About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

三体 (Three-Body)

By Mark Alpert

After I read an interesting novel, I like to devote some time to thinking about it, contemplating what I liked about the book, what I didn’t like, which characters were the most intriguing, and which plot twists were the most exciting. It’s a useful exercise for a writer. Plus, it’s fun.

This week I finished reading a trilogy of science-fiction novels by Chinese author Liu Cixin: The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. The novels were published in China between 2008 and 2010, and the English translations came out between 2014 and 2016. The first book in the Three-Body trilogy won the Hugo Award and the third book won the Locus. Former president Barack Obama called the series “wildly imaginative.” (Wow, a blurb from Obama! Very nice.)

I was hooked from the start, because the first chapter was so unusual for a sci-fi novel. It portrayed a scene from the Cultural Revolution, the fanatical anti-intellectual movement that devastated Chinese society during the 1960s and 1970s. Ye Wenjie, a student in Beijing, sees her father, a physics professor, beaten to death in a public square by frenzied Red Guards. Afterward, she’s exiled to the countryside, but soon she’s assigned to work at a military base on a mountaintop where there’s a huge radio antenna. Eventually she realizes that the purpose of this base is to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.

(Warning: there are some spoilers ahead, but this sci-fi trilogy is so packed with inventive surprises that I don’t think revealing a few of them would truly spoil a reader’s enjoyment of the books.)

The intended point of the novel’s first section is that Ye is devastated by her father’s public execution and develops a very low opinion of humanity in general, so low that she becomes actively nihilist. To be honest, the author doesn’t quite succeed in this task of showing the character’s development. Ye comes across as somewhat numbed by the traumatic events of the Cultural Revolution, but I never sensed her secret thoughts, the formation of her new moral philosophy. In retrospect, Liu could’ve done a better job of portraying the mental leap that Ye made, the seeds of the radical actions that she would take later in the book. Perhaps the author didn’t want to tip his hand, telegraph the surprise he’d planned? As all novelists know, this is a tricky balance. You don’t want to give away the store, but at the same time you also need to build a foundation for an upcoming plot twist, to ensure that it doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere.

In any case, the surprise is powerful. The radio antenna at Ye’s base receives a signal while she’s working alone on the night shift, a message from the Centauri star system, which is our solar system’s closest neighbor (about four light-years away). The extraterrestrials — called Trisolarans because the Centauri system consists of three stars gravitationally bound to one another — have detected radio transmissions from Earth, and their first response is a dire warning from a Trisolaran pacifist who knows all too well the aggressive intentions of his fellow aliens. He urges Earthlings not to respond to any radio messages from Trisolaris, because doing so will reveal the exact position of Earth’s solar system. But because of Ye’s disdain for the human species, she responds anyway: Come here! I will help you conquer this world. Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems. We need your force to intervene.

This message puts an epic story in motion. Even for a highly advanced civilization, the task of conquering another star system isn’t easy. It’s extraordinarily difficult to accelerate spacecraft to even a small fraction of the speed of light, so it’ll take the Trisolaran invasion fleet hundreds of years to cross the void between their star system and ours. Most of the Three-Body trilogy focuses on the Earth’s desperate efforts to defend itself, building its own space fleet during the 21st and 22nd centuries and concocting various strategies to outsmart the Trisolarans. Those efforts are hindered by a fifth column of traitorous Earthlings who, like Ye Wenjie, believe our planet would be better off under alien control. The motives of the traitors seem perverse, but they’re also strangely familiar. As this week’s events in New Zealand showed, our species has no shortage of deluded fanatics.

The three novels, particularly the first one, have some weaknesses. The quality of the writing isn’t stellar (pun intended), although this might be the result of the translation. Many of the characters aren’t fleshed out; Wang Miao, the main point-of-view character in the first book, is practically a blank. I also didn’t get a good sense of what the Trisolarans are like, which is probably the biggest missed opportunity in the trilogy. The novel’s human characters (and by extension, the reader) learn about Trisolaran culture and biology through a virtual-reality computer game that the traitorous Earthlings play; this game, called Three Body, shows that much of Trisolaran history was shaped by the chaotic movements of the three stars in the Centauri system, which alternately boiled and froze the aliens’ home planet in a wildly random pattern. To mitigate the damage, the aliens tried to learn to predict the orbital movements of their three stars, but they never succeeded; as any physicist can tell you, the Three-Body Problem is notoriously difficult to solve, even with a powerful computer. This dilemma helps to explain why the Trisolarans are so eager to conquer our solar system, which is a stable, orderly paradise compared with theirs.

Unfortunately, this fascinating fictional premise doesn’t apply to the real-life Centauri system, which consists of two sun-like stars (Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B) that orbit their center of gravity in a predictable way, and a much smaller red-dwarf star (Proxima Centauri) that orbits the other two at a great distance, also very predictably. (Because Proxima is so much smaller than A and B and so distant from them, there are no mathematical difficulties in this particular Three-Body Problem.) The chaotic orbital dynamics might apply to a planet orbiting relatively close to A and B, but not to the stars themselves. This error would’ve been very easy to fix, so it’s a shame that it crept into the novels. I noticed a few other mistakes in the trilogy: a stellar explosion in the Centauri system wouldn’t be visible from Earth’s northern hemisphere; twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon, not fifteen; Pluto and its moon Charon are tidally locked with one another, so the moon would appear to be stationary to an observer on Pluto’s surface. (Liu Cixin, if you’re reading this, please allow me to vet your next manuscript. I’m good at spotting these astrophysical errors!)

