Science Book a Day Interviews Mark Alpert


Special thanks to Mark Alpert for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Extinction: A Thriller

Mark Alpert, author of Final Theory, The Omega TheoryExtinction, and The Furies, is a contributing editor at Scientific American. In his long journalism career he has specialized in explaining scientific ideas to readers, simplifying esoteric concepts such as extra dimensions and parallel universes. And now, in his novels, Alpert weaves cutting-edge science into high-energy thrillers that elucidate real theories and technologies. – From Mark’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Extinction?

I wanted to write a novel about brain-computer interfaces — electronics that can be implanted in the brain’s motor cortex to control artificial limbs, or in the retina to provide eyesight to the blind. It’s a very hot field with lots of potential for great advances, but also a lot of potential dangers. I decided to invent a villain that would embody some of those dangers, a network of man-machine hybrids that’s originally created to conduct surveillance but goes out of control. And I decided that the book’s hero should also be part-machine, a former Army Ranger named Jim Pierce who lost his arm in a terrorist bombing and replaced it with an ultra-advanced, mind-controlled prosthesis. And just to make things more interesting, I threw in a swarm of remote-controlled cyborg insects equipped with minuscule cameras and paralyzing bio-weapons. Then I put it all together and ran with it!

#2 – What was the inspiration for Supreme Harmony, the evil (?) AI of the book?

Supreme Harmony is the name of the man-machine network in Extinction. The humans who are forced into the network have to be lobotomized first, to remove their individual will and consciousness, and it seemed a little implausible that any U.S. government agency or corporation or crime group would consider doing this. But the People’s Republic of China has a long history of abusing its political dissidents, and the Chinese government has admitted harvesting the organs of condemned prisoners, so it didn’t seem too unrealistic that they might lobotomize their dissidents as well. I got the name for the network from one of the buildings in Beijing’s Forbidden City, which I visited when I was doing research for the book. It seemed appropriate because in my novel the network develops a shared consciousness, a group intelligence that includes and harmonizes all the memories and emotions of its formerly human members. And the name also offered an analogy for the political philosophy of the PRC, which clearly values social harmony over individual freedom.

#3 – Several reviews refer to your cliffhangers and the tension you weave throughout the film. How do you go about maintaining the tension in your storyline?

I see you’ve called Extinction a film rather than a novel, but that’s an understandable mistake. As I started each chapter of the book, I saw how it would unfold in my mind’s eye. The imagination process for me is very visual, very like watching a movie. In fact, I state this metaphor explicitly in one of the book’s last chapters (but I won’t say any more about it here for fear of revealing spoilers!) And when I’m visualizing the action, I always ask myself, “What else could go wrong? What’s the worst thing that could happen?” And that creates the tension.

#4 – I was intrigued to learn about Layla and her association with a ‘Wikileaks’ type organisation. Was this inspired by Wikileaks and/or the actions of Mr Snowden?

Yes, Layla’s organization is definitely based on Wikileaks, which burst into the news in 2010 when I started writing Extinction. Snowden’s actions occurred after the book was published, but many of the things he revealed — including the enormous breadth of the NSA’s signal-intelligence operations — were long suspected by people in the know. I’m a pretty paranoid person, so I’ve never had any expectations of privacy. I always knew the government was obsessed with my personal life.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

My fourth novel, The Furies, will be published on April 22nd. It’s a science thriller about a clan of genetically mutated witches who have been steering the course of history for centuries. Whereas Extinction focused on neuroscience, The Furies deals with biochemistry and evolutionary biology. And it’s a lot of fun!

[Image Credit: Sigrid Estrada @ ]