Sometimes you pick up a book on a hunch, or curiosity, without knowing what it’s about. So it was with “Brilliance.” There was no synopsis of the story. All that was on the back cover were cryptic reviews, good ones. “A brilliant writer,” said Huffington Post. “Genius,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. And on the front cover, along with the title and the author’s naßme, was the comment by the respected author Lee Child: “The kind of story you’ve never read before.”
Enough already. It was time to see what the fuss was about.
“Brilliance” isn’t quite in a class by itself, but it’s good. It opens with an excerpt from a December 1986 opinion piece in the New York Times wondering what is to be done about the so-called “brilliants,” the rash of children born since 1980 with “remarkable abilities… savants are being born not once in a generation, but every hour of every day.”
The passage of time brings us to the present day and thousands upon thousands of adults with remarkable gifts - physical, intellectual, even sensory. They become known as “abnorms,” and the normal population - still the overwhelming majority of Americans - recognized it’s no match for the abnorms. That fosters fear, resentment and, ultimately, societal efforts to bring the abnorms under control. In short, the abnorms, individuals who could give so much to society, are discriminated against. Children who score off the charts on tests are taken from their parents in elementary school and dispatched to academies. There they are renamed, depersonlized and taught what the government wants then to know.
The protagonist in “Brilliance” is Nick Cooper. He’s he best agent in the DAR - Defense, Analysis and Response. It’s part FBI and part CIA, and it has its share of abnorms. Cooper is Tier 1, the most brilliant level of gifted; his particular gift is sensing what people will say or do next. He’s killed his share of abnorms and terrorists - they’re not always easy to tell apart, but he’s increasingly worried he will lose his 4-year-old daughter, who shows signs of considerable gifts herself.
Cooper is paired with Shannon, another abnorm whom he calls the Girls Who Walks Through Walls. They’re simultaneously enemies and allies and their relationship is central to the story.
On the fringes of society are John Smith - who got that name in one of the academies - and his followers. He’s a dissident who has some blood on his hands, and to the DAR and Cooper, he’s Public Enemy No. 1. Bombings attributed to him, have fed the frenzy of fear and have led to calls to install microchips in all abnorms so their whereabouts can always be tracked.
Smith is believed to live in the New Canaan Holdfast. That’s a large chunk of Wyoming bought up parcel by parcel by an abnorm named Eric Epstein, who made his hundreds of billions of dollars using his unique gifts to outsmart Wall Street.
His ability to turn the financial world upside down was one of the events that alarmed normal society.
The government and law enforcement tolerate New Canaan Holdfast, though there are whispers of a government assault on the colony. It’s not Shangri-La, but Epstein’s money and the abnorms’ various intellects have made into a place like no other.
“Brilliance” is a quick read, one that casts a fascinating light on issues that are painfully familiar to Americans in all walks of life and all parts of the country. The author alters our reality but makes it recognizable enough to make us wonder where we’re headed.
Walt Braun is the editorial page editor at the Manhattan Mercury.