Some of the most exciting, memorable science fiction of the past few years has come out in the young-adult section. And then there are books like the much-hyped I Am Number Four, which is pretty forgettable. Spoilers ahead!
I Am Number Four is already being made into a movie by producer Michael Bay and director DJ Caruso. And it's easy to see why — the book reads like a novelization of an existing film. The characters feel like people you've seen in movies a thousand times, and the situations mostly feel pretty rote as well. Also, the book is written in a dull, exposition-heavy style, in which we're told the same piece of information over and over — mostly because the book acts like it doesn't believe in its own premise. The constant flood of exposition feels like the book is trying to convince itself that it makes sense.
In I Am Number Four, a teenage alien lives on Earth while waiting for his hereditary superpowers to develop. He's one of nine super-aliens to flee the planet Lorien as children, after it was devastated by the rapacious Mogadorians. Because of a magic charm, the Mogadorians can only kill these nine super-children in sequence, so Number Four isn't in any danger until the first three super-children die, which happens at the start of the book. So throughout I Am Number Four, the main character, who goes by John, is in constant danger of being hunted and killed by the aliens who trashed his homeworld. And if he dies, the other super-kids are next. There's some vague hint that the six remaining super-kids will be able to revive their dead homeworld, or defend Earth from having the same thing happen to it — but it's kept super-vague.
The book is stuffed with every cliche the writers can think of. We're told the nice Loriens were people who had learned to live in harmony with nature (although they have cars and driveways, in the flashbacks) and the evil Mogadorians have trashed the environment of their own planet and then go on to ravage Lorien's natural resources. We're told the Loriens helped build the pyramids, and also inter-bred with some humans — Buddha, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein were all half-Lorien, and that's why they were awesome. Oh, and we're told as a factual statement that there are only 18 planets in the entire universe that support life.
I Am Number Four is ostensibly written by Pittacus Lore — one of the Elders of the planet Lorien, who are all supposed to be dead. Presumably at some point, we'll discover why one of the Elders actually survived, not to mention why he spends so much time documenting every time Number Four makes out with his hot girlfriend. (Every kiss in the book is "lingering.") The book is actually the work of A Million Little Pieces author James Frey and his collaborator Jobie Hughes, who aren't mentioned anywhere on the book — except when the main character gets a new forged I.D., for Jobie Hughes.
The biggest problem I had with I Am Number Four is that at no point did I believe that these people were refugees who had to look over their shoulder the whole time. If a whole planet of genocidal maniacs was after you — and if you died, then other people would be next in line, and your survival was important to a whole world, you'd think a bit of paranoia would be in order. And indeed, we're told over and over that the characters are constantly on the run and watching for any sign of danger — but Number Four mostly does the dumbest possible thing in every situation, and you start to wonder how he's survived this long. And his mentor/companion Henri isn't much better — the big crisis in the middle of the book happens because Henri walks into an obvious trap with no plan. By the end, I just didn't believe in the book's premise at all.
Oh, and we're told over and over again that the Loriens kept super, shape-shifting animals as pets, and Number Four adopts an apparently ordinary Earth dog that seems to be preternaturally powerful. But our hero never makes a connection between these two things, and we're not supposed to wonder about it either — until it suddenly beomes important at the climax of the story.
Of course, there's a long and proud tradition of protagonists who do the dumbest thing in every situation, and we've all loved an idiotic protagonist at least once. But these characters don't really give us anything to latch onto, and the writing is so flat, it doesn't draw us in at all. At one point, when our characters are in a particularly tough spot, the book gives us this sentence: "Henri shakes his head and sighs in what is an almost hopeless gesture, a gesture made when the fight is lost." (You can read the first nine pages of the book over at Entertainment Weekly.)
That said, the basic concept is interesting. It's cool to see a book that deals with genocide, and whose main characters are refugees. And to the extent that all YA fiction is offering us a metaphor for adolescence, waiting around to develop superpowers is a pretty decent one — the main character spends a lot of time bemoaning the fact that he's not telekinetic yet. Instead of having to deal with the normal effects of puberty, he's having to hide the fact that his hands glow when he's stressed. There's a lot of good mileage in that.
And the book does end by setting up a new status quo, one that I'd be curious to see play out in the second installment — the characters feel like they're starting to take on a bit of a life of their own by the end of the novel, and I was sort of intrigued by the changes at the end of the book. I was actually left a bit curious to see what happens next. So obviously Frey and Jobie have done something right after all. And I Am Number Four will probably make for an okay movie — it already has a lot of the ingredients of a summer movie in place, and it won't take much to turn it into a vehicle for some Shia LaBeouf clone. (The screenplay is being written by the original showrunners of Smallville, so you can pretty much imagine the small-town angst playing out.)
All in all, though, this is not the right young adult book to be getting such a huge amount of buzz and attention. There are so many great YA books being written and published right now, that are more deserving. When a book like I Am Number Four gets lifted above the rest of the pack, it gives more ammunition to people who want to claim that YA books are dumbed-down exercises in teen angst and empty wish fulfillment. And that does a bit of a disservice to the YA canon.