Between Tradecraft and Thrills: The Brilliance Trilogy

Previously, I discussed Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series and how the protagonist’s poor tradecraft set up superior scenes. The series demonstrates that you don’t need perfect tradecraft to create a superior story. However, if you throw authenticity out the window altogether, you won’t have a believable story. Case in point: Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance trilogy.

In the world of the Brilliance trilogy, a tiny percent of the population begins manifesting unexplained cognitive abilities in the 1980s. These savant-like skills run the gamut from reading subtle body language to pattern recognition to rapidly calculating huge numbers. Called brilliants, the gifted usher in a new age of unprecedented technological development.

But all is not well. The brilliants dominate everyday life, sparking fears that they will render ordinary humans obsolete. As anti-brilliant sentiment grows, the United States government establishes the Department of Analysis and Response to deal with brilliant-related crime — including a campaign of terror perpetrated by John Smith, a brilliant strategist.

The Brilliance trilogy follows DAR agent Nick Cooper in his hunt for John Smith. As the USA spirals into chaos and civil war, he must maintain his moral compass, battle extremists on both sides, and prevent John Smith from tearing the country apart.

The Brilliance trilogy did many things right. The prose hits all the right emotional notes, from joy to despair and every emotion in between. The worldbuilding is fascinating, presenting a fresh take on functional superpowers and speculative technologies. The characters are sympathetic, even a few of the villains, which is no mean feat.

But the worldbuilding undermines the plot.

Marcus Sakey built his career on writing crime novels. Specifically, character-driven crime novels with everyman protagonists swept up in vicious underworld plots. They remain some of the best crime novels I’ve met. However, the stories he wrote are small-scale and self-contained, limited to small geographic areas and limited casts of characters. The Brilliance trilogy, by contrast, spans the length and breadth of the United States, touching the lives of millions of people. Writing a story like this requires a different set of skills and knowledge

A science fiction thriller lives and dies by its worldbuilding. Sakey got the technology down pat. But his take on the societal and political disruptions caused by the brilliants demonstrate a lack of understanding of American culture, and betray an ignorance of the lives and mindsets of operators, terrorists, politicians and the super-rich — in other words, everyone of importance in the trilogy.

Each book in the trilogy is undermined by fatal flaws. I’m going to list a couple per book to illustrate how these errors can unravel the story. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

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Brilliance, the first book in the series, introduces the reader to the world. The War on Terror is a domestic campaign, pitting the DAR against John Smith and his followers. When Cooper attempts to turn one of Smith’s men against him, another of Smith’s agents blows up the turncoat with a bomb. Soon after, that same agent is seen destroying the New York Stock Exchange.

Adding to his woes, Cooper and his ex-wife, Natalie, discover that their daughter may be a tier one brilliant. Government policy dictates that she must be taken to an academy for special education. When he visits an academy, Cooper discovers to his shock and horror that the academies are designed to brainwash and manipulate brilliants, turning them all against each other and the world, making them much easier for the government to control. Cooper cuts a deal with his boss: he will go undercover, penetrate John Smith’s network and destroy him; and Cooper’s boss will ensure that his daughter will never be sent to an academy.

It’s an emotionally stirring plot. It is also nonsensical.

The academies shouldn’t exist, at least not in their current form. The books state that academy-trained brilliants have had a hand in developing the latest generation of new technology. This means that these brilliants, after having their psyches shattered by the academy, are then placed in industries that allow them to make full use of their talents — and somehow remain functional enough to do so. This in turn implies that there is an entire bureaucracy involved in managing brilliants. The sheer number of people involved means that it is extremely difficult to keep the academy’s processes secret for any period of time. Indeed, John Smith himself is a byproduct of an academy, and his treatment spurred his activism and later his terrorism. With nothing to stop academy-trained brilliants from speaking up about their treatment, the psychological tortures and manipulations inside the academies should not be a secret.

