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We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us: A Better World by Marcus Sakey

With his Brilliance series, suspense writer Marcus Sakey is doing for adult science fiction what Suzanne Collins did for YA science fiction in the Hunger Games books and George R.R. Martin did for epic fantasy with Game of Thrones: He’s making it accessible to people who aren’t fans of those genres.

A  Better World

A Better World, A Better Book

Actually, I’m hesitant even to tell you that the Brilliance series is science fiction because you may decide not to read it on that basis alone, so try not thinking of it as science fiction. Think of it as a series of suspense novels that will have spectacular special effects when they get made into movies. The words “science fiction” create certain expectations in people’s minds, like starships and latex-faced aliens, and you won’t find any of that in Sakey’s work.

What you will find, as I discussed in my review of the first book in the Brilliance series — appropriately entitled Brilliance — is lean, muscular, intelligent prose with interesting characters and deftly executed plot twists. For those of you tired of the all-too-often bloated prose of fantasy writers like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King (both of them excellent authors who just never got the message that less can sometimes be more), you’ll find Sakey’s tight plotting and no-words-wasted descriptions a refreshing change. And if you’ve read the first book in the Brilliance series, you’ll be thrilled to discover that, after a somewhat slow opening caused mostly by the addition of some new viewpoint characters, A Better World is not only as good a book as the first in the series but actually a better one. The second half of this book is one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve read in recent years and Sakey sets up the third book in the series — yes, this is going to be at least a trilogy — so perfectly that I’m already wishing he’d finish it already and put it on Amazon, because I really don’t want to wait as long for it as I’ve been waiting for new books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Fortunately, not only is Sakey a less verbose writer than Martin but a faster one.

In A Better World, the protagonist is once again government agent Nick Cooper, but he’s on leave from his job with the DAR, having developed serious doubts about their mission to keep watch on so-called brilliants, super-intelligent mutants of which Cooper is one. (If you’ve read the first book, you’ll know why Cooper is having doubts.) That doesn’t mean he’s sitting on his hands, though. He’s offered a job as a presidential adviser and he takes it, because he thinks brilliants deserve a voice in the White House. So, fortunately, does the president. Alas, this makes Cooper some powerful enemies, because not everybody who works in the West Wing is exactly who they seem to be, no matter how nice they all seemed during those seven years Martin Sheen spent as the PoTUS.

Cooper also returns to the city of Tesla, high in the Colorado Rockies, a town designed especially for brilliants to live in and therefore seen as a threat to normal humans by certain political advisers who want the president to take executive action of a particularly dangerous kind. As Sakey winds the plot tighter and tighter, the story heads into Tom Clancy political thriller territory, the kind where the fate of nations hangs in balance. Though several of Sakey’s characters are human beings that the reader feels deeply about, the climactic scenes of this novel involve a spectacular situation that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you.

I don’t want to go into more details about the plot because you shouldn’t be reading this review. You should be reading the book. You can buy the e-book for $5 from Amazon.com and it’s worth three times that much. Then again, you might want to wait until the third novel is out so that you can binge-read them in sequence, but I don’t have that kind of patience. Once I’d read the first book, I knew I’d read the second one the day it came out — and I did. (It’s taken me a while to review it, though. Life keeps getting in the way.) If you’ve read the first book, you should read this one as soon as you possibly can. You won’t regret it.

 

Too Smart for Their Own Good: Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

It’s only fair to say this up front: Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance reviews itself right in the title.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

Brilliance — Well, yes.

Not that it’s likely to win the Man Booker Prize or whatever the top book award is these days — it’s a popular thriller, after all — but the brilliance of Brilliance is that a lot of people are unlikely to notice just how good it is because they’ll be too busy enjoying it. It’s ironic that my favorite whipping boy, Lee Child, has the novel’s cover blurb, because Brilliance is written in the kind of fast-paced, muscular prose that Child’s Jack Reacher novels reach for (sorry) but never manage to get any weight behind. Brilliance’s prose has so much weight behind it that, ironically, you won’t be able to put it down.

