By George Ebey
A malevolent life form created by military scientists threatens to destroy humanity in this provocative novel by Mark Alpert, master of the high-concept techno-thriller. Following up on the international success of his first two novels, FINAL THEORY and THE OMEGA THEORY, Alpert now delivers EXTINCTION, a science thriller about the emergence of a deadly new species, a hybrid organism that combines man and machine. Based on real technologies being developed right now to connect human brains to motors, sensors and microchips, EXTINCTION is a fast-paced, high-stakes adventure in the spirit of Isaac Asimov and Michael Crichton.
I recently caught up with Mark who had much to say about this exciting new story as well as the fact-based science that inspired it.
EXTINCTION deals with the existence of emerging technologies such as the linking of the human mind to microchips, among others. Can you tell us more about the science behind EXTINCTION and why you chose to write about these specific technological advances?
Before I started writing science thrillers I was an editor at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for ten years. I was always on the lookout for interesting technology stories, and one day I came across a news item about researchers who’d created “cyborg insects” by implanting electrodes into the brains and flight muscles of flying beetles and moths. The researchers could control the bugs by sending radio signals to the implanted electronics; one signal would command the bugs to start flying, another would steer them to the right, another to the left, and so on. DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D arm, was funding this research because it had obvious military applications — remote-controlled insects carrying miniaturized cameras could serve as micro drones that would conduct up-close surveillance of battlefields and terrorist hideouts. The idea seemed incredibly creepy and terrifying. In other words, it was a perfect subject for a science thriller.
As I investigated the topic, I discovered that scientists are developing brain-machine interfaces for humans as well. DARPA is also funding an effort to build prosthetic arms that can be controlled by a user’s thoughts, which are sensed by an electrode array implanted in the brain’s motor cortex. And several companies are working on retinal implants that can restore partial eyesight to victims of macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa; eyeglasses outfitted with miniature video cameras transmit the images to the implants, which relay the signals through the optic nerves to the brain’s visual cortex. The “bionic man” dreams of the 1970s are finally coming true! Each of these advances is remarkable in itself, but I saw a way to tie them all together, imagining a powerful human-machine surveillance network built by a nefarious government. That was the inspiration for EXTINCTION.
This theme would seem to necessitate a fair amount of research. Can you tell us how you went about conducting this research?
I caught a lucky break while conducting the research for EXTINCTION: Geoff Ling, the head of DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics project, is the older brother of one of my college roommates! When I interviewed Geoff he offered some fascinating insights into why the field of brain-machine interfaces has advanced so rapidly in recent years. Neuroscientists still don’t know how the brain encodes information, but they’re learning a lot through trial-and-error. Even if researchers don’t understand the brain’s software, they can “hack” the organ by connecting machines to it and observing the interactions.
Because I’d edited and written neuroscience stories for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, I already had a lot of material I could pour into the novel. But I also did some non-scientific research for the book. I wanted the thriller to be set in China because the government there is obsessed with crushing political dissent, and it seemed possible that China’s Ministry of State Security would force political prisoners to participate in an inhuman surveillance network. So I went to China and visited the sites I planned to describe in the novel. One of them was the Underground City, a maze of tunnels that were dug underneath Beijing during the Mao era. Another was the Three Gorges Dam, which suffers an awful fate in EXTINCTION.
Aside from the obvious use of technology, what aspect of the science thriller makes it stand out from other types of thrillers?
Science thrillers stand out from other thrillers because they’re high-concept — they make you think about terrifying scenarios that could become possible in the next few years. My first book, FINAL THEORY, focused on the quest for the holy grail of physics — the Theory of Everything — and the possibility that its discovery might lead to weapons that are even more horrific than the atomic bomb. EXTINCTION looks at the dark side of brain-machine interfaces, describing what might happen if researchers and governments become too cavalier about hacking into the human brain. When writing a science thriller you can explore some pretty fascinating and complex ideas. Better yet, you can make the ideas accessible to the reading public by dramatizing them.
When researching EXTINCTION, did you come across any forms of technology that intrigued you but weren’t able to make it into the story? If so, could these technologies perhaps one day become the subjects of another book?
Because EXTINCTION is set in the present time — right now, 2013 — I couldn’t include technologies that aren’t currently feasible. One of the novel’s characters dreams about achieving immortality by downloading his mind into a computer, but he realizes this won’t become possible in his lifetime, so he has to devise another way to preserve the contents of his brain. But like the character, I think it would be interesting to transfer one’s intelligence to a machine, so I’m going to incorporate this idea into an upcoming novel, which will be set further into the future.
What do you hope people will most take away from this story once they’ve finished reading it?
I hope that readers of EXTINCTION will get that special exhausted-but-satisfied feeling that comes when you finish a fast-paced thriller. I also hope they’ll be intrigued by the scientific questions posed in the novel: what is consciousness, what are memories, how do you define personal identity? Last, I hope they’ll feel the same outrage I feel when I see new technologies being used for political repression in China and other countries. I like to think of EXTINCTION as an allegory in which the fictional inhuman network represents the all-too-real inhuman institutions that crush ordinary men and women. I hope that readers will champion the plucky individual over the monstrous apparatus of a totalitarian society.
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.
To learn more about Mark, please visit his website.