“For the first time in his life, Michael understood why real soldiers coming back from real wars often had a hard time getting over the things they’d seen and done. And had done to them. If Michael had a soul, it was starting to leak out of his hopes.” – James Dashner
When I was growing up, I loved video games. And when I say I loved video games, I mean I spent a lot of my time playing them, researching them, and dreaming about them. At one point in my life, my uncle jokingly asked me if I was building bombs in my basement because of how much time I spent down there playing video games. I love the immersive quality of video games, being able to do fantastic, otherworldly things and embody totally different roles from my real life. Once, on a family trip to Disney World, I tried a virtual reality game, where I put on a visor and had a bunch of wires attached to my arms and legs and I got to stand on this circular tube and run around in a virtual world. I loved it, at least the two minutes I was allowed to play on it. This immersion and need for out of body experiences is what James Dashner plays on in his newest book, The Eye of Minds. In it, Dashner creates a futuristic world where people can enter the Sleep and play in the VirtNet, a virtual world that would put any current video game to shame. In the Sleep, people can live their lives and do things they never thought possible without many consequences for their actions in the real world.
This is the world of Michael, a teenage boy who lives to escape into the VirtNet. His days are spent mostly within the confines of his “coffin” where he is plugged into the VirtNet for hours at a time. While in the Sleep, Michael still feels normal human needs, such as hunger, exhaustion, or even pain, but when he eats within the VirtNet, his coffin feeds his actual body nutrients to help him survive, and when he is injured in the VirtNet, his body actually feels the pain. Michael and his friends are talented hackers, who sometimes break the rules within the games to make them more entertaining or to get ahead. But when one hacker starts to manipulate the system to mess with people’s minds back in the real world, the authorities get involved, and task Michael and his friends to root out the intentions of this evil hacker.
As one could imagine, in a virtual reality setting the pace is often intense and the reader will feel the adrenaline of the characters pumping throughout the story. Much like Dashner’s Maze Runner, Eye of Minds is a thrill ride, with cliffhangers at every turn, making the reader want to delve deeper into the story. The plot is shrouded in enough mystery to keep the reader engaged as well, and when the stakes are raised late in the story, with actual lives on the line, it was hard for me to put the book down.
The most fascinating part for me, as a teacher, was seeing that the book seemed to highlight two skills that Michael needed to survive his ordeal. He needed to be able to collaborate with his friends to be able to hack their way through the trail the hacker, Kaine, had left for them. And he needed to think critically, to problem solve under pressure with, sometimes, severe consequences to his choices. These are skills that we are training our students to develop, and to see a virtual reality themed book focusing on these two skills just shows that we are hitting the right mark with our goals of training our students to have 21st Century Skills. I am not saying we are training our students to become hackers who will try and save the world, but it is encouraging to see a book highlighting those skills in a semi-tangible way for students to understand.
Overall, The Eye of Minds is an engaging read that would draw in students who are fans of video games or technology. It isn’t the deepest book, which makes it a bit difficult to use within Lit Circles, but the book is not overly challenging to read and could be engaging enough for some struggling readers if it is a theme they would enjoy. There is some violence and traumatic psychological experiences in the story, so I would recommend this for a grade 9 level or higher. For Lit Circles, I would pair this book with M.T. Anderson’s Feed, as it deals with a connection to a constant online presence, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Dashner’s own Maze Runner, as they are both thrill rides that allow struggling readers to feel engaged in the pacing of the narrative. The Eye of Minds gives the reader an interesting glimpse into a possible future where teens are more engaged by a virtual reality world than the real life one they live in.