Reality TV Forms Basis for Mystery/Action Novelby David Bloomberg -- 07/10/2002
Reality TV went through a boom last season and is in somewhat of a bust right now, but it is a phenomenon that is almost certain to stay with us in some form for years to come. It has become part of the American culture; even those who don’t watch know the premise of Survivor or Big Brother. Now, author Jim Brown has taken the next logical step by writing a captivating new novel around the concept.
24/7 (Ballantine Books, $24.95) is a combination mystery and action novel that deals with events taking place on a remote island that has been completely wired up for the biggest reality TV show ever. But the show quickly enters a new realm of reality when it is taken over by “Control,” a faceless terrorist who uses genetically modified viruses to murder the crew and host.
The contestants remain the only ones left alive on the island, but are told that when they are voted off by the viewing audience, they will not simply be sent home – they will die.
On the island, the story focuses on single mother Dana Kirsten, whose daughter has muscular dystrophy and will soon die from the disease. Her only hope is an experimental treatment that has not been approved for use in the U.S. But because the prize for winning this show is two million dollars and “your heart’s desire,” Kirsten applied with the hopes of getting that desire – the treatment for her daughter.
Much of the story takes place off the island, though, where a fledgling reporter gets exclusive leaks from the president’s task force on the situation, and uses them to significantly advance his career. Meanwhile, that presidential task force must figure out how to deal with the situation – not knowing if the engineered virus can be contained or may spread to infect millions – while everybody watches it play out live on televisions and computers around the world. The president also has a vested interest in one of the players, though which one and why is kept a mystery until the very end.
As if things weren’t bad enough, also thrown into the mix is a supposedly dead mental patient who thinks he is God’s messenger and is proficient with bombs.
Eventually, all of these different plots converge in an exciting climax at the point where it all started – the island. Along the way, we see that the stresses of the “game” affect the different participants in varying ways – not terribly unlike the way contestants are affected in today’s reality TV. It brings out the best in some people, and the worst in others. Of course, in 24/7 the stakes are much higher, and Brown’s characters rise or fall to greater heights or depths.
Throughout the story, we also find out about the world of 24/7. We hear about the previous king of all reality shows, in which enough people to populate a small town were put onto a studio lot to feed the world’s appetite for reality programming. And we learn that this show ended in disaster, decimating the genre, after a minister fell prey to the wiles of a woman who had assured him they were in a spot devoid of cameras; he took his own life on live TV when he realized she had lied to him.
Also peppered into the story are references to current pop culture. Several characters mention players from the first Survivor and Big Brother, and the show begins in part with a sales pitch for getting extra footage by paying for special computer coverage – just as CBS has done with both Big Brother 2 and Survivor 3.
Parts of the story also mirror recent reality TV shows. It’s easy to spot the Richard Hatch and Susan Hawk of the group. Before dying, the 24/7 host provides monologues that the reader can envision coming out of the mouth of Jeff Probst, host of Survivor. There is even a character with a criminal background that was not caught by the show’s screeners – shades of occurrences on several recent reality shows. But the storyline itself also seems just real enough to make the reader wonder.
It is perhaps only a matter of time before somebody is indeed killed on a reality TV program – Mike Skupin was severely burned on Survivor 2, and the first person voted out of one of the European precursors to Survivor committed suicide rather than face the shame. Newlywed Nicole on Big Brother 2 faced serious depression after being caught on-camera in apparent sex play with another contestant. The book even opens with a quote from Survivor creator Mark Burnett: “The only way to really live is to sometimes be on the edge of living and dying, or danger and nondanger.” Though this account is obviously fictional and far from what might ever happen, it does play on the thoughts in the back of our minds about some of the dangerous possibilities.
Unfortunately, it looks like the publisher may have rushed to get this book into print to take advantage of its pop culture references. There are a number of grammatical errors scattered throughout the book, and certain minor plot elements don’t make much sense, even in retrospect at the end.
But both of these problems are small and pale in comparison to the overall story quality. Once the preliminaries of introducing the characters and situation are over and the story picks up, it carries the reader along quickly, both on the island and off. Just when things can’t get any worse, they do – several times over. The result is a satisfying murder mystery and adventure story with just enough current references thrown in to make it realistic.
For another viewpoint, check out Susan Schechter’s review of this book.
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