Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A brief review of the Seventh Son trilogy, by J.C. Hutchins

Though this has nothing to do with Caledon, Steampunk, or, indeed, with Second Life, I felt compelled to write the review and post it here, as well as pimp for the print version of Seventh Son: Descent, coming out in October. (In addition to Descent, the story continues in Deception, and Destruction.) For everyone who heard about the books years ago and has already heard the podcast novel (the novel was originally written in 2005, and podcast in 2006-07), I got on the podcast merry-go-round late, okay?

Author J.C. Hutchins has written and recorded a podcast thriller that carries the listener along from one cliffhanger to the next, getting drawn ever-deeper into the characters and conspiracies that span this sprawling trilogy. The first book, Descent, starts with a bang: the President is killed by a young boy. Seven men are abducted by the military and taken to a secret installation. They learn that they are clones, “Betas,” as they are dubbed, the result of decades of research and limitless black funds. The “Seventh Son” project has been following their lives for years, and has intervened now only because the project heads believe that the person responsible for killing the President is the “Alpha,” the man from whom the Betas were cloned. The hope is that the Betas can think enough like Alpha to help track him down. And why not? The Betas share Alpha’s memories through age 16, when the cloning began.

From that premise, the novels sprawl across many episodes (though the action encompasses a remarkably short time), with multiple cliffhangers. The Betas – and the listener – slowly learn the full extent of the Seventh Son project – and the full extent of Alpha’s plans. To say more would spoil the pleasure of one surprise after another as the story unfolds. Suffice it to say that the plot twists continue right to the end of the satisfying and appropriate Epilogue.

Thrillers aren’t for everyone (usually including me), and science-fiction thrillers require two different suspensions of disbelief: first, that the technology is plausible; second, that the hero or heroes are capable of the death-defying acts depicted. Seventh Son adds a third necessary suspension of disbelief: that, given the technology and the world the author has created, the events that require such heroic action are sufficiently plausible. Cloning technology, mind control, super-secret military clearances, advanced jets, megalomaniacs, and more come at the listener at a dizzying pace.

One of the remarkable things Hutchins managed to pull off is the depiction of seven separate main characters. As I started to listen, I decided to write down the names of the characters and something about their backgrounds, to remind myself of which clone was which. However, after several episodes, I threw away my crib sheet, as each was sufficiently distinctive to need no mnemonic device. (It helps that Hutchins has a slightly different voice for each of the characters, something that also eliminates the need to introduce each speaker with “John said,…”) We have Michael, the soldier; Jack, the geneticist; Mike, the criminologist; Thomas, the priest; Jonathan, the U.N. big-timer; Kilroy 2.0, the mentally unstable computer hacker; and John, the hippie musician. Each was taken from a prior life, from friends and family, and shocked by the various revelations. Each reactions to the news – being a clone, the heretofore unknown brothers, the plots within plots, the role that each must play – in a different way. Their professions often play a part in the action, as the soldier helps organize his civilian brothers, the priest grapples with the spiritual implications of being a clone, the hacker uses his computer skills and his connection with the hacker community, and so on. With so much attention necessarily paid to the seven protagonists, the supporting characters are substantially less well-developed, but the listener still gets a sense of distinct personalities.

The books allow Hutchins to explore a number of themes, particularly the morality of cloning – especially the effect on the clones (something echoed in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper) – and the hubris of scientists.

The miscues are few. Occasionally one gets the deus ex machina feeling as a character reveals a new piece of information about, say, the limitations of mind control technology. The head scientist stubbornly clings to his belief that the cloning project was a good idea even after he sees the wreckage it caused. (One is reminded of the New Babbage adage, “What could possibly go wrong?” as chaos reigns.) In Hutchins’ world, the United Nations is actually useful and competent, rather than being populated by hundreds of bloviators who can’t even agree on condemning genocide. And, in a country where secrets are sold for fifteen minutes of fame and an appearance on Larry King Live, could anyone build an underground rail line hundreds of miles long, from New York City toward the west, in utter secrecy? Ultimately, though, none of that matters once you’re strapped on to the rocket and holding on for dear life.

Once I started listening, I couldn’t stop. It’s the audio equivalent of the page-turning novel you can’t put down. Each episode averages about 30-40 minutes, with a few much shorter and a few much longer, and each comprises one to three chapters. Somewhere along the line, the episodes started to include “the story so far,” which may be more accurately dubbed “in last week’s episode,” to refresh the listener’s memory. They’re bite-sized, and delicious!

Download the book at

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