I Am Number Four
When I first caught the trailer for the film version of I Am Number Four I was excited to learn that it was based on a book. Reviews I encountered frequently referred to I Am Number Four (which has a pretty awesome title) as sci-fi; something of a rarity in the fantasy-saturated YA market. Unfortunately I found that I Am Number Four is sci-fi in the same way that Star Wars is sci-fi; pretty much not at all. While marketed towards the teen crowd I had hoped I would find something a bit more mature instead what I found was a soap operatic teenage power fantasy.
The plot has a set up that manages to evoke Superman and The Running Man at the same time. The titular Number Four, who has decided to go by the name of John Smith, is one of nine survivors of the planet Lorien. His home was destroyed by the resource hoarding Mogadorians and he and his brethren managed to escape the dying planet under the protection of a “magic” charm. Essentially so long as the children stayed apart they could not be killed, at least out of a specific order. Now one through three are dead and John is next. Thankfully as each of these Lorien children come of age they will develop multiple legacies (i.e. superpowers) that they can use to fight back. John is watched over by Henri who is from a caste of Lorien who don’t develop powers but who is tasked with training and guarding John’s secrets.
As John begins to develop his legacies we get our first few glimpses of Lorien which, while Earth-like, is populated by the earth-magic wielding Loriens. The whole thing smacks of Avatar’s ham-fisted environmental crusading and the conflict between the Loriens and Mogadorian’s is never explored beyond the non-specific “natural resources.” We do learn later that the Mogadorian’s are cave-dwellers who, inexplicably, dissolve to ash once killed. There is nothing done to explore the Mogadorian’s as people and they are painted, in both disposition and appearance (trenchcoats, hats, sunglasses, filed teeth), as villains. As I mentioned there is no actual science in this novel to even qualify calling this book science fiction, sure there are aliens who came here on a space ship, but the focus is one what they can do, not how it’s done, and (as that old adage goes) the science is nigh indistinguishable from magic (going so far as to often call it magic outright).
Of course this is a fairly exciting teenage power fantasy but there is a certain lack of depth to the world and the prose gives the novel a curiously flat feel. It touches upon all the various cliches of high school: the bully jock, the pretty cheerleader(ex-cheerleader here) with more beneath the surface, the obsessive nerd, and the administration that is willing to side with aforementioned bully jock because he gets them press. These are all elements that go hand-in-hand with just about any piece of high school fiction or film. We are certainly on familiar ground here. I Am Number Four has quite a few intense action scenes that help you ignore the lack of depth elsewhere. From the nighttime confrontation between John and the bullying football team right through to the huge battle that serves as a climax. The action scenes have a visceral feel and visual flare that is fun to read.
The book’s author, Pittacus Lore, is actually a pseudonym. Pittacus Lore himself is even mentioned within the text as one of the Lorien Elder’s and the author bio describes him as such. So who is the actual author? Most sources I’ve seen point towards the controversial James Frey (with Jobie Hughes) as the culprit (imdb, New York Post). Make of that what you may. In the end I found I Am Number Four to be an entertaining diversion that seems to be more hype than substance. Certainly it seems obvious why it would make an entertaining film and the similarity to a certain television series (alien teen in mid-western US) even net two familiar names to help with the screenplay for the D. J. Caruso directed film: Alfred Gough and Miles Millar of Smallville fame. Not wholly original I Am Number Four seems to be mostly notable do the fact that it is a teen novel absent of a supernatural theme. Fans of science fiction looking for a title to recommend younger readers would do better to steer clear from this title.