It’s hard to say exactly where Brilliance excels, because Marcus Sakey doesn’t wear his talent on his sleeve. It doesn’t excel in style, though the writing is strong and sufficiently subtle in both metaphor and syntax that you won’t notice it being subtle. (Shouldn’t subtlety always be subtle?) Sakey specializes in crime novels and Brilliance has the lean, stripped-down prose of a detective novel without quite being one. It doesn’t have an extraordinarily original plot. When I tell you, in a couple of paragraphs, what it’s about, you’ll mutter that you’ve heard this one before and you probably have. It doesn’t excel in characterization. The characters have just enough depth that the reader cares about them — especially the protagonist, who has the most at stake — but not enough to bog the novel down in description. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, George R.R. Martin.)

Where Brilliance excels is in structure. Sakey has an uncanny sense for the moment at which the reader’s attention is going to flag and fires off a revelation or plot twist just in time to keep his hooks in you. And, believe me, he sinks the hooks in early and deep. Sakey’s novel is so beautifully structured that the story always feels fresh, with perfect pacing and no scene held for even a beat too long — at least until the end, when the reader gets the denouement the book deserves, tying up loose ends so nicely that I was surprised to discover that this is the first book in a series. Believe me, it functions perfectly well as a standalone story.

Brilliance is what I like to call science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction, a genre I’ve come to enjoy more and more as I’ve gotten older. Here’s the plot: Brilliance takes place in an alternate version of our present, where back in the early 1980s special children called brilliants (or abnorms if you don’t like them) began to appear, mutants with unusual mental powers that manifest themselves in various and unexpected ways. By the 2010s these mutants have begun dividing up into two groups, those who live separately from the rest of the human race and those who just want to get along. And the U.S. government is starting to become disturbed by the possibility of an abnorm terrorist underground that could destroy normal society as we know it.

If you’re muttering that this sounds like a lot like the X-Men, both in comics and in movies, I’m with you. It does. And it’s to Sakey’s credit that this doesn’t feel the slightest bit like an X-Men film. Part of that is Sakey’s crime novel background, which makes this feel more like an action thriller played out on a large scale than a comic-book movie (which is not to knock comic-book movies, something I very much enjoy when they’re done well). Another thing that keeps this from feeling like the X-Men is that Sakey’s mutants don’t have what one would think of as superhero powers. None of them can fly, cause objects to burst into flame with their eyes, or shoot adamantium claws out of their fingertips (though there is a little girl who can pick up on body language cues so well that she can effectively read minds, a marvelous throwaway touch about halfway through the book). Sakey’s brilliants can do things like calculate cause and effect so rapidly that they know what’s going to happen two seconds in the future or distract your attention so deftly that they become effectively invisible. Sakey makes this all so thoroughly convincing that you never feel like like you’re reading science fiction, even when you notice the technological differences that brilliant inventors have introduced into consumer technology, like holographic televisions.

The protagonist is Agent Nick Cooper of the DAR — Department of Analysis and Response — a government agency founded to keep an eye on brilliants and given extraordinary powers by an equivalent of the Patriot Act inspired by this world’s abnorm equivalent of 9/11. The irony is that Cooper is a brilliant himself and he makes no attempt to conceal it. He’s sincere in his desire to keep the peace with normal human beings and even has two children, one normal and one brilliant, by his non-brilliant ex-wife. Cooper is searching for John Smith, a brilliant terrorist responsible for a heinous act of mass murder in the nation’s capital. But he’s also worried about his brilliant daughter, who he suspects has abnorm abilities so powerful that she’ll soon find herself under the watchful eye of the DAR, which makes him uneasy. And it’s this uneasiness that provides the subtle impetus behind much of the plot.

It’s not hard, even in the opening chapters, to see where this novel will wind up in the end. The fun is in figuring out how it will get there and Sakey is always one step ahead of you. It’s no surprise that the novel has a big reveal, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see how big it was going to be. Still, it’s the little reveals and wonderfully unexpected moments that keep this novel in almost constant motion, pulling the reader along like a monstrous wave yet rarely feeling overhurried or frenetic. Sakey tells this story so perfectly that, even though I was reading it during a period when I had neither the time nor the focus for a lot of reading, I never considered putting it down for a different book. And now I’m psyched for the next book in the series, A Better World, which Amazon says is coming out on June 17. You might want to read this book now so you’ll be ready to buy that one the day it comes out. Believe me, I’ll be buying it with you.

