Marcus Sakey’s latest book is the second in his Brilliance saga. A quarter of a century ago, a small percentage of the population was born with special abilities: pattern recognition, heightened senses, and others that set them apart from the rest of the population. The result was a society that has begun to take advantage of their gifts: the United States is in the midst of a technological boom, while tensions have begun to emerge between abnorms and normal, not unlike we’ve seen before in comics such as The Uncanny X-Men. A Better World picks up shortly after Brilliance leaves off, where agent Nick Cooper toppled a president while working under the Department of Analytics and Response (DAR). The first novel in this cycle was an excellent look at the response to differences: fear, restrictions, monitoring, and more. It’s an interesting look at a move from a far freer society to a militarized police state.
In A Better World, we see what happens when the balance is shifted. When the book opens, a terrorist group calling itself the Children of Darwin begin a targeted campaign to stop interstate commerce: they hijack and burn the drivers of tractor-trailer trucks, effectively stopping food shipments throughout the U.S. It’s a neat thought experiment that shows the weaknesses in a society that relies as heavily as we do on the massive systems that bring us our groceries, appliances, energy and gadgets from Amazon. The result is a crippled United States where tensions explode: cities are put on lock down and increasingly, tensions between the abnormal and normal populations in the U.S. rise.
Sakey has two trains running here, and he executes them nicely: the first is a pretty overt look at racial tensions, particularly in a post-9/11 world. In one chilling scene, an abnorm is visited at his home by a group of normals, asking if he knows any of the terrorists. The scene’s chilling, not only because of how self-aware it is of how things are here now, but how aware the characters are of it. Like John Scalzi’s recently released novel Lock In, and Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series, Sakey adds in another difference to normal society that acts as a lightning rod for society. In Scalzi’s book, it’s the Hadens, trapped in their bodies and living only because of generous public assistance. In Cole’s, it’s the magical minority that appears in the Great Awakening. In Sakey’s, it’s the talented who become targets from normal individuals who fear that they’re on the verge of extinction.
As the book progresses, it’s clear that this is an attitude that extends far up into society: from local vigilante survivalists all the way up to members of the president’s cabinet, there’s a real fear that humanity as we know it will be extinguished, and that any type of change must be drastic and preemptive.
The other line of thought that Sakey explores is how governments and societies respond to these sorts of changes. Like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s the use of the word ‘terrorist’ as a justification for sweeping changes in the United States. A monitoring system is put into place, where all abnorms ranked as a Tier 1 and 2 would be microchipped. The military is put on high alert and deployed to Wyoming to contain a ‘terrorist’ threat. The book climaxes in a dramatic scene that shows just how far governmental officials will go to fight what they’re afraid of, and it doesn’t look good for anyone.
Ultimately, like Brilliance¸ Sakey is exploring the idea of revolutions. The Industrial Revolution was a period in history where just about everything changed due to technological changes. Society found new ways to look at the world, measure it, and live in it. Sakey’s introduction of special people into the world is the start of a similar sort of change: everything will be different, and the reaction to such radical changes is a pretty rational one: fear. One side has begun to fight to keep things the way they are, not realizing or understanding that they’ve already lost, that their struggle is one that will only hasten the end. The other side is one that’s literally fighting for survival as they’re working to understand the type of new world that they’re creating.
A Better World doesn’t quite live up to the potential that Brilliance exhibited. It’s a cliffhanger book that feels as though it’s more designed to drive everything towards a finale than telling its own story, but it gets the job done nicely. Sakey’s characters and world are well designed, and while there’s points where things aren’t exactly plausible, his writing and pacing is enough that the book remains as much fun as the first one was to read.