Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Sleeper Conspiracy, by Tom Sniegoski

Post 9/11, the term sleeper cell became a part of the lexicon of 21st century America, popularized via a drama on Showtime, a Frontline report, and investigations in New York and Detroit. The "sleeper" phenomenon is a fitting emblem of the age of fear, an age in which terror can strike at any time, and from quarters totally unexpected.

Now, teen readers have available to them a new series, The Sleeper Conspiracy, by Tom Sniegoski, a 2007 Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. This two part series, which begins with The Sleeper Code, delivers an action packed narrative about a teenage boy, Tom Lovett, who suffers from a severe case of narcolepsy. Unbeknownst to Tom, he does not simply fall asleep when he has a narcoleptic attack; rather, he turns into a killing machine named Tyler Garrett, a secret agent created by the United States government to combat terrorism throughout the world.

The discovery of the truth of Tom's "sleeper" personality and how and why it is activated drives the action in Part 1 of this series. The interesting twist that Sniegoski pulls, perhaps influenced by real world developments at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and in Iraq (where it appears a minimum of 150,000 Iraqis died in the first three years after the US invasion to depose Saddam Hussein) is that Tyler Garrett and his handlers are depicted as just as dangerous as the foreign terrorists whom they are fighting. In other words, the book explores the limits of violence as a response to terrorism, and the advantages and disadvantages of non-violent behavior. A very interesting ethical dialogue takes place within the character of Tom Lovett (AKA Tyler Garrett), and consequently within the reader, too.

The second book in the series, The Sleeper Agenda, continues this ethical questioning, but the action becomes even more intense and suspenseful. Tom learns how his alter ego Tyler Garrett was created, and becomes an ally in the search to find and stop the US government official responsible for his creation (who, by this point, is now aiding and abetting terrorists throughout the world). Along the way, Tom also becomes involved with Madison, the young woman he meets in Part 1. There is more violence in this novel, as well as more psychological drama as a complex effort begins to bring a resolution to the two competing personalities of Tom and Tyler.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Sleeper Conspiracy--it reminds me a lot of The Gatekeepers, though I wouldn't say that it is in quite the same league. My 6th grade son picked up the first book, and enjoyed it, and my older adolescent read the entire series. Although I haven't encouraged my 6th grader to read the second book, I do think younger adolescents more comfortable with horror and suspense would enjoy both books. They are fun thrillers, even though sorting out the relationship between Tom and Tyler can be just a bit repetitive and confusing.

As for me, I continue to find popular fiction a very interesting lens on the contemporary world (for my previous thoughts on this, see my comments about Kidnapped, by Gordon Korman). Although I tend to side with those who see fear and terrorism as overblown by the media, I do think that we are living at a time where prior assumptions about the ability of diverse people and perspectives to co-exist relatively harmoniously need to be critically re-examined. Peace and security aren't so much facts of life as they are conditions that are earned, and earning them sometimes requires bold actions that run against the grain. The Sleeper Conspiracy does a nice job of pointing out the limits of how far we can run against the grain, in terms of the use of force in combatting terrorism, while at the same time pointing out the challenges inherent in adhering strictly to pacifist values and practices. It advocates a reasonable middle ground that I suspect is convincing to most readers, the only problem being that the focus is entirely on the use of force, as opposed to the political and social policies that are even more critical to the creation of a safe and secure world.

The other insight that I take away from The Sleeper Conspiracy is this idea of multiple personalities--something that Larry King touches on in his interview below with Stephen Colbert. In the current presidential campaigns, it is fascinating (and increasingly tiresome) to hear about the different "sides" of each of the candidates. Hillary has to prove that she is sensitive and feeling (like Tom Lovett), because she comes off as such a cold and calculated power-seeker (Tyler Garrett). Barack, on the other hand, needs to prove he can make the tough decisions and be Tyler Garrett because he is such an inspiring and sensitive speaker (Tom Lovett). Americans don't seem to know for sure which personality they want yet, nor are they sure which personalities are real and authentic to the candidates (for more on the dual personalities of these candidates, see this recent commentary by Stanley Fish). It's hard to tell for sure where the truth lies, and what is most needed--a fact that ought to drive most of us to remember that on the policy issues these two candidates aren't very different and either one would move this country in a much needed new direction.

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