Review: The White List

Nina D’Aleo’s The White List (Momentum Books) is a strange combination of success and failure. The premise is preposterous, the plotting is perfunctory – but the prose is zippy and entertaining and the characters acutely observed.

Genetic superhumans walk among us, most unaware that they have the ‘Shaman’ trait. A few awaken to manifest their powers, usually in violently destructive ways. Silvia Denaglia (code name: Silver!) is an operative for a super-secret agency that exists to capture and suppress them. But she has increasing doubts about the agency – its methods seem callous and its operatives careless of human life.

Of course there’s a conspiracy within a conspiracy, and the agency is tainted by evil, and there’s a rebel mutant good-guy underground, and her contact with it is the enigmatic man of her dreams. To call the worldbuilding cardboard would be an insult to honest cardboard, and anyone even marginally genre-savvy can see each breathless reveal in the plot coming from miles away. On these levels the book is dumb, dumber, dumbest – really embarrassingly bad.

And yet, it’s oddly charming. The prose is energetic and well-constructed. The characters work even though they’re trapped by the tropes they’re assigned to. There’s a good deal of wry comedy and quite a number of laugh-out-loud lines, especially in the earlier parts of the book. Ms. D’Aleo is not beyond hope; in fact I’d say she’s one half of a terrific writer. She would benefit from collaborating with somebody who knows how to do setting and plot but lacks her gift for the microlevel of writing.

Finally, a warning: This is one of those dishonestly-packaged books that is volume one of a series without being so labeled, and ends unresolved.

15 thoughts on “Review: The White List

  1. Isn’t that just the setup to X-Men? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, The Incredibles lifted its setup from Watchmen…

  2. I could go on for quite a while about how this is not quite the X-Men setup, just on what I’ve read in the books, and I’m not even an avid reader of the series, but I’ll settle for saying, yeah, this sounds very X-Men-y.

    In fact, the book sounds very “Hollywood” from this review. Like she’s borrowing one trope after another. It makes me wonder what kind of new ground she’s really trying to stake out here, or if she’s just in it to make a living writing, and banking on her prose.

  3. (And actually, I thought The Incredibles borrowed more from Fantastic Four than Watchmen. The powers are eerily similar, and the “we’re a family” theme is omnipresent.)

  4. It sounds as though this may be Twilight/Hunger Games style chick fic with a premise boosted from Blade Runner and the X-Men instead of sparkly vampires or whatever. That would explain the cardboard plot. It also probably means that this author will be disincentivized to improve; if she ever grows out of the niche she’s assigned to she risks losing her marketability.

  5. >It sounds as though this may be Twilight/Hunger Games style chick fic with a premise boosted from Blade Runner and the X-Men instead of sparkly vampires or whatever. That would explain the cardboard plot. It also probably means that this author will be disincentivized to improve; if she ever grows out of the niche she’s assigned to she risks losing her marketability.

    Ouch. That sounds dead on target. I didn’t notice this possibility because I don’t read that crap.

  6. “This book should not be lightly set aside. It should be thrown with great force.”, Jakub?

  7. There is actually a Twilight fan fiction which might be enjoyable to the crowd here http://luminous.elcenia.com/. It gives the Heroine a serious upgrade for thinking ability and lets the story fork from there. The first book is a bit light on plot, but the second is a genuinely good story.

  8. Why is it that popular fiction is readily improved by giving the main character an intellectual upgrade?

    I was big fan of Harry Potter all through the books, but I related best to Hermione (and not just for gender reasons), more than to Harry. It was only after I read Methods of Rationality that I realized what was missing.

    TV is worse, with the supposedly most intelligent character often the comic relief.

    Readers of this blog clearly average higher than usual intelligence and intellectual bent. Have you been frustrated by this tendency in popular fiction?

  9. @Cathy: Additional problem is that even if character is supposed to be intelligent, we have only author telling us about it, violating “Show, Don’t Tell”…

  10. Cathy: “Why is it that popular fiction is readily improved by giving the main character an intellectual upgrade?”

    This seems like an appropriate time to quote (Methods of Rationality author, &c) Eliezer Yudkowsky recommending Worm (which also features super powers):

    “The characters in Worm use their powers so intelligently I didn’t even notice until something like the 10th volume that the alleged geniuses were behaving like actual geniuses and that the flying bricks who would be the primary protagonists and villains of lesser tales were properly playing second fiddle to characters with cognitive, informational, or probability-based powers.”

  11. Isaac Asimov wrote an essay on the “Cult of Ignorance” back in 1956. He discussed the TV showing of the play “Happy Birthday,” and then moves into a discussion of the worst Hollywood tropes (a beautiful woman wearing glasses is intelligent but unattractive, when she takes off her glasses [read: drops her intelligence] she is suddenly beautiful, etc.)

    He summed up the stereotype portrayed as “It is only in ignorance that happiness is to be found, and education is stuffy and leads to missing much of the happiness of life.” Asimov speculated that the root may be in the American pioneer background, where school-type academic study didn’t seem very relevant to the farmers who made up the bulk of the nation.

    Apparently even after the geek revolution, the Cult of Ignorance is alive and well in 2014.

    *sigh*

  12. Cathy, there is actually a glimmer of hope on the horizon. In Marvel comics, a disproportionate number of the heroes come from a STEM background: Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, and Tony Stark to name a few. Even Wolverine is implied to be much more intelligent than his rugged exterior suggests (doubtless much like his namesake, one of those infernal mustelids). With the Marvel Cinematic Universe forming the template for the modern blockbuster, Joss Whedon carrying major clout, a freaking Ender’s Game picture being greenlit, and movie producers deliberately bringing some realism into “Hollywood Hacking” as seen in computer-themed pictures to avoid pissing off/not being taken seriously by the technical contingent, it’s a better time than ever to be a geek from a pop culture standpoint.

    It’s not nearly enough but it’s something.

  13. >it’s a better time than ever to be a geek from a pop culture standpoint.

    Same thing in TV shows : being a geek is apparently cool.
    I’m thinking : CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Bones, House MD, …

  14. “In Marvel comics, a disproportionate number of the heroes come from a STEM background: Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, and Tony Stark to name a few.”

    True, though I wish they would give Peter Parker a chance to show his intelligence and geekiness. In the movie versions, I always felt they violated “show, don’t tell.” Likewise, Bruce Banner is supposed to be a scientist, but I never seem him problem-solving with scientific method or technology.

    Tony Stark is my personal favorite. His only superpower is super-geeky technological intelligence, and that’s enough to make him a badass. And his geeky attitudes and behaviors will ring true with many of that tribe!

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