Author Interview: Mark Alpert, EXTINCTION

Earlier this week I happily gave a 5-star review to Mark Alpert’s new science thriller Extinction. While I was reading the book, I knew I had to get an interview with this guy. Alpert kindly agreed, and here’s the fascinating stuff he had to share.

ScienceThrillers.com interview with author Mark Alpert

ScienceThrillers: As I read your latest novel Extinction, I got this image of you rubbing your hands together with an evil “mwah-ha-ha-ha” laugh.  Robotics and neuroscience and geopolitics and more… I know you love this stuff. Did you have fun plotting this book?

Mark Alpert: Yes, writing this book was a blast. I got the idea for the plot a few years ago while I was editing a story for my day job at Scientific American. I learned about researchers who were implanting radio controls and other microelectronics in insects — specifically, hawk moths and flying beetles — to create cyborg micro-drones. This sounds like science fiction, but the U.S. Defense Department has spent millions of dollars on this technology, funding research groups at Berkeley, MIT, Cornell and other universities. The Pentagon and the CIA would love to have a small, navigable drone that could fly at low altitudes and in and out of tight spaces; it would be very useful for battlefield reconnaissance and identifying terrorists. But given the present state of battery technology, it’s difficult to keep a tiny mechanical drone in the air long enough to conduct a surveillance mission. After a few minutes, the miniature flyers simply run out of power.

So researchers had the idea of mounting their tiny surveillance cameras on insects, which can fly for hours. By implanting electrodes in the optic lobe of an insect’s brain, you can send signals to get the bug to start and stop flying. (It’s the same impulse that gets the bugs to fly when you turn on a light in a dark room.) And by sticking electrodes in their flight muscles, you can send remote-control radio signals to turn the insects left and right. If you go to the Links page of my website, you can see videos of researchers steering insects around their lab. Anyway, this technology is so strange and creepy, I knew it would be perfect for a science thriller. I decided to tie the swarms of cyborg insects to a surveillance project run by the Chinese government, which is incredibly paranoid about political dissidents and is installing cameras by the millions across their country. Thus, I had the plot of Extinction: the government would lose control of this powerful surveillance network — called Supreme Harmony — which would develop its own consciousness and start pursuing its own malevolent agenda. I was ready to start writing.

ScienceThrillers: Oddly, the next thing I pictured was your tax return, specifically, the deductions for business travel. Extinction features some amazing action scenes set in exotic locales: the Panama Canal, Afghanistan, Beijing, the Great Wall of China, and the Three Gorges Dam, to name a few. The detail suggests you visited these places. True? Or score one for the power of Google Earth and the Internet?

Mark Alpert: Oh yes, big deductions for travel. If the IRS questions them, I’m going to point to this interview as evidence. I toured China for two weeks, visiting the places I wanted to use as settings for Extinction. In Beijing I was most fascinated by the Underground City, which is a network of tunnels dug under the capital during the Mao era, when Chinese leaders believed that a nuclear war was imminent. The network was designed to hold hundreds of thousands of people for several months, allowing them to live underground until the radioactive fallout dissipated. These tunnels, I thought, would make a great setting for a chase scene. I also did some hiking in the northwestern part of Yunnan Province, fairly close to Tibet. I walked for two days along a trail in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Yangtze River carves a deep gouge next to a mountain range called Yulong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain). As I gazed across the gorge at the forbidding, snow-topped mountains, I thought, “That would be the perfect place for Supreme Harmony’s secret laboratory.”

I visited the Panama Canal too, on an earlier trip. The only place described in the novel that I didn’t visit was Afghanistan. I had to rely on news accounts and Google Earth for those scenes in Extinction.

ScienceThrillers: I’ve noticed a trend in science thriller fiction: the zombies are coming. Extinction fits into a growing subgroup of science thrillers that use the latest advances in real-life neuroscience along with an evil surgeon who cuts and pastes human brain parts to create zombies (though not the brain-eating type).   James Rollins’ most recent Sigma Force thriller Bloodline is in this group, though the plot for that book is entirely different from your book. Because your other real-life job is being a science journalist, I assume you are speculating on existing trends in neuroscience research. How scared should I be of this type of thing becoming reality?  

Mark Alpert: I’m proud of my zombies. They’re not dead, they’re just brain-dead. Actually, only a small region of their brains isn’t functioning, a portion of the thalamus that relays signals from one part of the brain to another. Scientists believe that this brain region may be crucial to the experience of consciousness, which may depend on the synchronization of brain signals. If this part of the thalamus is damaged, synchronization becomes impossible and the person enters a vegetative state. But the other parts of the brain — motor cortex, visual cortex, etc. — are still viable, so it may be possible to send information and instructions to these brain regions, allowing you to remotely control these vegetative zombies, which I call Modules in Extinction.