Yet when Cooper visits an academy to see things for himself, he reacts with revulsion, horror and disgust. Cooper is the DAR’s top agent; he would have profiled John Smith a long time ago, and he would have studied everything that made Smith tick, including his treatment at the hands of the academy overseers. He would have the authority and access to discover what really went on inside the academies. However, he acts as if this revelation is new to him.

His reaction mirrors the horror and dread the reader would feel, but it does not reflect that of a competent agent. An authentic DAR agent would know all this already, as part of his background studies into America’s most wanted terrorist. Him visiting an academy this late in the game speaks poorly of him.

But this isn’t the worst part. If a DAR agent whose mission is to kill or capture brilliant terrorists reacts with horror to the academy, how will the parents of brilliants sentenced to the academies react? Sakey answers this question halfway through the novel, when a squad of DAR shock troopers storm a safe house and drag away a brilliant child, leaving her parents distraught and the community shaken.

Now consider this: in the year 2018, America owns 46% of the world’s firearms. The Constitution justifies rebellion against a tyrannical government. State-sanctioned abduction and brainwashing of children is tyranny. So why haven’t militias risen up to attack the academies and free the children? Why aren’t the horrors of the academies well known? Why hasn’t the government been forced to shut down the academies under threat of armed insurrection, or that hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens aren’t waging guerilla warfare against the government alongside John Smith? For that matter, why haven’t academy graduates banded together to seek revenge, and why does John Smith still allow the academies to exist?

The answer is simple: to set up a scene in Book 3.

From a plotting perspective, this anchors the reader in the belief that the academies are cruel, so when a team of guerrillas (finally) liberates an academy, the reader feels triumph. But it isn’t enough to justify a worldbuilding element through structure alone. It must make sense inside andoutside the story, and the academies as they are depicted on page — and the lack of popular reaction against them — does not make sense. It’s as if everyone except John Smith and his crew simply accepts government tyranny, nevermind that there are entire American subcultures predicated on resisting government tyranny in real life. Well-armed subcultures. The existence of brilliants won’t change this.

In a world that mirrors ours, the existence of the academies will lead to militias established to fight federal government overreach. Yet the only terrorist group of interest is John Smith’s network. Other crimes are conducted by individual racists, or racists who hate brilliants. Sakey may simply be trying to keep things manageable, but it creates an unbelievable vision of America.

Cooper wants to go undercover to protect his daughter from the academies. This is a motivation the reader can sympathise with. But the academies themselves could not possibly exist in-universe in their current form, nor would he be ignorant of the academies’ activities. Likewise, there would be plenty of ordinary Americans who would not stand for the academies either. By introducing the academies as quasi-concentration camps without thinking and implementing through the full implications, the world-building is shot and the illusion of a near-future America (and a competent agent) is shattered.

Nonetheless, Cooper penetrates John Smith’s network, posing as a DAR agent gone rogue. He discovers proof that the DAR chief and the President framed John Smith for an atrocity, and his world is turned upside down. This sets the stage for Book 2.

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In A Better World, John Smith has been acquitted, but a new terrorist organization has emerged. Called the Children of Darwin, they shut down three cities in a coordinated terrorist attack. Hawks within the government use this opportunity as a chance to crack down on brilliants once and for all. Nick Cooper, now special advisor to the President, must find a way to prevent civil war.

A grand promise. Shame it failed to deliver.

The first major problem is the handling of John Smith. After the world discovers that he’s been set up, all charges against Smith are dropped, and he returns to legitimate society as a speaker and activist to continue the struggle for the gifted. If he were simply a peaceful activist, this would be heroic.

But he’s not. He is repeatedly described in Brilliance as a terrorist. He admits to Cooper that he has blood on his hands. He may be innocent of the massacre pinned on him, but he still conducted a bloody campaign of terrorism. He is still a terrorist, and being cleared of one terrorist attack does not wipe the slate clean. Indeed, Smith explicitly wants to spark a war between the brilliants and the normals, and there’s no prize for guessing who the Children of Darwin answer to.

