Alien Life in Manhattan? Get Ready!
If you’ve ever wondered whether intelligent life exists on other planets, THE ORION PLAN may well convince you that it does. This heart-stopping, page-turning thriller tells a story that feels not only possible, but terrifyingly probable.
Mark Alpert is a contributing editor at Scientific American and an internationally bestselling author of science thrillers such as Final Theory, The Omega Theory, Extinction, and The Furies. In THE ORION PLAN, he has crafted a fascinating cast of characters whose vast differences would prevent their paths from crossing on an ordinary day. But the arrival of a space probe in the heart of Manhattan is anything but ordinary. A homeless drunk, the head of a street gang, and a discredited scientist will be forced to draw on inner reservoirs of strength to find a way to prevent the destruction of the human race.
Your protagonist, Joe, is a deeply flawed character—a throwaway of society. How did he develop?
It was a process of elimination. The premise of THE ORION PLAN is that the most probable alien visitor to our planet would be a small automated space probe, about the size of a bowling ball, because it would be prohibitively difficult (even for the most advanced alien civilizations) to propel a larger spacecraft across the vast distances between the stars. I wanted this alien probe to land in a part of Manhattan where its arrival might go largely unnoticed, at least at first.
The only places in Manhattan where this could happen are the steep, wooded slopes of Inwood Hill Park at the northern tip of the island. And so the first person to stumble upon the small probe would most likely be one of the homeless people who bed down on those slopes in the summer. I imagined Joe as an alcoholic because many of the homeless people in the park have substance-abuse problems, and then I started thinking about why Joe became an alcoholic. Where did he come from? Does alcoholism run in his family? (It often does.) What setbacks in his life caused him to start drinking heavily? And does he have any hope of overcoming his addiction? Answering those questions helped me develop his character.
All of your main characters are disenfranchised in some fashion. Is there a message you wish to convey by using such paradigms?
I like to write about disenfranchised characters because they usually want something badly. Joe wants to beat his addiction and get his old life back. Emilio, the gang member, feels like he’s been screwed by society, and so he wants revenge. Dorothy, the dying minister, wants to understand why God has given her such a raw deal. And Sarah, the NASA scientist, wants to make a discovery that will restore her reputation and change the world. Because the characters have strong desires, they can move the plot along at a fast clip.
You did a great job developing the character of the alien planet. I continued to vacillate between deciding whether to trust them or not. Did you know from the beginning how that would resolve, or did it develop organically?
I had a rough idea of the plot when I started the novel, and it came into better focus as the writing progressed. Because science-fiction writers have described a wide variety of alien creatures, I had to stretch my imagination to come up with something new. I started thinking about all the directions that evolution could take and how the development of an intelligent life form might depend on the availability of resources on the planet. On Earth, conditions are incredibly variable; food can be abundant in one year and scarce in the next. But a habitable planet in a distant star system might have a very different environment, and so life would evolve very differently there.
You have a degree from Princeton in astrophysics. What does the study of astrophysics entail?
Astrophysics encompasses everything from the exploration of the planets in our solar system to the study of how the universe began. It’s one of the most exciting scientific fields right now because researchers have so much data coming in from planetary probes (like the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on Mars and the New Horizons spacecraft that flew past Pluto last summer) and new telescopes on Earth and in space.
What made you turn to writing as a profession rather than science?
I like jumping from topic to topic. When I was a full-time editor at Scientific American I learned new things all the time. One month I edited a story about metallic hydrogen; the next month I worked on an article about the sex life of orangutans. I don’t have the patience and focus to be a good scientist, but science writing turned out to be an excellent profession for me.
What is your opinion on the existence of intelligence life on other planets?
It’s out there. And astronomers may have just spotted the first sign of an alien civilization. In 2015 researchers studying data from the Kepler Space Telescope reported that a star about 1,500 light-years from Earth had darkened erratically between 2009 and 2013. The intensity of the starlight plunged more than 20 percent on one occasion, a decrease much too great to be explained by a planet passing in front of the star. It’s possible that a swarm of comet fragments blocked the starlight, but it’s also possible that alien “megastructures” — for example, solar panels that are tens of thousands of miles across — are orbiting the star. (For more details about the discovery, see http://www.markalpert.com/books/the-orion-plan/science.php)
After getting your MFA from Columbia you became a journalist. How has your career in journalism influenced your fiction writing?
When you’re working for a newspaper or magazine, you have to learn how to write clear sentences. You won’t last long in journalism if readers have to struggle to understand what you’re saying. And the ability to write clear sentences is a useful skill for fiction too.
There seems to be a parallel between the redemptive journey of Joe and the steps human race will need to take by the end of the book. Was this intentional?
No, it just worked out that way. Joe’s personal story runs parallel to the larger story about the alien invasion, and I wanted both stories to come to a satisfying conclusion by the end of the book, but any similarities in the endings were unintentional. Or at least I think so. When you’re making up stories, it’s hard to say what’s deliberate and what’s accidental.
Do you envision THE ORION PLAN as a series?
Yes, there’s going to be a sequel to THE ORION PLAN, but not right away. I have a couple of other novels I want to write first.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I like to write until very late at night so I can think about the story as I drift off to sleep.
You have teenagers. Do they read your books? (I have two and so far mine haven’t read mine).
They haven’t read my thrillers for adults, but they’ve read my Young Adult books. My first YA novel, The Six, came out last summer; it’s about six terminally ill teenagers whose lives are “saved” when they download their minds into U.S. Army robots. My daughter finished the book at 3 a.m. and woke me up to talk about it. I muttered, “Can’t this wait until the morning?” and she said, “No, you have to wake up. I want to talk about it NOW.”
What is something we would be surprised to know about you?
I performed as a mime at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1982. I usually don’t disclose this fact, because mimes get no respect.
What book has had the biggest impact on your life?
The Lord of the Rings, which I read when I was 16
My next YA novel, The Siege, will come out in July. It continues the adventures of my fighting teenage robots. And I’ve started writing my next science thriller for adults. We haven’t picked a title for that book yet, but it will be published by St. Martin’s in 2017.
Where can readers connect with you?
Mark Alpert, a contributing editor at Scientific American, writes thrillers that weave real science and technologies into the story. His first novel, Final Theory (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2008), was published in 23 languages and became an international bestseller. His next three science thrillers were The Omega Theory (Touchstone, 2011), Extinction (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013) and The Furies (Thomas Dunne, 2014). His first Young Adult novel, The Six, was published in 2015, and its sequel, The Surge, will come out in July 2016. Mark lives with his wife and two teenage kids in New York City. He’s a proud member of Scientific American’s softball team, The Big Bangers.