by Mark Alpert.
(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)
Tech rating (out of 5):
Publication date: February 16, 2016
Category: Hard science fiction thriller
Summary (from the publisher):
Scientists thought that Earth was safe from invasion. The distance between stars is so great that it seemed impossible for even the most advanced civilizations to send a large spaceship from one star system to another.
But now an alien species—from a planet hundreds of light-years from Earth—has found a way.
A small spherical probe lands in an empty corner of New York City. It soon drills into the ground underneath, drawing electricity from the power lines to jump-start its automated expansion and prepare for alien colonization.
When the government proves slow to react, NASA scientist Dr. Sarah Pooley realizes she must lead the effort to stop the probe before it becomes too powerful. Meanwhile, the first people who encounter the alien device are discovering just how insidious this interstellar intruder can be.
Ah, New York. All the crazy stuff happens there. Author Mark Alpert should know–he’s a Manhattan native, and his intimate knowledge of the territory shows in this science fiction ensemble thriller The Orion Plan, which is set in the state of New York, mostly in New York City.
In the arresting opening scene, astronomer Sarah Pooley spots a planet-bashing meteor about to strike Earth. Inexplicably the object nearly vanishes while on a path to hit Manhattan. A clock is ticking but for what, Sarah–and the reader–don’t know yet.
What follows is a delightful page-turner that shows Alpert’s enthusiasm for geeky speculation about space travel and intelligent life in the universe. This author has a degree in physics and a career as a science journalist, so the many bits of science and technology tossed in the plot are accurate (except for the alien parts, of course). Readers who like real science in their fiction will find plenty of tasty morsels here, from Martian microfossils to stray voltage detection to interstellar travel.
The Orion Plan unfolds from multiple points of view as a host of interesting characters encounter the alien object now lying in the forested, relative wilds of Inwood Hill Park. It’s a minor spoiler to say that some of these encounters between humans and the alien probe have a powerful effect on the humans and influence the characters’ subsequent actions. Much of the book follows the individual story lines of these various characters: a former physician laid low by alcoholism; an African-American woman pastor dying of cancer; a young Dominican gangster. In the meantime, our heroine-scientist Sarah doggedly pursues answers. With a personal history of belief in alien life, Sarah is primed to leap to certain conclusions that government and military people are not.
What drives this story is the question of what the probe is trying to do. For most of the book, the outcome is uncertain. There’s definitely a sinister flair to what’s going on, yet Alpert gives us reasons to suspect the humans’ reaction to this “invasion” may be worse than the problem. Should we root for the alien, or hope that it is destroyed? Does it want to save us, or destroy us? The ambiguity will keep you guessing.
The twists and wrap-up at the end come a little too suddenly, but they do fit the story. Other quibbles I had include the lengthy backstories about the characters, which at times interrupt the momentum and make large sections of the book not directly related to the alien plot line. Also, Sarah’s negative feelings about the military’s involvement, and her decisions to go it alone when possible, seemed unjustified.
Visiting unfamiliar places through books is a good reason to read thrillers, and The Orion Plan obliges with great scenes at the American Museum of Natural History, Rikers Island prison, below a Con Edison manhole cover (you’re curious, right?), Yankee Stadium, Cornell University, on a train, and of course at Inwood Hill Park.
Thriller fans will find easy, satisfying entertainment in this fresh take on a classic sci-fi premise. Peppered with real science details, The Orion Plan combines a looming disaster in Manhattan with the individual struggles of people trying to do the right thing after an encounter with a force far beyond their understanding. You won’t stop reading until the last page is turned.
Alert: Occasional adult language.