The Rule of Thoughts is the second book in James Dashner's new series "The Mortality Doctrine." For those who found Dashner through the recent exposure of the "Maze Runner" movie, you'll enjoy a similar level of writing and a similar general tone but a significantly different story. As with the Maze Runner series, our protagonists are teenagers and they are in a world/situation with motivations that aren't entirely clear. This series is set sometime in the future and involves a sort of "Massively Multiplayer Online Game" taken to the extreme and with a heightened level of "virtual reality" involvement. The gamers lay down in a box (which they morbidly call a "coffin") and through a series of wires and sensory mechanisms they are "dropped into" the game world with a full sensation of reality. They run around with the full sensation of being immersed in the program. Naturally there are gamers who are more technologically savvy than others and they find ways to hack through the game world and manipulate things to their advantage. Enter our protagonists.
In the first book, The Eye of Minds, Michael and his friends are having fun hacking through the game world and enjoying life to its fullest but they aware of rumors of some super hacker cyber-terrorist, Kaine, that's somehow killing people through the game program. Michael and his friends are approached by a government security agency and asked to help track Kaine.
SPOILER ALERT - (the next ~2 paragraphs contain spoilers from the first book which ends with some surprises)
At the end of book one, Michael makes the surprising discovery that Kaine isn't a hacker in the normal sense. Kaine is actually part of the program. He's an AI (called a "tangent" within the game world) that has become self-aware and is dissatisfied with being stuck in the programming. He's working on something called "The Mortality Doctrine" which seems to be a scheme to allow tangents to cross over into the human world and take control of a human body. The surprises continue when we learn that Michael is also a tangent. Somehow Michael had become self-aware in the sense that he started making his own choices and thoughts beyond his programming...but he was not aware that he was a tangent. Kaine's revelation to Michael seems unbelievable until, at the end of book one, Kaine employs the Mortality Doctrine to cause Michael to "wake" in the human world in a human body that is clearly not Michael. That's where book two begins.
Michael is faced with all sorts of confusion and dilemmas. His entire existence and sense of "self" has been turned on its head. He still has memories and self-awareness but he realizes that everything he knows is not "real"...it's just part of the programming. And now he's displaced some real human and taken over his body in the real world.
Michael doesn't get a lot of time to sit and ponder his actions. He is quickly confronted by Kaine's "mortal" tangents as well as agents from the government security agency. Unsure who to trust or what to do, he goes on the run and tries to find his "virtual friends" in the "real world" so that together they can come up with a plan and work through the situation.
The writing style and pacing of the book were fluid and enjoyable. The storyline was a bit disorienting at times which I suspect was partially intentional since the reader is so closely tied to Michael and his confusion. Aside from the technological and sci-fi elements (for which I suspended disbelief and enjoyed the concept), there were a couple of elements in the plot that I had a hard time with. Mostly I had a hard time seeing just how "easy" Michael was able to hide from those pursuing him. I grant that Dashner did have a number of action packed chase scenes where Michael (and later his friends) barely made it away from their pursuers. But with the heightened technology and the scale of the plan, I have a hard time believing Kaine wouldn't have been prepared to pick Michael up as soon as he woke up or that the VirtNet Security wouldn't have already been all over Michael's friends expecting him to make contact. I do like the way Dashner added tension with regards to Michael's friends, but it felt a little disconnected that there was so much delay on the part of the pursuers.
Interestingly I had just recently watched the movie "Transcendence" in which Johnny Depp finds a way to "upload" a human mind into a computer as a fully self-aware AI. Johnny's character then becomes power hungry and uses some interesting nano-technology to reprogram and control humans. There are other short stories and movies I've seen in the past with similar concepts. So I was quickly reminded that the overall idea is not entirely new.
Yet Dashner manages to keep the concept fresh by using teenage protagonists and a youthful new perspective on the idea. By using a gaming world, he's able to have a lot of creative fun with the worlds that the characters explore. By having an unwilling protagonist, he's able to keep a lot of the core story elements and motivation at arms length and keep us all in the dark and a little off balance, thus increasing some of the suspense and surprise.
Overall I'm enjoying the series and looking forward to the third (and final?) book in the series and to finding out exactly what Kaine has planned and how Michael will deal with his own mortality and the moral conflict he's dealing with.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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