Charisma by Steven Barnes
List Price: $24.95
Hardcover - 384 pages (June 2002)
Tor Books; ISBN: 0312870043
Review by Ernest Lilley
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK

Steven Barnes goes out on a limb to vote for nurture over nature in his new Techno-Thriller, Charisma. He takes 1,0000 high risk kids, mixes in every known technique for subliminal psychological programming, a healthy diet, and the full personality implant of an ideal role model, Alexander Marcus, a black, self-made rags to riches media baron who was killed in a plane crash sometime before the start of the story.

The story is set in contemporary America, and since it mixes existing technology with liberal supposition, you can choose for yourself whether to call it SF or not, but it deals with much the same themes as Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, and a other SF books about education and imprinting.

Barnes has made Charisma a cautionary tale as the role model the kilo-batch of kids was imprinted with turns out to have had a very, very dark side to him, carefully kept hidden from the public by his honor guard of security types...whom he dubbed the Praetorians, after the Roman honor guard.

 A group determined to keep his secret beyond the grave, no matter the cost.

Either to protect the reputation of Alexander Marcus, the public itself, or their own hides, they've kept very close tabs on the population of Marcus programmed kids, now approaching puberty, all as driven to excel as the program sponsors could hope, and if they hold true to the original model, the most dangerous period in their lives.

Will the darkness in their progenitor surface? What should be done with them if it does? The Praetorian's have a lot at stake, were culled from the most professional military and security forces in the world, and if all you carry is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Patrick, Destiny and Frankie were all part of the same daycare program in a small city in Washington state. The book opens with the trial that shut down the center after the children from the center started having nightmares about "bad sex". Really bad sex. The supposition of the courts is that the daycare center was abusing the child, but the truth is deeper and more sinister than that.

Renny Sands was a high flying reporter when he was younger, though now he's hanging on for dear life in his mid-thirties, which the author seems to consider the "edge of old". At the trial he sees something in the children, something remarkable, and in one child's mother, Vivian Emory, he finds that spark of connection which strikes without warning...and leaves him wondering about her for the next decade. Yes, these things really do happen.

Years later when the story resumes, Renny is taking assignments at a third rate publication which happens to be the backwater of Alexander Marcus's empire. He fell from grace when he used a unconfirmed source to back up a major cocaine story and has been slowly drifting towards the bottom ever since. When an interview with a Madame writing a tell-all book turns up more than he wants to know about Marcus, Sand's own personal hero, he has to choose between the story that could put him back on top and the cost of running with it.

A cost that will be higher than he can possibly imagine, and a story that will take him back to those children in Washington, and a woman he couldn't forget if he tried.

Charisma takes a courageous look at the forces that hold high-risk kids back, and the cost of setting them free. I'm not at all sure I agree with the authors conclusions, though he makes the ending ambiguous enough to leave room for his questions. The idea that we can make a difference through massive programs (though usually not secret ones) has been floated before, both in Science Fiction and reality. Head Start, The Childrens' Television Workshop (home of Sesame Street and others), have certainly had an impact on children, but the sort of deep programming in Charisma goes way beyond that.

This is one of those stories that shows the failings of the trial run, but if it hadn't had failings it wouldn't have been a story. The question that we're left with is how far off the mark Barnes actually is, and how long it is before we are voluntarily turning our kids over to daycare centers where subliminal messages are pumped into the TV they watch, the video games they play.

And should we be holding our breaths and waiting for that day to come, or screaming our lungs out trying to stop it?


2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu