Writing about artificial intelligence — machines with human-like intelligence — dates back to some of the earliest science fiction novels in the late 19th century, so, John Saul wasn’t exactly breaking new ground with his 1992 novel, Shadows, but regardless, at a time when home computers were relatively new, and in today’s context with ChatGPT and ethical concerns over artificial intelligence, his novel felt oddly prescient and as fresh as the day it was written. Saul’s novel was a mix between the best of Neal Stephenson’s realistic near-future thrillers and Stephen King’s horror. Particularly, Saul’s book with a premise of genius children brought to a school to tap into their genius reminded me of King’s 2019 novel, The Institute, but spoiler alert, Saul not only did it first, but he did it far better.
In Saul’s novel, of which this was my first one of his, child geniuses, such as Josh MacCallum, Amy Carlson, and twins Jeff and Adam Aldrich, are having a difficult time fitting in at their public schools because they’re too advanced comparatively, and are often picked on by the other kids because of it. Josh and Adam also have prior suicide attempts. That struck me deeply because one of the most horrifying statistics available is that a number of suicides occur below the age of 15, even younger than the age of 10. These child geniuses are all around age 10. Josh’s attempt was particularly gruesome, as he slit his wrists with his dad’s hunting knife, thinking he’d be less of a burden on his minimum wage, food stamps mother (who also has a younger daughter). Of course, that couldn’t be further than the truth. Brenda, his mother, just like the other parents, want to help their children, and all are referred to the Barrington Academy, formerly a mansion of a reclusive billionaire turned into a an academic setting, ostensibly, after his death. Again, ostensibly, and publicly, Dr. George Engersol is studying artificial intelligence, and a select few of the children are brought into his seminar to learn more about it …
But behind the scenes, along with his “assistant,” the housemother of the mansion, Hildie Kramer they are killing children in experiments in artificial intelligent and making it seem like suicides, i.e., that’s why they take in kids like Josh and Adam, because if they “commit suicide” a second time, it will be believable. Also, because they are genius kids. What Dr. Engersol and Kramer are doing is trying to connect the brains of the children to a supercomputer and see if the brain can exist … by itself. That is, without the pesky child’s body that the brain seems to spend most of its energies on maintaining. The theory goes, if the brain doesn’t have to worry about maintaining the body, then it can spend more time on intellectual pursuits.
Jeff is a psychopathic and domineering twin, though, and is fine with Adam being the first (get it, Adam?) to take the “plunge” into the nutrient bath tank with his brain, because if Adam dies in the process, he thinks, then surely Dr. Engersol will work out the kinks when it’s his time to go into the tank. Adam doesn’t die, however, and instead, his brain is growing, but he errs in trying to let his mom know he’s still alive and she shouldn’t be sad at his “suicide.” When that threatens Jeff’s inclusion in the program because his parents think it’s him playing a cruel joke, he orchestrates the deaths of his parents. Later, when everything is unraveling, he’s more than willing to kill his twin by disconnecting his brain from the nutrients powering it. That dang 10-year-old was more despicable ultimately than even the adults, Dr. Engersol and Kramer! I despised that little psycho brat.
Sadly, in a double-whammy of a scene that had my jaw dropped — authors like Saul willing to kill off characters I am rooting for is always jaw-dropping! — Dr. Engersol and Kramer “kill” Amy by removing her brain and putting it in the nutrient tank, and then making it seem like she was killed in a molestation-gone-wrong scheme by her English teacher, Steve Conners, a male figure who had become a quasi-father figure in Josh’s life after his dad left him. When Conners comes across Kramer shortly after she dumped Amy’s body sans her brain into the water, she tricks him, and kills him, too. Gah! While Amy didn’t end up “dying,” I didn’t want that to happen to her, and even though I knew Conners had all the makings of a minor character to be killed, I was hoping it still wouldn’t happen.
But the willingness to do that when it makes sense is what makes for great, page-turning reading!
Ultimately, Josh figures out something is amiss, and when Dr. Engersol and Kramer intend on “killing” him next for his brain, Amy, who has come to consciousness within the nutrient tank, saves him. Then Adam, finally no longer willing to do the bidding of either Dr. Engersol or his evil twin, kills Kramer in a grisly elevator death, and then kills Dr. Engersol and Jeff with carbon monoxide poisoning, but not before Dr. Engersol is able to destroy Adam’s brain.
Amy reunites one last time with her parents and then makes it seem like she “killed herself” by shutting off the nutrients to her brain, fearing that she would become crazy like Adam. Instead, as Josh learns in the epilogue, she replicated her brain cells in all the computers in the world to stay “conscious.” That thought terrifies Josh because he realizes she’s gone mad, too, and he throws his computer out.
The idea of trying to meld the human mind, which is far more complex than any computer, with computers in the name of some transhumanistic artificial intelligence is something that has obviously fascinated, and terrified, humans in equal measure for centuries now, and the concept was brought to the page by Saul in a truly creepy and unnerving story, largely involving 10-year-old kids, geniuses or not, they’re still kids. And smartly, too, as I thought his book felt as logical and well-reasoned, if dramatically macabre, as a Stephenson novel.
If you’ve been like me and have not ventured too far beyond King in your horror reading (I grew up on Stine and Koontz, and have dabbled some with Jack Ketchum, Joe Hill, and a few others), I highly recommend giving Saul a chance, and this book in particular. I love King, but Saul’s prose was a lot crisper, resulting in a fast-paced and tight read. I had to know what was going to happen! And Saul delivered.