Cooper’s response to the COD attack? Round up his old team, take down Smith and his security detail after he delivers a lecture, and…

Warn him that the DAR is coming for him.

Just a threat. No arrest, no detainment in a black site, no bullet in the head. Just a threat against a man who as a child defeated three chess grandmasters simultaneously.

Smith is a hardened terrorist and a strategic genius. A threat would not faze him. All the threat would do is tell him that the DAR suspects him. If released, Smith would simply harden his security and alter his plans. And the DAR should know that.

Cooper’s team is described as the finest group of agents in the DAR, and they know first-hand Smith’s ruthlessness and intelligence. If they were such hardcore operators, they wouldn’t mess around with Smith like that. They would simply shoot him in the head and dump the body, or interrogate him until he cracks.

And if Smith were so intelligent, he would have seen the DAR plotting a mission against him. And he could file a lawsuit against the team that threatened him.

The whole sequence is designed to elicit an emotional response from the reader. Smith’s acquittal comes as a shock, Cooper’s confrontation and threat feels like righteous vengeance. But the former couldn’t possibly occur in a sane world, and the latter appeals only to the ego. There is no operational reason for an agent as experienced and accomplished as Cooper to act so ineffectually against a terrorist mastermind simply to satisfy his ego.

While Cooper is off stroking his ego, the hawks swing into action. The National Guard is mobilised to lock down the three cities shut down by the COD, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. Starvation and desperation sets in. Trapped in the middle is Ethan Park, a scientist whose mentor may know the secret behind the gift of brilliance.

On the page, it makes for gripping reading. Three cities are starving. Evil government bureaucrats are willing to use the crisis to force their agenda. Citizens are dying or driven to desperation. Every instrument of the national security apparatus is deployed to hunt a nonexistent threat.

It is also ridiculous.

The US military is required to disobey illegal orders. Locking down three cities and allowing them to starve for no good reason counts as an illegal order. It makes no sense whatsoever for the National Guard to not set up food and water distribution points to relieve the crisis, even if only on an informal basis. There is no reason why the National Guard commander would even agree to such an order, and no struggle or debate. This isn’t due to a lack of capability either. The US military isn’t just the world’s premier fighting force; it also has plenty of experience conducting humanitarian operations in the middle of a combat zone, like in Somalia. It is completely out of the institutional character of the US military to besiege an American city and allow American citizens to starve.

But it does make for good imagery on the page.

The hawks up the ante by sending in federal troops to the New Canaan Holdfast. Located in Wyoming, the Holdfast is a safe haven for brilliants and their relatives. The hawks want to destroy the Holdfast and bring the brilliants under control. Claiming that the Holdfast is linked to the COD, and presenting no evidence beyond a boilerplate statement on terrorism, the hawks deploy seventy five thousand troops on US soil.

Naturally, things don’t go as planned. But not in a satisfying way.

Sending in federal troops to occupy private land is a thick red line. In the eyes of the right, especially right-wingers who view the federal government with distrust, this is a declaration of tyranny. This would be the moment the militias self-organize, arm up, and prepare to make war on the US government. In 2014, when the book was published, militias rushed to the defense of the Bundy ranch when Federal law enforcement attempted to arrest the Bundy family. An event as momentous as deploying federal troops to invade the Holdfast would make the Bundy standoff seem like a picnic.

It is also a thick red line for the US military. Every American soldier, marine, sailor and airman swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Invading private land and rounding up innocent people under orders from the government is a violation of the Constitution. The military is required to disobey such a blatantly tyrannical order. An order like this might even cause the military to fracture and kick off a civil war.

But in the world of the Brilliance trilogy, nothing happens. Not that it matters, because the Holdfast releases a computer virus that somehow conveniently slaughters all seventy-five thousand troops sent to Wyoming.