Surfing the End of the World: Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave

I haven’t written a book review in this blog for months. One reason, obviously, is that I haven’t read a book in months, but that’s not strictly true. I’ve read a few for professional reasons that I just don’t want to review. And I haven’t been able to work up the energy to review Rick Yancey’s YA alien invasion epic The 5th Wave.

The 5th Wave

I’m not quite sure why I haven’t been able to work up the energy, because it was one of the two best books I’ve read this year. That may sound like faint praise, but when the other book was Gillian Flynn’s stunning Gone Girl, it’s actually something of a compliment. I think the real reason I don’t have the energy to review The 5th Wave is that I liked it so much that I deliberately stretched out my reading of it to the point that by the time I reached the end, I couldn’t remember all the great things I’d planned to say about it at the beginning. So if this review, which I’m finally writing several months after I finished the book, seems a bit sketchy, it’s because I’ve forgotten most of what I loved about it.

But not all. One thing I loved was that Yancey has a gift for writing poetic prose that doesn’t come across as the slightest bit poetic unless you’re looking very closely, which is a terrific gift for a writer of YA novels, where the audience might be suspicious of any book that sounds like it might someday be assigned in English classes. And it also makes for terrific reading if you’re the sort of person like me who is intensely interested in the prose mechanics of a novel. It took me a while to realize that Yancey’s prose had an almost song-like cadence to it, while still sounding like the kind of writing one would expect from a science fiction thriller. His sentences are perfectly constructed. His paragraphs are perfectly constructed. And his chapters end with beautifully thought out buttons that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading them. And all this will sneak up on you without you even noticing he’s done it.

He’s also gone out of his way to make the well-worn alien invasion tropes feel new again. It’s not that he does anything genuinely original here — I don’t think there’s a trick in this book that I haven’t seen in some other alien invasion novel — but he takes a whole bunch of tricks (the title tells you how many) and combines them into something unique. He gives away the book’s central surprise in the prologue, just to show that he doesn’t even have to surprise you with it to make it work. (It’s that the aliens arrive on earth by inserting their consciousnesses into the brains of unborn fetuses, where they will awaken in adolescence. And, no, I haven’t spoiled anything that you won’t know by page 2.) And then a fresh mothership full of aliens starts hitting us with one nasty attack after another, but I’ll let you discover what those are about by reading the book.

What I loved about it most, though, was the moral ambiguity of it all. The aliens in the book aren’t entirely evil. Even the worst of them are simply looking for a new world to live on and want to get rid of the previous occupants. The best of them…well, let’s just say that they can be as heroic as any of the humans.

The book follows two viewpoint characters, Cassie (for Cassiopeia) and Zombie (whose real name escapes me at the moment). Cassie is a teenage girl who lives alone in the woods, armed for bear, afraid of other people because she doesn’t know which ones are aliens in disguise — and you can probably imagine the ugly places a situation like that can lead. The other is part of a children’s army being trained to fight back against the aliens, because children seem to have survived the early attack waves in greater numbers than adults have. (There’s a reason for this, but it would be a spoiler to mention it.)

Most of the suspense and fascination of Yancey’s novel comes from the internal struggles of these characters, but he can write a great action scene too. Yet my favorite moments were mostly internal monologues. Which is odd, because I’ve been reading a lot of advice lately from writers and editors, including the late Elmore Leonard, saying that writers should avoid internal monologue because it bores readers, who are apparently frightened by long paragraphs without dialog. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with the fact that I love it. But Yancey’s book has been on bestseller lists already, so there must be other readers like me who don’t subscribe to the Elmore Leonard school of all-dialog narration. (In fairness to Leonard, most of Yancey’s book is first-person internal monologue, so you can think of it as dialog addressed to the reader.)

The 5th Wave is the first book of a trilogy, so don’t be disappointed if all your questions aren’t answered in the end and all the bad situations aren’t resolved. Some major plot arcs are tied up, so that should be enough to keep you happy until Book Two comes out. And if you’re like me, you’ll be lined up to download that book to your e-reader the moment it’s available.

