Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Author Spotlight: Mark Alpert

If you assumed something called "Supreme Harmony" would be a thing benign, if not delightful, no one would fault you for thinking so. A rose by any other name, right?

Not so fast. In the skilled hands of thriller author Mark Alpert, our guest for this edition of the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight, Supreme Harmony is a terrifying misnomer. You want a second opinion? Fair enough. Supreme Harmony plays a major role in Alpert's new book, Extinction: A Thriller. And none other than Author Spotlight alumnus James Rollins says of Extinction, "As intelligent as it is frightening, a riveting journey to the next stage of evolution." For good measure, Rollins also throws in, "A chilling punch to the gut."

Clearly, Alpert's book is not your mother's notion of anything remotely like Supreme Harmony.

Instead, Extinction tells the story of a hybrid life form wrenched from a hellish brain-machine interface by military scientists who lose control of their creation when its artificial intelligence power evolves into self-awareness. That's scary in itself. What's scarier is that the technologies underlying Alpert's book is as much a product of current science fact as theoretical science fiction. So it's understandable that Douglas Preston anoints our guest as, "Truly the heir to Michael Crichton."

Alpert has the chops to write such a thriller as Extinction. Alpert majored in astrophysics at Princeton University. His undergraduate thesis applying the theory of relativity to a two-dimensional universe was published in The Journal of General Relativity and Gravitation, and has been cited in over 100 scholarly articles. In you need additional bona fides, Alpert not only writes for Scientific American, but also serves on the magazine's board of editors.

At this point you might be conceding he has his science chops down, but can the man write engaging fiction? Yes, he can. After Princeton, Alpert earned an M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University. He's been a journalist for The Clarement (N.H.) Times and The Montgomery (AL.) Advertiser, he's written for Fortune magazine, and his debut novel, Final Theory, was acclaimed as one of the best novels of 2008 by Booklist, Borders, and the American Booksellers Association.

So yeah, the man can write.

Can Alpert withstand the heat of the Author Spotlight? That's another question entirely, the answer for which isn't revealed by his impressive curriculum vitae. The only way we're going to figure that out is to train the blazing white glare from our army of klieg lights in Alpert's face, and get this Spotlight underway. 

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them.

Alpert:    Okay, I have to be strategic here. I want as much reading material as possible, so they have to be relatively long books. I love The Great Gatsby, but I don’t want to read it another forty-three times. So for fiction, I’m going with Ulysses. It’s long, it’s funny, it has some damn good parts. And I’ll finally have enough leisure time to figure out the parts I never understood. For nonfiction, my choice is another long, good book, Shelby Foote’s The Civil War. It’s the best work of history ever. Did you know that Jefferson Davis eloped with Zachary Taylor’s daughter? Or that Robert E. Lee lost the Battle of Gettysburg because Jeb Stuart was having too much fun pillaging the countryside? It’s all in Foote’s book.

Gazala:    Your latest book is an excellent and gripping novel titled Extinction: A Thriller, featuring American soldier-cum-scientist Jim Pierce confronting Chinese anti-terrorism software with highly sophisticated quasi-human artificial intelligence that starts thinking for itself. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Extinction, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Alpert:    Every English-speaking Earthling should read Extinction because it’s a ton of fun. The novel focuses on a secret Chinese government project called Supreme Harmony, a surveillance system that uses swarms of cyborg insects -- ordinary houseflies equipped with minuscule cameras and radio controls -- to spy on dissident groups. (Real-life scientists are developing this technology for military reconnaissance.) To analyze the glut of video collected by the swarms, Chinese researchers lobotomize a group of condemned prisoners and insert electronic implants into their brains, turning them into a network of zombie-like "Modules" who are wirelessly linked to one another and to the swarms. But the project goes disastrously awry when the Supreme Harmony network develops its own intelligence, a collective consciousness that takes control of the Modules and sets out to exterminate its creators.

You have to admit, it’s a pretty fun premise. But that’s not all! The novel also features bionic arms, artificial eyes, a gun battle on the Great Wall, a helicopter dogfight above the mountains near Burma, and an apocalyptic war between China and America. As Stefon of "Saturday Night Live" fame might say, "This book has everything!"

Gazala:    What are books for?

Alpert:    Besides providing me with countless hours of entertainment, books have taught me a lot of useful things. When I was working as a newspaper reporter in the Eighties, I learned about journalism and politics by reading Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. When I was traveling across South America, I got a view of the cultural landscape by reading A Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. And when I was navigating the channels and shoals of marriage, I got some guidance from reading the collected works of John Updike. Now that I have kids, I see the effects that reading books has on them. After an hour of watching TV or playing on the computer, the kids are hyper and agitated and sometimes impossible to deal with. But reading calms them and stimulates their minds at the same time. They want to talk about the books they’ve just read.

Gazala:    W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

Alpert:   I get the same feeling sometimes, that I know how to write a novel but can’t describe exactly how to do it. I’ve written seven novels so far, three published, four unpublished. I usually start with a cool idea -- say, a secret discovery made by Albert Einstein (that was the premise of my first published book, Final Theory) -- and then try to imagine the characters who will be involved in the story. Then I try to map out a plot -- for thrillers, the basic structure is usually a chase or a hunt -- but the outline is very rough. I don’t want to predetermine everything because I like to be surprised while I’m writing the book. For me, the whole effort is a leap of faith. While I’m writing the novel I have no idea whether the book will actually come together. I was three-quarters finished with the first draft of Extinction before I figured out how the novel would end.

Gazala:    There's a fly buzzing round my desk begging for a big hit from my can of Raid. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Alpert:    Q: Mark, do you have to know a lot of science to enjoy your science thriller Extinction? A: I’m so glad you asked that question. No, you don’t have to know any science at all. The novel is self-explanatory. As you ride the rollercoaster of the plot you’ll pick up everything you need to know. Many people shy away from science because they had a bad physics or chemistry teacher in high school. I see it as my job to fight those bad impressions and encourage people to love science. It’s an endless source of entertainment and awe. 

Perhaps we need harsher klieg lights, since Alpert has emerged a little overheated but otherwise fairly unscathed. Will you emerge so splendidly from your reading Extinction? The best way to find out is to snatch a copy of Alpert's new thriller and start reading. We'll make it easy -- all you have to do to get your copy of Extinction from Amazon is click here. Have fun, and read safely.

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