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In Written in Fire, the militias finally get their act together. More precisely, one militia. Naturally, a militia that hates all brilliants.

Supported by the government and the corporate backers, the militia marches on the Holdfast, burning and pillaging all in their path. Meanwhile, Cooper and Park hunt down Abraham Couzen, the man who found a way to turn everyone brilliant — and has injected himself with the brilliance serum. In the first chapter, Couzen single-handedly defeats four federal agents sent to arrest him with his bare hands.

Which is ridiculous. The serum may have granted him superb reflexes, agility and coordination, but these gifts do not translate into martial skill. Power generation, timing, body structure and other principles need months, even years, to train and perfect. Combat tactics against multiple opponents also require specialist training to learn and internalize. But Couzen magically picked up these abilities through a single injection alone. That makes him one of the most unbelievable antagonists I’ve seen in a thriller.

The militia, and the reaction to them, is even more unbelievable. They are allowed to run rampant across Wyoming. No one, not even the DAR or FBI or Homeland Security, think of inserting undercover agents into the militia to keep tabs on them. The military is content to allow them to run amok in Holdfast land. Somehow, no pro-brilliant militias emerge to confront and harass this anti-brilliant militia.

And Erik Epstein, the de facto king of the Holdfast, does nothing.

Epstein earned $300 billion through strategic plays in the stock market. His gift for pattern recognition allowed him to see government repression coming. He is also perfectly aware of the militia.

$300 billion buys a lot of options and influence. A recruitment drive to bolster the ranks of the Holdfast’s security division. Favors from the US military, National Guard, local and federal law enforcement, politicians and corporations. Mercenaries with heavy weapons and military training, capable of destroying the militia in open battle. With these options at his disposal, Epstein does all of…nothing.

Instead, he simply steps up security around Tesla, the capital city of the Holdfast, and waits. After all, Tesla is protected by the Vogler Ring: ten thousand microwave emitters powerful enough to boil an army of intruders alive.

The militia responds by snatching hostages, children liberated from an academy, and force them to march through the Ring at gunpoint. When the militia march on the Vogler Ring with the hostages, Cooper and Epstein share a moment of angst and drama. Cooper demands Epstein to deactivate the Ring. Epstein acquiesces, and the militia invade Tesla.

The entire sequence beggars belief. A hostile military force is at the gates of the Holdfast, but the children are quartered outside Tesla, outside the Vogler Ring? This is an unimaginably stupid decision, compounded by the fact that Tesla has plenty of underground shelters for civilians.

Likewise, dealing with the militias and the hostages is a stupendously simple feat. Turn off the Ring, allow the children to pass, then turn the Ring back on. This would spare the children, destroy the majority of the militia and cut off the survivors in a single stroke. Yet no one, not even Cooper with his wealth of alleged experience and training, thought of this.

Why was the militia allowed to roam the country unchecked? Why didn’t Epstein take preventive measures? Why were the militia allowed to pass through the Ring?

So that Sakey could deliver a climatic battle sequence.

The lead-up to the Battle of Tesla is unnaturally forced. To get to that point, every military and law enforcement agency must suffer a collective attack of stupidity, and every major character who could prevent the battle must be reduced to panicked untrained civilians.

Worldbuilding and Its Discontents

Sakey is a brilliant writer. His dialogue is sharp, his characters are (usually) fleshed-out and believable, his action scenes are intense, his prose is clean. These are excellent skills — for a writer who creates character-focused crime fiction.

The Brilliance trilogy is not crime fiction. It is a science fiction thriller whose scope encompasses an entire nation. Such a setting demands intricate worldbuilding, and believable extrapolations from that worldbuilding. To fully explore every facet of the world, the story will need a wider cast of characters and explore different interconnected threads. When the story is based on the real world, it must also reflect real-world politics and strategies. A story like this would either span a trilogy of thick doorstoppers, or a long series of shorter novels. Plot events must flow organically from the consequences of characters’ decisions. A story like this requires a different mindset and skillset from crime writing.