Stranger in a Strange Body: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Book #17 for 2012: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Cover of Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Reading Redshirts by John Scalzi made me curious to see more of his work. According to something I read either on Scalzi’s blog or in his Twitter feed, Old Man’s War is his bestselling book to date and it was the inaugural volume in a series of books that so far includes four titles with a fifth on the way. (I’m going to guess that Redshirts has had such a strong roll-out in the media, complete with a profile of Scalzi in the New York Times, that it will eventually be the better seller of the two, but Old Man’s War has a seven year lead on it in sales.)

Old Man’s War is essentially a book-length shout-out to Robert Heinlein, something that Scalzi acknowledges in the endnotes, and since there are probably people reading this who don’t know (or remember) who Heinlein was, I’m going to talk about him first. Heinlein dominated the science fiction field from the late 1930s through the 1960s as no writer has before or since. Heinlein’s work was marked by vigorous, no-nonsense (and distinctly non-literary) prose, a gift for projecting the intersection of science and politics into future centuries, and a strong libertarian philosophy that was expressed in books as varied as Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. Ironically, the latter book, with its philosophy of free love (sex being a topic that either increasingly appealed to Heinlein as he grew older or that publishers increasingly allowed him to write about), became something of a cult phenomenon among the 60s counterculture, a group for which the relatively conservative Heinlein had little use. (The short version of that story is that Heinlein supported the Vietnam War while the counterculture didn’t.) Heinlein continued writing until his death in the late 1980s, though his later books were increasingly rambling and idiosyncratic, with only a trace of the vigorous writing he was capable of when younger. For more than one generation of readers, Heinlein was known as the author of what used to be called the “Heinlein juveniles,” a series of YA novels written mostly in the 50s that served as a gateway drug for budding science fiction addicts. Scalzi mentions elsewhere that one of these, Starman Jones, is a particular favorite of his. (It’s also my personal favorite of the Heinlein juveniles, though I didn’t read it until I was in my 20s.)

One of Heinlein’s recurring topics was war, in particular the duty of individual citizens to serve in the military, a theme he explored most thoroughly in the 1959 novel Starship Troopers. I don’t know that Old Man’s War is an attempt to rewrite Starship Troopers, but it explores many of the same themes, even while managing to invert some of them. The most interesting innovation that Scalzi brings to the table is that in his future society (probably centuries from now, but I’m not sure he ever mentions a date) anyone may voluntarily join the military on their 75th birthday and fight in the wars between humans and aliens over the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of colonizable star systems that have by then been discovered by the human race. The incentive for joining the army is that there are rumors that the colonial army has acquired advanced alien technology that will give old people young bodies again, a rumor that turns out to be — I hope I’m not spoiling anything here — true.

The main character is a retired writer named John Perry who could be a stand-in for Heinlein himself. Heinlein spent much of his life disappointed that he was not able to serve in World War II because of tuberculosis and it’s pleasant to think that Scalzi saw this book as a way to imagine a technology that would have given Heinlein his wish, or something very much like it. Much of the fun of Old Man’s War, as in Starship Troopers, is seeing how many wildly different alien races Scalzi can pit humanity against, each with its own personality, physical form, culture, technologies, but all with a single motive — expanding to new planets with minimal competition from other races. Scalzi writes about this as vigorously and entertainingly as Heinlein ever did.

But after reading two Scalzi novels I’ve noticed that there’s one thing he writes about much more effectively than Heinlein did: love. And not the intense romantic and sexual love of young people (though both Redshirts and Old Man’s War have a little of this), but the deeper companionate love of married couples, a subject not often explored in science fiction, at least not in the moving way that Scalzi explores it. Maybe this is just a sign of my own increasing age and experience with longer term relationships, but it’s this theme that most draws me to Scalzi’s work. If I had to make a wild ad hominem guess, I’d say that Scalzi is a man who loves his family very much and understands what it would be like to lose them, a feeling he conveys quite powerfully (and in unexpected ways) in his fiction. Redshirts surprised me at the end by leaving me in tears and Old Man’s War comes very close to doing the same.

