, the story feels very up-to-the-minute and real, which is intentional, Huston said.
“I wanted it to feel like all of this stuff is going on right now. It’s so relentless, a real blurring of time sense. Everything seems to be accelerating and happening at a faster and faster rate.”
For all of its action and relevance in current affairs, readers will feel rewarded by the novel’s hopeful ending.
“It’s so easy to see all the problems we have and be overwhelmed by them,” Huston said.
“I wanted the weak, the underclass to be empowered, to have an ending that was in some way optimistic because it’s so easy to look at the world and be pessimistic.
But as much reality as Huston could bring to his story, he couldn’t keep up with everything. An Edward Snowden-type character is exactly what he wanted in the book, he said.
“If the story had broken just a month earlier, I could have gone back to the manuscript and put some references to it in there,” he said. “I can live with the fact that I don’t have the Turkish protests or the Brazilian protests, but not having Snowden in there is just killing me. Can I change the second edition?”