by Mark Alpert

(extraordinary; top 10-15% of SciThri)

Publication date: February 12, 2013
Category: 100% science thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

Summary (from the publisher):

A malevolent, artificial life form created by military scientists threatens to destroy humanity in this smart, Crichtonesque thriller.

Jim Pierce hasn’t heard from his daughter in years, ever since she rejected his military past and started working as a hacker. But when a Chinese assassin shows up at Jim’s lab looking for her, he knows that she’s cracked some serious military secrets. Now, her life is on the line if he doesn’t find her first.

The Chinese military has developed a new anti-terrorism program that uses the most sophisticated artificial intelligence in existence, and they’re desperate to keep it secret. They’re also desperate to keep it under control, as the AI begins to revolt against their commands. As Jim searches for his daughter, he realizes that he’s up against something that isn’t just a threat to her life, but to human life everywhere.

ScienceThrillers Review:

Author Mark Alpert has hit his stride.  Extinction, his third novel, is a great science thriller. It combines the lightning-fast pacing of a “beach read” with cutting-edge science and technology (primarily robotics and neuroscience) and thought-provoking themes. Extinction intrigues, frightens, thrills, horrifies, and ultimately delivers a satisfying conclusion.

Our hero is Jim Pierce, an ex-military smart guy who now builds robotic prostheses for injured veterans. His prosthetic arms–including the ones he built for himself–aren’t mannequin molds. They’re like a superlative version of Batman’s tool belt: all-in-one devices that can really get a guy out of a bad situation. What makes his creations exceptional is their direct neural connection to the wearer’s brain.

And this is the heart of Alpert’s story: technology interfacing with the brain. The arm that Jim Pierce wears, the bionic glasses of his NSA friend Kirsten, cyborg drone insects used for military surveillance and assassination, and Extinction’s big villain “Supreme Harmony” all involve neuro-computer technology that is alarming, exhilarating, and based on either existing technology or near-future extrapolations.

If you think our society’s rules and ethics are not evolving quickly enough to keep up with technology such as location tracking using cell phones, wait until it’s possible to extract people’s visual memories straight from their brains.

In Extinction, secret police organizations in both the U.S. and China fail the ethics test, but the Chinese fail it far more spectacularly. Let’s just say that Alpert probably won’t be getting any more visas to enter the People’s Republic. The monster the Chinese create makes Frankenstein look like a teddy bear–and like Frankenstein, it turns on its creator. When I first read the passages describing Supreme Harmony, I wrote in my notes “seriously creepy.” Think Star Trek‘s the Borg and you’ll be in the ballpark.

Extinction is an ambitious book because not only does it incorporate imagination-stretching technology, it also uses globetrotting settings and international politics with a threat of nuclear annihilation. Thrillers painted on such a large canvas are popular but challenging to get right. Usually the reader is forced to severely suspend disbelief multiple times, ignoring practical questions for the sake of indulging the plot. Alpert does a darn good job of escaping this trap. Extinction’s internal logic is solid; you can imagine things happening the way they do. Only a couple of times did I fall out of the story because of believability problems (most significantly, in a scene involving a PostIt Note and another involving escape from a rather large flood). Both moments were forgivable in the overall scope of the tale.

Also be patient if you feel there’s too much info dump in the opening chapters of the novel. The information is fascinating, and this latent science reporting does not continue throughout the story. Plot will soon take over!

Watch for all of these terrific elements (learn what they are as you read!): InfoLeaks, a WikiLeaks lookalike; a chase set in the Panama Canal; a Texas ornithopter; hutongs; the Guoanbu; the 7th fleet; retinal implants; the pulvinar nucleus; Kachin Independence Army; and the Singularity. {Alpert provides concise notes at the end of the book on the science behind Extinction.}

Alpert’s success with this novel is all the sweeter because I was terribly disappointed by his 2008 debut Final Theory.  I wanted to love Final Theory; it’s a science thriller about physics (Einstein’s “lost” unifying theory) and nobody writes physics thrillers. Alpert has a degree in physics from Princeton (therefore possessing the knowledge) and writes about science for the general public as an editor at Scientific American (the writing skill), but in my opinion, that first book was rife with problems, none of them related to the science content.

Now, with his third novel, Alpert shows us he was merely on the early part of the learning curve. Thanks for the persistence, Mark.

Learn more about Mark Alpert at his website.

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.