Of course I’m generalizing based on two books, always a risky thing to do, but I’m guessing I’ll find this theme recurring in his other works. At least I hope I do. Without that theme Scalzi would be just a very good Heinlein clone — not necessarily a bad thing to be — but with it he becomes something a great deal more.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing the above, I read an interview with Scalzi on the Wired Web site where he says that all of his books are essentially humorous, but that the novels haven’t been packaged as such because publishers are afraid that humorous science fiction won’t sell. (He hopes that Redshirts’ recent appearance on the New York Times bestseller list will be a “kind of a wake-up call…that the science fiction audience — regardless of the long-held superstitions or beliefs of those who publish the stuff — is more than happy to entertain the idea of humorous science fiction.”) I see his point, but I’m not sure that he realizes the degree to which the impact of his books depends on the reader’s realization (or at least on this reader’s realization) that his works have a deep and not at all humorous core; they touch, in fact, on deep emotional truths.

I also realized, when reflecting on the way I’d been affected emotionally by both Old Man’s War and Redshirts, that both books have essentially the same ending, or at least depend on very similar plot developments for their emotional impact. I wouldn’t dream of giving away what that plot element is — it would be waaaaay too much of a spoiler — but it makes me wonder if Scalzi isn’t something of a one-trick emotional pony. Okay, that’s based on two examples out of, what, maybe a dozen or so books that Scalzi has written and is therefore almost certainly wrong, but even if it turns out to be correct I don’t think it’s to Scalzi’s detriment, because it’s one hell of a powerful emotional trick.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jim: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Book #16 for 2012: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Cover of Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts by John Scalzi

So, not surprisingly, my enthusiasm for Project Bestseller List is already flagging. It’s not that 11th Hour by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro, the book I began reading after The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown, is all that bad — actually, it’s neither especially bad nor especially good — but that The Storm, a novel so turgid and plodding that it could be used as cement mix, stomped on all the enthusiasm that I’d built up for discovering what it is that keeps novelists like Cussler and Patterson (and Grisham and Sandford and Baldacci) selling books at such a consistently high level on the best seller list. I’d still like to read Baldacci at some point (at the very least his plots sound intriguing), but the prose in this sort of bestselling fiction is so uninspired that about halfway through 11th Hour I found myself desperate for something more interesting, something with a genuine creative spark in it, something worth reading not just because it appeals to the lowest common denominator of American readership. That’s how I wound up reading John Scalzi’s Redshirts.

First, a few words about Scalzi: He’s a science fiction writer with one of the two or three most enjoyable Twitter feeds (@scalzi) that I follow, especially when he gets into humorous insult wars with Stephen King’s son, writer Joe Hill (@joe_hill). His blog, Whatever, is so brilliantly written (and long running) that it’s produced two published books of essays, the most recent of which is entitled Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. His blog entry from Christmas Eve 2011 (“8 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Holiday Music“) was such a clever hoax that I posted it to my Facebook timeline. What makes it so clever is that if you actually know something about the history of modern Christmas music, you’re more likely to be suckered in by the hoax than if you know nothing at all, because Scalzi has peppered in just enough factual information to lend a certain credence to the utter bullshit. For instance, Frank Loesser really did write “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to perform with his wife as a duet at parties, but I seriously doubt that Paul McCartney wrote “Wonderful Christmastime” because he’d bet someone that he could write a song in the amount of time that it took him to move his bowels.

But I digress. Scalzi’s Redshirts can be looked on as a kind of Star Trek novel in the same way that Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead can be looked on as a kind of rewrite of Hamlet: It’s the same story but told from the viewpoint of its minor supporting characters. “Redshirts,” as some of you are doubtlessly already aware, is a Star Trek fan term, one that’s spread to the wider world of TV melodrama, that describes those anonymous characters, usually wearing red shirts and only contracted to be in the cast of the show for one episode, who seemed to exist purely to be killed during away missions, thus sparing leading characters like Kirk and Spock, who had long-term contracts on the series, from being violently eliminated during alien encounters.

In the novel Redshirts, a group of ensigns on the Starship Intrepid (read: Enterprise) begins to notice an odd pattern of deaths on their ship. There are five people — Captain Abernathy (read: Kirk), Science Officer Q’eeng (read: Spock), Lieutenant Kerensky (read: Chekhov), Chief Engineer West (read: Scotty) and Medical Chief Hartnell (read: McCoy) — who never get killed (though Kerensky has a penchant for getting horribly injured then springing back to such perfect health that he can be on another away team mission a week later), but whenever unimportant ensigns, especially those recently assigned to the ship, accompany these officers on away missions, they commonly wind up dead.

