Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mark Alpert's "Extinction"

Mark Alpert is the author of Extinction, a science thriller published this month by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. A longtime science journalist, he specializes in writing novels that incorporate real theories and technologies. His earlier books — Final Theory and its sequel, The Omega Theory — have been published in more than twenty languages. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.

Here Alpert dreamcasts an adaptation of Extinction:
Someone once told me that adding a helicopter scene to a movie will, on average, boost the movie’s box-office take by a surprisingly large amount -- $30 million, $50 million, I forget how much exactly. I have no idea if this is really true, but just to be on the safe side I put helicopter scenes in all of my novels. Besides, helicopters are fun! I flew in a Huey helicopter over Honduras in the mid-Eighties when the military was assigning National Guard units to build roads in that country. (They were also deployed there to intimidate the Sandinistas across the border in Nicaragua.) I was just a cub reporter then, accompanying some of the Guardsmen from Alabama, but the helicopter crew let me sit next to the side door and wear the radio headset and everything.

Anyway, I tried to relive that experience by writing a helicopter battle into my latest science thriller, Extinction. The book is about the merger of man and machine, so it has lots of fascinating and ominous technologies: bionic arms, artificial eyes, cyborg insects (this is a real-life project funded by the Pentagon -- the bugs have electronics implanted in their brains and flight muscles so they can serve as radio-controlled micro-drones). But the most ominous technology of all is Supreme Harmony, a surveillance network created by the Chinese government to crack down on political dissidents. To analyze all the thousands of hours of video collected by the cyborg insect drones, the Chinese Ministry of State Security lobotomizes condemned dissidents and inserts electronics into their eyes and brains, allowing the video to be wirelessly transmitted to their visual cortices. In other words, their brains are enslaved to the surveillance network and forced to search the video images for signs of dissident activity by their former comrades.

Creepy, right? Supreme Harmony is sort of like the Borg in Star Trek. By communicating with each other over the wireless links, the lobotomized brains come together to form a collective consciousness. And this newly born entity isn’t happy about working for the Chinese government. In fact, it doesn’t care for the human race at all. This would be a very cool thing to dramatize in a movie. Each of the former dissidents -- which are called Modules once they’ve been forced into the network -- is able to tap into the memories and skills of all the others. They may have very different-looking bodies, but they share emotions, facial expressions, visceral reactions. When one of them smells something bad, they all cringe.

The real challenge for the director of this movie would be finding actors and actresses who can compete with the Modules and the drones for the viewer’s attention. The hero of the book is Jim Pierce, a former Army intelligence officer who lost his arm in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998. In the years afterward he went back to school, became an expert in prosthetics and built himself a really amazing bionic arm. He has a daughter named Layla who’s equally brilliant, but she rebelled against him by becoming a hacker for a Wikileaks-like organization that publicizes classified military documents. She uncovers the existence of Supreme Harmony, and the Chinese government tries to kill her. Jim rushes to her defense, aided by Kirsten Chan, a colleague of Jim’s from his Army intelligence days who is now the NSA’s expert on China.

You need a tough, older actor to play Jim. Harrison Ford might be good for the role, he can do that straitlaced Army thing. But Liam Neeson might be more interesting -- he’s good at darkness and desperation. Sandra Oh would be a great choice for Kirsten. She’s tough and charming and about the right age. The woman playing Layla would have to be much younger, early twenties, and I’m not so familiar with young actresses. Emma Watson, perhaps? Layla isn’t quite that beautiful, but maybe it would work.
Learn more about the book and author at Mark Alpert's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Omega Theory.

--Marshal Zeringue