The Brilliant trilogy is anchored by a number of emotionally-impactful scenes while preparing for this scenes. Terrorist bombings, assassinations, difficult conversations and debates, an apocalyptic battle in the Wyoming desert. But instead of being the organic consequences of believable character decisions, it felt to me that the plot, characters and world were twisted and diminished until they could justify the existence of these scenes.

The most frustrating part is that so many of the problematic scenes I’ve identified above can be easily fixed. There would be dozens, if not hundreds, of terrorist groups and militias running around; John Smith’s network is simply the most dangerous among them. Cooper would already know about the academies; information about them should be delivered to the reader as a flashback instead. Smith should still be on the run in Book 2 and still be conducting terrorist attacks, obviating the need for the COD — it’s not like he made use of the sympathy he gained from regular people anyway. The National Guard would offer humanitarian aid to the locked down cities. Couzen could be described as an avid martial artist and thriller reader, and even then he still makes the kind of amateurish mistakes that allow the authorities to track him. The military should be sharply divided between those who would follow the government’s orders and those who see themselves as defending the constitution, leading to a civil war. The entire nation would turn on itself. To justify the invasion of Tesla, simply remove the Volger Ring and skip straight to the invasion — or have the antagonist militia be so well-equipped they can blow a hole through the Ring.

Of course, these fixes will quickly make the story even more complex. Sakey chose to keep the story manageable by focusing on the normal-brilliant divide. It’s not a bad tactic, but in doing so, it grossly over-simplified the conflict instead. This conflict isn’t simply about normals versus brilliants. It is about personal liberties versus government oppression, about checking the power of a rapidly-expanding federal government, about whether the individual should fear the government or vice versa. In my eyes, the normal-brilliant conflict is simply a framing device to explore these timeless and richer threads — or, at the very least, they should be interwoven into the story at some point.

The Authorial Blind Spot

A popular theory among right-wing circles is that conservatives can understand progressives, but progressives can’t understand conservatives. This series proves this point. Sakey is an unabashed left-wing progressive whose politics leaked into the story, resulting in an inferior product.

For the events of Brilliance trilogy to take place, Sakey ignored the section of America that is well-armed, love personal liberties, and view the federal government with suspicion. To sell the idea that America is on the brink of destruction, Sakey must incorporate the perspectives of those who are willing and able to make war on what they believe to be a tyrannical government — both normals and brilliants. It is unbelievable that these people are absent from a conflict that touches on their core principles.

The stereotyping and erasure of everyone right of center is massive blind spot. In fact, one of the many between-chapter interludes in Book 3 shows a quote from a speech the ex-President gave to the NRA. Never mind that the NRA counts among its ranks the kind of people who would gun him down the second he took to the stage. By blanking out everyone right of centre, or caricaturing them as intolerant racist rednecks, what could have been a brilliant story became a husk decorated with pretty words.

The Brilliance trilogy has earned hundreds of positive reviews on Amazon. While a testimony to Sakey’s skills as a writer, the story could have been so much more. Once I picked up the flaws in the plot, the story fell apart for me, and it became a chore to finish it.

Greg Hurwitz, deliberately or not, traded tradecraft for thrills. This trade-off can be forgiven because of the superior emotional payoff, and because Orphan X generally acts in character. But in the Brilliance trilogy, the payoff was simply even more unbelievable scenes, and even more instances of poor tradecraft. The Brilliance trilogy shows that a writer can go too far in sacrificing authenticity. Once that line is crossed, once the consequences are perceived forced instead of organic consequences of earlier actions, once the reader is aware of it, it becomes extremely hard to cross back and win the reader’s attention.

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If you want to see how to properly integrate worldbuilding with action and characters, check out my novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

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Between Tradecraft and Thrills: The Brilliance Trilogy
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