One of these “redshirts,” named Jenkins, is so stricken by the death of his wife on one of these missions that he becomes a hermit and takes up residence in one of Intrepid’s storage rooms, hacks into the ship’s computers and starts compiling evidence that leads him to the inevitable conclusion that the members of the ship’s crew are in fact characters in a TV show, one written by hack writers who repeatedly utilize cliched melodramatic tropes that require minor characters to be killed off in about three-fourths of the episodes. He gradually convinces the other minor characters that what he calls “the narrative” is the only way to explain the absurdity of much of what goes on around them.

Scalzi acknowledges within the text that Redshirts, the novel, is part of a tradition of media metafiction that includes movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Last Action Hero. But it also clearly falls into the postmodernist vein of the Scream films, where the characters are aware of the cliches that they’re acting out yet powerless to protect themselves from the often gruesome demands of those cliches. Well, almost powerless: the redshirts come up with a solution that they think might save them from what they’ve come to fear is inevitable death and when they begin to implement this solution the novel goes almost totally meta (or, as one of the characters puts it, “recursive and meta”).

For approximately the first three quarters of its length Scalzi’s novel is light and entertaining fun along the lines of Ready Player One, though a bit deeper and with perhaps less of the whiff of YA novel about it. It’s a hoot to read and you don’t necessarily have to have seen Star Trek to enjoy it (though a knowledge of one-hour TV melodrama in general doesn’t hurt). But then he makes the unexpected decision to follow the main body of the novel — which by itself is more than a novella, but perhaps not quite long enough to be a published book — with three fairly lengthy codas set almost entirely in the book’s meta level and the tone of the writing changes significantly, becoming both more serious and ultimately more moving. These codas give the novel an odd structure and an extended denouement that would seem anticlimactic if it weren’t the most fascinating and readable part of the book. It’s almost as though Scalzi wants the reader to know that this isn’t a Star Trek novel and that he’s up to something far more substantial, a meditation on the meaning of life, fiction and personal choice. It’s here that I think Redshirts goes from being a very entertaining piece of humorous science fiction to being a very good novel, period. And it’s here that Scalzi proves that he’s more than just a brilliant practical joker who can very nearly convince you that Paul McCartney once wrote a song in the time it took to move his bowels.

Manly Men, Feisty Women and Comma Splices: The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

Book #15 for 2012: The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

Cover of The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

I can barely understand the New York Times Best Seller List anymore. It’s ceased to be a list and become a veritable library of lists — for fiction, for nonfiction, for e-fiction, for e-nonfiction, for self-help books, for mass market paperbacks, for trade paperbacks, for Children’s Bestsellers: Fiction, for Children’s Bestsellers: Series, for…oh my holy God! In the latest issue of the New York Times Book Review I counted 15 separate bestseller lists and some books seemed to be on at least a half dozen of them. It made me want to go into a seizure from sheer information overload.

Then, not long ago, I picked up a copy of Entertainment Weekly. (Yes, I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly. It’s full of light, readable articles on movies, TV, books, music, occasionally video games — roughly half the things I love on this planet.) They also have a bestseller list, which they call The Chart. It covers hardback fiction (10 titles) and hardback nonfiction (10 titles). Bless you, EW! A bestseller list I can make sense of!

And then I read it. What I saw kind of scared me. Here are the top five fiction titles from that list:

1. The Storm – Clive Cussler and Graham Brown
2. 11th Hour — James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
3. Stolen Prey — John Sandford
4. Calico Joe — John Grisham
5. The Innocent — David Baldacci

What do all these books have in common? They’re all by authors who have been publishing fiction for more than a decade, most of them for several decades. Baldacci, the youngest of the group, published his first novel in 1996. Cussler, the oldest, published his first in 1973. Patterson started in 1976, Grisham in 1984 (though he didn’t have his first bestseller until 1991), and Sandford in 1989. There are plenty of good new authors around. Why then, for that one week in 2012, did these five relative geezers (yeah, I should talk!) have the same kind of lock on the EW bestseller list that the Beatles had on the Billboard Top Ten in early 1964?

