Sociopath Saves Humanity In "Five Thrillers"

Illustration for article titled Sociopath Saves Humanity In Five Thrillers

The stand-out piece in the current Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is clearly "Five Thrillers," a novelet by Robert Reed about an antisocial maniac who takes on genetically modified insurgents. "Thrillers" starts small and crazy, and the story of Joseph Carroway's life gets bigger and crazier, until you think it can't possibly go any further — and then it does. Click through details, including non-fatal spoilers.


As its name suggests, "Five Thrillers" is divided up into five episodes in the life of Joseph Carroway, a genetically enhanced and amoral genius. What he lacks in empathy for his fellow humans, he more than makes up for in his ability to read people, and manipulate them perfectly. This isn't much of a spoiler: In one of the novelet's more unsubtle moments, we start off with Carroway's psychiatric evaluation, where we're told in no uncertain terms that he's a total sociopath. And then we quickly see this quality in action, when Carroway gets stuck on a damaged mining vessel with not enough room in the remaining escape pod for the surviving crewmembers.

What's an improvisational mastermind with no regard for human life to do? Become a kind of intergalactic James Bond, in Carroway's case. Most of the cases he deals with in the "Thrillers" that follow have to do, one way or another, with the Rebirths, a class of enhanced humanoids who have discarded the basic human shape. These enhanced people, such as the many-limbed Antfolk, face discrimination at the hands of (more or less) unaltered sapiens like Carroway, so they turn to terrorism and dirty warfare. Carroway has to Jack Bauer his way through a series of increasingly drastic plans to cripple, or destroy, the human race. In each case, whatever you think Carroway is planning, it's actually something cleverer and more dastardly. The "Thrillers" live up to their names, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing.


And then towards the final couple of "Thrillers," Carroway's fame catches up with him, and he's forced to operate in the public eye. This only makes him sneaker and more vicious than ever.

Usually, in this sort of story of orthohumans vs. intentional mutants, there would be some kind of moral about humanity, and some discussion of what makes us human. (The Rebirth motto is "TO BE TRULY HUMAN IS TO BE DIFFERENT.") In the case of Robert Reed's "Thrillers," however, there's really no avatar of humanity for us to cling to because Carroway is himself genetically enhanced. And none of the other humans we meet seem to model much in the way of positive "human" qualities.

In the end, Carroway himself announces what may be his philosophy of what it means to be human: survival. Humanity means cunning and ruthlessness, killing, robbing and even eating each other for a chance at carrying on the species. As the human race's situation gets increasingly bleak by the end of "Five Thrillers," Reed seems to suggest, Carroway's antisocial outlook may be the only one that makes sense.

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@Jeff-Minor: Yeah, we've always had antiheroes. I guess I meant, more, their relative prevalence in recent pop culture. (Sopranos as a big obvious example, but the first "new" Dr. Who, even, was a pretty dark figure.) I know it's not the end of society. But it's interesting. To me, anyway.

I think you're right about the underdog element, certainly. But not all the sociopaths are underdogs at all, lately. House is a genius; the character in this story apparently is, too, so I'm not sure that explains it entirely. Like... maybe the fictional sociopaths are popular because so much of nonfiction entertainment TV rests on the audience's impulses towards cruelty and judgment? Or... lotsa folks say noir as a film cycle grew more or less directly out of WWII, and then the beginning of the Cold War. And while most of us aren't in Iraq, it's a giant hovering presence. It'll take time before we know how it affects the collective psyche, but TV's probably a good early indicator.

I dunno. Overthinking is fun. It's why I was an art major for awhile.