by Mark Alpert
(good; ~30th percentile for SciThri genre)
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.
While the scientific premise of this book is original and entertaining, the actual story isn’t quite up to the same level. The plot is 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 twists were unanticipated by this reader, unfortunately this isn’t because the twists were clever. Rather, they were somewhat unbelievable. Horrific injuries are conveniently ignored a few pages after being incurred; car chases are unconvincing.
Probably the novel’s biggest weakness is characterization of the villains. Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll summarize and say that I found some of Alpert’s characters to be either thin or stereotyped. 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.
On a personal note that may not apply to all readers, Alpert did 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 but here it’s overdone.
In summary: Read Final Theory if you’re a genre fan and you want to try some physics in the plot for a change.
Parent alert: foul language, including multiple variations of the f-word; mildly graphic torture; prostitution
Key words: flatland; string theory; tevatron; autism; liquid helium; superconducting magnets; antiproton; quark; neutrino; Chechnya
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)