A lot of people, especially authors who don’t have books on the best seller list, will tell you that it’s because the publishing industry is collapsing under the weight of a sagging economy and because younger people are increasingly moving away from reading books, leading to a desperate reliance on tried and true brand name authors. I think there’s some truth to that, but not as much as some people want us to believe. Books don’t sell only because the publishing industry is pushing them. Books sell because the authors are delivering something that the public wants to read. I decided I wanted to know what that thing is.

Thus began Project Best Seller List.

My plan, if I have the endurance to go through with it, is to read through all five of those titles in order and figure out what the authors are doing right. I already have some idea of what they’re doing wrong. I read Cussler’s Raise the Titanic back in the 70s and thought that all inspiration in the book began and ended with that brilliant title; the writing itself was stiff and the characters flat. I read Grisham’s The Firm when it came out in the early 90s; portions of it were clever and the ideas were good, but it made a much better film than novel and Grisham’s writing style gave me a bit of a headache. Patterson and Baldacci never looked interesting enough for me to bother to read. Even a quick skim of their opening chapters suggested that they wrote about cliched premises in mechanical prose. I started reading John Sandford’s first novel when it came out and thought it looked promising, but my attention span was shorter then and I never picked it back up, which suggests that I didn’t find it that promising.

So now I want to give these guys another chance, see what they’ve learned since I last checked them out, and with luck discover virtues in their writing that I’ve overlooked before. I want to find out why they have that lock on the bestseller list.

We’ll start with The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown, because it’s the only one I’ve read so far. The Storm is an action novel. I hesitate to call it a thriller, though I suppose it has its thrills, but it’s mostly about manly men and feisty women doing manly, feisty things and cracking the kind of wiseass jokes that comic book superheroes crack while punching out villains. It’s really what I call a stealth science fiction novel, inasmuch as it’s based on a science fictional premise (microscopic nanobots being used to alter global weather patterns) but isn’t labeled as science fiction on the cover. I have no problem with that. Genre labels are based less on a novel’s premise and more on which genre’s cliches are being deployed in the text. This one deploys far more action-adventure cliches than science fiction cliches.

Does it have a good plot? Well, let’s just say that Cussler and Brown have some interesting ideas here. They aren’t all new — nanobots have been all the rage since K. Eric Drexler published his seminal nonfiction book Engines of Creation back in the 80s — but Cussler and Brown have come up with an interesting new use for them. And they keep the plot moving at a brisk pace, dividing the book’s multiple heroes into multiple story threads, throwing obstacles, complications and plot twists into their characters’ paths at nicely timed intervals. It is, I think, this aspect of the book — pitting resourceful heroes against resourceful villains and capricious fate as they, yes, try to save the world — that has put it on top of the best seller list. There are even some mildly clever scenes, like the one where a trio of characters trapped on a sinking raft find themselves washed up on an island occupied by a native cargo cult left over from World War II.

But what Cussler and Brown never managed to do was to make me care. Good fiction is character driven and The Storm doesn’t so much have characters as it has templates for characters, archetypes like the muscular hero, the treacherous beauty, the eccentric millionaire inventor, the gloating villain, who exist merely to fill necessary positions in the plot. The Storm is driven more by Cussler and Brown’s need to have gainful employment than by any trace of humanity in the people caught up in its action.

And the writing style is barely serviceable, perhaps not even that, which is pretty much how I remember the writing in Raise the Titanic being. And someone should tell Cussler’s editors that comma splices (by which I mean sentences like “Kurt found the key and twisted it, the motor rumbled to life”) aren’t yet acceptable in American English. Or maybe by now they are. I feel old.

So the moral from Book One of Project Best Seller List is this: What makes a particular type of Number One Best Seller work is manly men and feisty women fighting against a long parade of obstacles and plot twists while they save the world. What isn’t necessary is decent writing and believable characters.

Remember that when I report back on Book Two.

Lost in the 80s Tonight: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Book #13 for 2012: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Cover of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is pure pleasure and pure fun. It reads like a YA novel for people who were YAs in the 1980s, very nerdy YAs who were raised on a diet of early video games, Dungeons & Dragons, the geekier movies of the period and 80s rock groups like Rush. Although the action of the book takes place in the 2040s, Ready Player One is steeped in 80s pop culture through and through.

