Latest book review: Final Theory by Mark Alpert

(out of 5 stars)
Year published: 2008
Category: science thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY (partly from author’s website):

David Swift, a failed physicist turned science historian, is summoned by the police to the deathbed of his former mentor, renowned physicist Hans Kleinman. The elderly scientist and student of Albert Einstein was beaten and tortured by an unknown assailant seeking information about the Einheitliche Feldtheorie, or unified theory, a single set of equations that would explain all the forces of Nature. Einstein spent the second half of his life searching for this theory, but he died without discovering it. Or did he?

Within hours of hearing his mentor’s last words—and a mysterious sequence of seemingly random digits–David is running for his life. The FBI and a ruthless Russian mercenary are vying to get their hands on the long-hidden theory. Teaming up with an old girlfriend, brilliant Princeton physicist Monique Reynolds, David embarks on a frenzied cross-country quest, frantically trying to piece together Einstein’s Final Theory to reveal its staggering consequences.


This may be the only thing you need to know about Final Theory to decide whether you want to read it or not: it’s a science thriller about theoretical physics, and there aren’t many of those. So if you’re sick of plagues, bioterrorism, corrupt pharmaceutical companies, and heroic pathologists, Mark Alpert’s novel with its climax set at Fermilab may be just what you’re looking for. The author is a science journalist and editor for Scientific American; he knows his stuff. The technical content of Final Theory is convincing, clear (for theoretical physics), and well-utilized.

However, you no doubt have noted that I gave this book only two stars. While the scientific premise of this book is original and entertaining, the actual story is below average quality for the genre. Alpert writes sentences and paragraphs well enough, but the plot is unexceptional. It’s fast-moving and action-packed but formulaic (ordinary guy ripped from his ordinary life, unjustly accused, goes on the run, must complete a quest while staying one step ahead of both the law and the villain). While some plot twists were unanticipated by this reader, unfortunately this isn’t because the twists were so clever. Rather, they were ridiculous or unbelievable. Horrific injuries are conveniently ignored a few pages after being incurred; car chases are unconvincing.

Probably the novel’s biggest weakness is characterization, particularly the villains. Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll summarize and say that Alpert relies on trite, cardboard characters. To create “complexity”, he juxtaposes good and bad traits that don’t add depth; rather, the reader can’t believe that such opposites could exist in a single real person.

Finally, Alpert does a couple of things in this book that bugged me. First, he uses a President, VP, and Secretary of Defense who are undisguised clones of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld, and they are portrayed as the worst caricatures a left-leaning author could imagine. The FBI engages in acts so offensive (and at the same time, so incompetent) that one can only hope any American reader would consider the acts impossible under our laws. A variety of people are stereotyped in unflattering ways, including rural dwellers, religious fundamentalists, lawyers, Texans, and soldiers. A little of that is useful in a thriller; Alpert overdoes it.

In summary: Read Final Theory if you’re a genre fan and you want to try some physics. But don’t expect a masterpiece.

Parent alert: foul language, including the f-word; mildly graphic torture; prostitution

If you’re more a math/physics type, read: The Fractal Murders by Mark Cohen

Alpert’s books featuring David Swift and physicist Monique Reynolds:
Final Theory (2008); The Omega Theory (2011)

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