Last night I finished Hero, the final book in the Monster Trilogy (a sequel trilogy to Michael Grant's GONE Series).
For those unaware, the GONE Series is my favourite fictional book series for reasons I could write a whole blog post about (based on my blogging frequency, expect this in the next few years). To summarise why I like this gritty YA series so much - the GONE Series is often compared to a combination of Lord of the Flies and X-Men (or, really, any fiction that contains powers) and focuses heavily on responsibility and survival with a bit of teen drama thrown in. A tense existence of kids trying to survive in their own mutating world where they find themselves cut off from civilisation and adults. Being trapped in a opaque dome many miles wide without adults doesn't come with as much fun and freedom as one might initially think!
When the GONE Series ended (rather perfectly, as so little fiction seems to) I was saddened to have left the world I had entered back when I received the first instalment as a 14th birthday present and had followed up until the release of the final book, Light, in 2013. I have been on the thrilling journey through the Fallout Alley Youth Zone (The FAYZ) multiple times in the years since and enjoyed every page over and over again. Michael Grant truly can write a gripping narrative in a world where no-one is ever safe for more than a few hours.
Back to the topic of this post, the Monster Trilogy. A sequel trilogy set a few years after the events of the GONE Series, following new protagonists and a wider scope on the world after the FAYZ. I hadn't expected any more content from that world (despite following Michael Grant somewhat closely and consuming most of his other books) and had a worry that this may be an unnecessary extension that could sour the series I hold so dear.
In early 2020 I purchased Monster, the first of the trilogy, but didn't get around to "risking" the read of it until 2021... And it hooked me (Gaiaphage damn you, Michael Grant). It didn't take long before I had consumed all of Monster and, the second instalment, Villain. Seeing similar themes explored in the GONE Series now put on a global stage was thoroughly engrossing and entertaining as Grant tends to be.
2021 happened and I fell out with reading regularly but recently picked up the final instalment, Hero, and found myself staying up later and later to consume every page. Last night I finished Hero.
Note: From here-on out, I will be referencing events in both series so consider this your SPOILER ALERT
There's not too much I want to say about the Monster Trilogy in general. Michael Grant does a wonderful job of bringing together a diverse group of characters without stupid stereotyping or disingenuous character development and puts them into worlds of terror where they have to overcome seemingly impossible challenges both in the world and in themselves. Both the GONE Series and Monster Trilogy explore diversity in a thoughtful, measured and realistic manner, a testament to the character depth Michael Grant seems to so easily create.
The main purpose I write this blog post is to discuss, rant and ponder on the ending of Hero. An ending that has been bouncing around in my mind for the last 24 hours. An ending to which my first reaction was
You've just ripped the spine out of my favourite book series
Throughout the combined 9 books of the two series there has always been something alien to the sources of the powers that are obtained, the meteor that hit the Perdido Beach nuclear facility before the events of the GONE Series and the multiple meteors (otherwise known as ASOs) which crash down across the globe in the Monster Trilogy. While the source of powers is explored in the initial series to reveal that it comes from some extra-terrestrial force (known as the gaiaphage virus) aboard the meteor, the sequels blew this open further - introducing the scientific analysis, global response and investigation into the so-called virus.
In the initial series, some kids just developed powers that they could use at-will (so long as they had practiced enough at being able to summon them). The Monster Trilogy, without a dome to "contain" such anomalies of physics, requires characters to morph into bizarre creatures that are humanoid mismatches of creatures from Earth to access their powers. These powers are often ironic to the character themselves, for example, the trans gender-fluid girl, Cruz, who struggles with her identity and with being accepted by those around her can use her power in morph to take on the physical appearance of anyone. When in morph characters feel a presence, as if being watched, these strange entities that they can feel in the back of their conscious are deemed The Dark Watchers. A, seemingly benevolent, collective that seems to simply observe and never interact. The feelings of these watchers can sometimes be felt but it never seems to be anything more than intrigue or entertainment for them.
Who are they? Where are they? Why are they doing this? Why don't they interact?
The Dark Watchers which, ultimately, somehow relate to the unknown of the source of power was fascinating to me. My fascination was shared by the character Malik who, through the tragic events at the Golden Gate Bridge, has to remain permanently "in morph" to stay alive. Constantly tormented by the presence of The Dark Watchers, seeing what he sees, spying on him.
The final chapters of Hero follow Malik as he explores n-dimensional space (thanks to the dimensional shifting abilities of Francis) to follow the "strings" in his brain to The Dark Watchers. It's during his interaction with one of the watchers that my faith in this ending started to waiver...
"Twice, just twice has any creature within the sim become aware enough to escape the simulation"
The... What now?
Simulation theory is touched on by characters (especially Malik) through the Monster Trilogy, a sort of thought experiment to answer "why are these powers possible?". It is revealed that this was far more than a thought experiment and it was the actual truth of the reality these characters live in. The world of the Monster Trilogy exists inside a simulation created by an AI. An AI that was created by Shade and Malik a couple of decades in the future of the events in the book. An AI that could utilise the advanced technology of the 2040s to simulate human brains which have been imaged from real people to build a "human" reality simulation.
That was a lot to take in. Does this mean my favourite series all took place inside a simulation? Does this detract from my enjoyment?
Michael Grant ends the book with a note, a few pages, discussing the purpose of this series and providing some insight on the simulation ending. To use his words
I'll leave the judgement as to my degree of success or failure to you
Is our universe just a simulation? Maybe. So what?
But our subjective reality, our fears and our hates and our loves, while not scientifically measurable, are genuine and cannot be dismissed. We have no ability to treat the world as anything other than real.
I agree with him there but the idea of everything being a simulation hits me the same way as it "all being a dream". It lowers the stakes to me. Knowing that, to some scientists, this is nothing short of code on a screen takes me one step out from the reality that had been created and I had been a part of for so many years. I have spent all day thinking about this.
You may notice earlier that I said "the world of the Monster Trilogy exists inside a simulation", this was not a mistake. In his notes at the end Michael Grant points out the loose ends, discusses the exploratory purposes of this trilogy and encourages fan fiction to continue the world and help it grow. Well, I've never been one to write fan fiction but this ending and the approach from the author (which I'd like to clarify I respect and has not completely soured me with cynicism) got me thinking. Thinking about this simulated reality, thinking about the events of the GONE Series and thinking about the connections between the two series. My conclusion on the realities of these series, whether for my own peace of mind or for furthering the infinite world of fan fiction, is:
The Monster simulation. Created by Shade Darby and Malik Tenerife during their post-graduate careers at MIT. Spurred by Shade's obsession with the events of the Perdido Beach Anomaly (PBA, known colloquially as the FAYZ) set her on a fast track to reproduce and understand how such events are possible and how the world would react to an unconfined anomaly. With her deep knowledge of the events, Malik's inherent (and humble) intelligence and their combined brainpower they created a complex AI. With this AI they were able to reproduce the laws of physics and the structure of society through many individual simulated beings. They were able to inject anomalies into this system, anomalies they could track but not control. A fish tank they could do nothing but stare at as the piranhas they dropped in began to feast.
It may not seem like much but to my mind this short bit keeps the events of the GONE Series "real", adheres to the simulation ending of the Monster Trilogy and gives a loose cop-out to Little Pete supposedly becoming aware enough to escape the simulation (as the events and n-dimensional space explored by Pete were so vastly different to that described in the Monster Trilogy, I see it as an overlap in Shade's knowledge of the events and the AI's justification of the simulation).
This is a rant and a swan song. I still hold these books close to my heart. I'll be rereading the GONE Series soon.
Thanks for reading my 1500 word rant x