Here’s the premise: Back here in the early 2000s, there lived a computer genius named James Halliday, who along with his business partner Ogden “Og” Morrow founded one of the most successful video game companies of all time: Gregarious Simulation Systems or GSS. (The name is something of a joke, since Halliday is a pure Asperger’s geek, far more comfortable with computers than with human beings.) Not long in our future, GSS will announce its greatest achievement, a stunning virtual reality simulation called OASIS (Ontologically Anthroprocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) that contains a vast universe with thousands of planets. OASIS is so big that it contains other massively multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft and Everquest, as tiny pieces within it. Anyone who can afford the wraparound 3D goggles and haptic gloves (which allow you to manipulate and feel objects within the virtual universe) can enter OASIS and effectively take up residence there. You can even go to school there, because one of its planets is devoted entirely to education. Other planets are devoted to things like shopping for virtual merchandise, but most are devoted totally to fun. Each planet is stunningly detailed, with a vast environment to explore, and many of them contain puzzles, dungeons and infinite opportunities for role-playing. Given that the world economy has continued the downward spiral that it began in 2008, by the 2040s a lot of people would rather spend their lives in the OASIS universe than in the real one, coming out only for biological and economic necessities.

What triggers the book’s plot, though, is the death circa 2040 of OASIS co-founder Halliday. In his lifetime he had amassed a vast fortune somewhere in the hundreds of billions of dollars and, never having married or fathered children, has no one to leave it to. So in his final will and testament — which he records on 3D video, of course — he announces to the world that he’s set up an immensely complex puzzle quest within OASIS and whoever solves it first will inherit every cent he owns.

You can see, of course, the problems such a quest could cause. A lot of people are going to want Halliday’s fortune and will be willing to do almost anything to get it, including cheating (though there are no real rules, so cheating isn’t really possible), stealing and even killing. But when Halliday’s fortune isn’t discovered within a few years a lot of people decide that it was all a big practical joke and quit looking for it, all except a dedicated (and decidedly nerdy) group of diehards who call themselves “egg hunters” (because the object of Halliday’s quest is what video game players like to call an “easter egg”), a term that rapidly finds itself abbreviated to “gunters.”

The hero of the story is an 18-year-old male gunter named Wade Watts (his late father, also a geek, wanted his son’s name to sound like a superhero’s secret identity) who lives with his malicious aunt and her violent series of boyfriends in the 2040s equivalent of a trailer park — stacks of old, rotting trailers piled like skyscrapers on the outskirts of cities and abandoned as homes for the homeless. To get away from his own relatives, Wade finds an unoccupied trailer hidden away at the bottom of one of these stacks, sets up his virtual reality rig there, and spends his days either going to high school in the virtual world or working on the Hunt, as the search for Halliday’s easter egg is called. Like all gunters, Wade knows that solving the clues that Halliday has left to the location of his treasure will require a voluminous knowledge of 80s trivia, especially regarding the sort of 80s pop culture that Halliday himself was immersed in during his adolescence, which includes movies like War Games and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, arcade games like Joust and Tempest, and text adventures like Zork. (One suspects these things were also youthful obsessions of the book’s author, Ernest Cline.)

And though most of the world has written off the Hunt as a joke, when Wade solves the series of puzzles that leads to the first of the three keys that will literally unlock the treasure, everyone becomes interested again, because a giant scoreboard (like the High Scores board in a video game) appears on virtual reality displays around the planet and the name of Wade’s OASIS avatar is right at the top. (His avatar is named Parsifal, after the knight who found the Holy Grail.)

Ready Player One is a little slow off the ground in its opening pages because there’s a lot of exposition to be gotten out of the way (as should be apparent just from the fraction of it I’ve given in this review), but once Wade finds the first key the book takes off like a combination of 80s trivia contest, open-world computer game and Alfred Hitchcock chase thriller. Everybody wants to know who Wade is and how he found the key — and “everybody” includes Innovative Online Industries or IOI, a vast and malevolent corporation put together for the express purpose of finding Halliday’s easter egg. If IOI finds out who Wade really is — and, of course, they do — they’ll be willing to kill him and everybody he knows in order to beat him to the next key in the set.

Ready Player One isn’t a deep novel, though author Cline includes a touching romance and a nice little moral at the end, but it’s a fast read and a highly entertaining ride — especially if you were around, or even know anybody who was around, in the 1980s.