In my novel, the Modules are dissidents lobotomized by the Chinese government so they can be connected to the Supreme Harmony surveillance network. The method of connection is based on another real technology I learned about while working for Scientific American: retinal implants. These devices are designed for patients suffering from macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa, which are illnesses that damage the light-detecting rod and cone cells of the retina. The patient wears a video camera hidden within a pair of sunglasses; the video signal is wirelessly transmitted to the implant within the eye, which reproduces the images on an array of electrodes attached to the retina. The electrodes send pulses to the retina’s remaining nerve cells, which relay the signals through the optic nerves to the brain’s visual cortex, partially restoring the patient’s eyesight.

I realized that this same technology could be used to distribute surveillance video to the brains of my zombies. One of the great challenges of surveillance is analyzing the glut of video images. Scientists have tried to develop software that can detect suspicious activity in the images, but software can’t compete with the human brain, which has been refined by evolution as the perfect threat-detection machine. And the enslaved brains of the wirelessly linked Modules would do a much better job of monitoring the surveillance video than a bunch of bored analysts staring at a bank of TV screens. Could this actually be done in reality? From a technical standpoint, it’s definitely possible. All you really need is a totalitarian government that has no qualms about hurting its political prisoners, and unfortunately there are plenty of those.

ScienceThrillers: What do you think about science thriller villains? Specifically, as a man of science yourself, how do you feel about the scientist as bad guy?  Do you worry about fanning public fear of science when you write a story like Extinction, or do you see your fiction more as a brake on unthinking acceptance of technology for its own sake?

Mark Alpert: Science itself isn’t evil, and neither are most scientists. The people I worry about are the ones who are funding the research and applying the results. In recent years there have been deep cuts in the traditional funding for research — NSF grants, the Department of Energy, NASA, etc. — and now many scientists have to rely on funding from DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D arm, and other government agencies whose role is to bolster national security. In Extinction, some of the scientists turn villainous because they ignore their moral scruples about the work they’re doing. But that happens in real life too. It’s more difficult to raise moral objections if that means you’re going to lose your research grant.

ScienceThrillers: I don’t want you to give up any of your best ideas for future books, but based on what’s new and ripe for abuse in modern science, what do you think are the areas science thriller writers will mine for stories in the immediate future?

Mark Alpert: The exploration of the human brain is the next great frontier. We still have so much to learn, and scientists are pursuing some groundbreaking projects that may yield fascinating results over the next few years. For example, researchers are trying to build software models of the brain to simulate the complex exchange of signals among the cortical neurons. And other scientists are developing new kinds of electronics that work the way neurons do. Naturally enough, this field is a rich source of ideas for science thriller writers. I think people love to read about this subject, because we all want to understand what goes on inside our heads.

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About Mark Alpert (from his website):

Mark Alpert, author of Final Theory, The Omega Theory, and Extinction, 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.
A lifelong science geek, Alpert majored in astrophysics at Princeton University and wrote his undergraduate thesis on the application of the theory of relativity to Flatland, a hypothetical universe with only two spatial dimensions. (The resulting paper was published in the Journal of General Relativity and Gravitation and has been cited in more than 100 scholarly articles.) After Princeton, Alpert entered the creative writing program at Columbia University, where he earned an M.F.A. in poetry in 1984. He started his journalism career as a small-town reporter for the Claremont (N.H.) Eagle Times, then moved on to the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. In 1987 he became a reporter for Fortune Magazine and over the next five years he wrote about the computer industry and emerging technologies. During the 1990s Alpert worked freelance, contributing articles to Popular Mechanics and writing anchor copy for CNN’s Moneyline show. He also began to write fiction, selling his first short story (“My Life with Joanne Christiansen”) to Playboy in 1991.
In 1998 Alpert joined the board of editors at Scientific American, where he edited feature articles for the magazine and wrote a column on exotic gadgets. With his love for science reawakened, he wrote his first novel, Final Theory, about Albert Einstein and the historic quest for the holy grail of physics, the Theory of Everything. Published by Touchstone in 2008, Final Theory was hailed as one of the best thrillers of the year by Booklist, Borders and the American Booksellers Association. Foreign rights to the novel were sold in more than twenty languages, and the movie rights were acquired by Radar Pictures, a Los Angeles production company. Alpert continued the saga of the Theory of Everything in his second book, The Omega Theory, a gripping story about religious fanatics who try to trigger Doomsday by altering the laws of quantum physics. His new thriller, Extinction, focuses on the development of brain-machine interfaces, a new technology that’s connecting human minds to prosthetic arms, artificial eyes and other devices. The novel’s heroes must battle a malevolent man-machine hybrid, a network with a collective intelligence that’s bent on exterminating the human race.
Alpert lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children. He’s a proud member of Scientific American‘s softball team, the Big Bangers.
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