Author Marcus Sakey Talks Superpowers, Science Fiction, And World Building

How do you control super-geniuses? Sakey’s new book, Brilliance, tackles fear of the unknown and oppression in a dystopian near future. BuzzFeed talked to him over the phone about how the idea came about.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey, Copyright 2013 and published by Thomas & Mercer

Where did you get the idea for the book and the Brilliants?

Marcus Sakey: My wife recently got her master’s in child development with a focus on autism, so it was actually from that that the kernel of the idea came from. What really struck me was taking some of the things autistic [people] or savants have and taking away the challenges they face and imagining if 1% of the world was suddenly born able to do things the rest of us can barely imagine. This is the beginning of what, I think, will be a three-book series.

So, like, superpowers?

MS: It was crucial to me to keep it to realistic human gifts, so no flying, no lightning bolt from the fingertips, nothing like that. These are all things that conceivably the human mind can do, because I wanted to focus more on what happens to the world than a superhero novel.

How long does it take you to create a universe like this, to extrapolate alternate world history from the 1980s to today and flesh it out?

MS: That was both the most entertaining and the most difficult part of the book, just trying to imagine how this would have changed the world and what it would mean to these people and how the world would view them. There’s a lot of real-world parallels to be drawn, but it took me about a year and a half, soup to nuts. It certainly didn’t come to me in flash, I wish it did.

So you are not a Brilliant then?

MS: (laughs) No, I am not a Brilliant, much to my dismay. However, the concept of it, the core of it came to me more completely then has ever happened to me with a book before.

When we first meet the main character, Cooper, he has very much drank the Kool-Aid, I’m with the good guys and those are the bad guys, and then it progressively gets more morally gray. Were you worried about starting your protagonist basically as one of the bad guys?

MS: I love gray areas, so I always want it to live in a gray area. I knew Cooper’s personal journey was going to be a major part of it. That he was going to find out he — you said it perfectly — he drank the Kool-Aid. He’s a smart guy, he believes in what he’s doing, so he’s willing to turn a blind eye to consequences he hadn’t imagined. It was important to me that he start out that way, hopefully very believable and likable, and it’s as he comes face-to-face with the real world that he has to change. His motivations are pure, and there’s a part of his initial viewpoint I still think is right, which is no matter how you feel, throwing bombs probably isn’t going to solve it.

He was just doing his job, right?

MS: He’d just hadn’t really seen firsthand the consequences of his actions, which I think is very common in a situation like this. No one thinks they’re a monster, but monstrous things still happen.

You balance out Cooper’s work life though by making him a good father and, shockingly, in an amicable friendship with his ex-wife.

MS: Yeah, it was important to me. It wasn’t based on a personal experience but on what I always hope would happen if it did. My wife and I are happily married, but I think it’s perfectly possible and admirable that, “Hey, this isn’t working for us but I can still love you,” especially if you have children.

In your universe, Wyoming has pretty much been taken over by a group of Brilliants who want a safe place to live. Why did you choose that state?

MS: It was the kind of world-building that was the most fun in the book. I knew I wanted to have this place, one of the characters even calls it “Abnorm Israel” at some point. The great fun in world-building is to make it logical, so I spent a fair bit of time looking at Google Maps and staring at states and their economies. Wyoming is gorgeous country, but in our world, the entire population of the state is half the population of Detroit. So if there was any place you’d be able to buy huge tracts up pretty readily, it’d be out there. I just loved the idea of a weirdly shaped, gerrymandered district of a hundred different corporate buys to turned into this new world in the heart of America.

Excerpted from Brilliance by Marcus Sakey, Copyright 2013 and published by Thomas & Mercer

Was there anything in the world-building, was there anything you made that didn’t make it in that is still super cool to know for people who finish the novel?

MS: That’s a really cool question. I wish I had a great answer, a perfect little tidbit. But I found a lot of it, stuff I couldn’t use in this book, I’m already using in the next one. Or I was able to deal with a lot of it in what I called the Interstitials.

You mean the in-universe ads between the chapters?

MS: Yes. Those were so much fun to write, because I just play. As a novelist, anything you do, you have to have the consequences of and the choices that are made — and it’s a challenge because there’s only so many times the radio can come on in the background, and this was a way to show without stopping the story.

You said earlier this was part of a multi-book saga. Will future books maybe show more of how other countries chose to handle their indigenous Brilliant population? After all, how America deals with something is completely different than, say, how Russia or North Korea does.

MS: That’s something I really wrestled with. There comes a point where you want to keep going with it but your eyes just start to weep blood. We are going to see a bit more in the second book, which picks up slightly after the end of the first book and deals with the repercussions of Cooper’s decisions. But in that, I’m giving hints the whole world is facing these problems. It’s funny you mentioned North Korea, because that’s one of the ones I talk about. The second book is the world is starting to fall apart. So instead of a post-apocalypse novel, you’re watching it actively happen with each bad decision.

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