But Liu’s story is too good to be ruined by a few factual mistakes. The trilogy becomes more and more compelling as the narrative progresses into the 23rd and 24th centuries. The human characters discover that the Trisolarans aren’t the only threat they face. In fact, the whole galaxy is packed with technologically superior species competing for the Milky Way’s resources, and most of these extraterrestrials have no qualms at all about exterminating potential rivals. Any emerging civilization must hide its presence; if it sends out too many radio signals, a more advanced species will swiftly destroy the upstarts’ star system. In the Three-Body trilogy, the universe resembles a dark forest in which hunters are lurking everywhere and the prey must stay silent to survive. This fictional scenario is a clever solution to the paradox named after physicist Enrico Fermi, who famously wondered why humans haven’t observed any signs of extraterrestrials in a galaxy that should (statistically at least) be full of them. We haven’t seen any aliens, Liu says, because they’re all hiding.

Here’s another reason why I liked this trilogy: it shows a future human civilization that blends Western and Eastern influences. In Liu’s novels, China and America remain separate nations, but scientists from both countries team up against the Trisolaran threat. Their cultures intermingle too; people born in future centuries have names that combine English words and Mandarin characters. I visited China several years ago to research one of my novels (Extinction), and I came away with the strong hope that America and China can learn to peacefully coexist. We don’t need extraterrestrials to seal our doom; if we’re not careful, we’ll stumble into an apocalypse all by ourselves.

Want to see another weird connection between fiction and real life? My new novel THE COMING STORM was foreshadowed thirty years ago by a conversation I had with a certain New York real-estate mogul who later decided to run for president. Read this for the details.


The Social Life of a Writer

By Mark Alpert

Thomas Pynchon is to blame for my unrealistic expectations. The author of Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 has a lot to answer for.

Forty years ago I read Pynchon’s first novel, V., which was published in 1963. It’s a rollicking tale about nose jobs and genocide and the hunt for albino alligators in the sewers of New York City, but what made the deepest impression on me were Pynchon’s descriptions of wild New York parties. Several of the novel’s characters belong to a gang called the Whole Sick Crew, a motley group of artists who gather at bohemian bacchanals in cramped Manhattan apartments. Here’s a sample:

“The party itself, tonight, was divided in three parts. Fergus, and his date, and another couple had long retreated into the bedroom with a gallon of wine; locked the door; and let the Crew do what they could in the way of chaos to the rest of the place. The sink on which Stencil now sat would become Melvin’s perch: he would play his guitar and there would be horahs and African fertility dances in the kitchen before midnight. The lights in the living room would go out one by one, Schoenberg’s quartets (complete) would go on the record player/changer, and repeat, and repeat, while cigarette coals dotted the room like watchfires and the promiscuous Debby Sensay (e.g.) would be on the floor, caressed by Raoul, say, or Slab, while she ran her hand up the leg of another, sitting on the couch with her roommate — and on, in a kind of love feast or daisy chain; wine would spill, furniture would be broken; Fergus would awake briefly next morning, view the destruction and residual guests sprawled about the apartment; cuss them all out and go back to sleep.”

I was still in college when I read this passage for the first time, so of course it sounded totally awesome. I headed to New York for graduate school and found an itsy-bitsy studio apartment on West 101st Street, and pretty soon I was living the Pynchonian dream, writing poetry during the day to get my MFA degree and carousing in various Manhattan neighborhoods at night. And after grad school I chose a career — journalism — that mixed writing with revelry. Even in smallish towns, newspaper reporters throw some pretty good parties. Because the salaries for reporters are so low, most of the people who take those jobs are singles in their twenties, which is the prime demographic for partying.

When I worked for the Claremont Eagle Times in New Hampshire, we used to go to the Lucky Dragon, a Chinese restaurant that turned into a nightclub on the weekends. Across the river in Proctorsville, Vermont, was a place called Section Eight; I think the bar’s name was a reference to a state law regarding mental health. (Or maybe it was a reference to the federal law for housing subsidies? That possibility seems less likely, but who knows?) The place had a big brass bell hanging over the bar, and the bartenders would ring it whenever a customer gave a tip. The bands that played there were terrible, and the bar had to close by 1 a.m. because of another state law, but it didn’t matter. We always had a great time.

When I worked for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, all the reporters went to Kat-n-Harry’s, a place that also served as a watering hole for the state legislators. Many of those politicians came from towns that were really remote — Dothan, Demopolis, Monroeville, and so on — and when they came to the state capital for the legislative session, they were itching to cut loose in the evenings and maybe act a little more foolish than they would in their podunk hometowns. So for a newspaper reporter, going to Kat-n-Harry’s was a good way to hear some gossip and maybe get a scoop or two.

Sorry, I have to tell this story: one time I was sitting at a table at Kat-n-Harry’s with a whole bunch of legislators and lobbyists (from Southern Bell, Alabama Power, the Farm Bureau, the teachers union) when the woman sitting next to me said, “I have a scoop for you.” At the same time, she surreptitiously slipped a crumpled napkin into my hand. I played it cool, didn’t say anything, kept laughing at the politicians’ jokes. A few minutes later I went to the men’s room and unwrapped the napkin, which had the woman’s telephone number written on it in lipstick. I called her the next day and we went out for dinner; it turned out to be a terrible date, and that was the end of it, but I have to give her credit for that great opening move.

Inevitably, my social life slowed down as I got older. I moved back to New York when I got a job at Fortune Magazine, but the city didn’t seem as fun-loving as it had been when I was in grad school. Fortune was a pretty staid magazine, and there were many highly ambitious ass-kissers on the staff. I met some fun people outside of work (including the woman who would become my wife) and we partied at some of the clubs that I could’ve never afforded when I was a younger, but I didn’t have the same stamina. I discovered that I could no longer drink four beers at night and expect no consequences the next day. So I started drinking less and writing more. I gave up the hedonistic Pynchonian lifestyle and emulated the author instead of his fictional creations. I wrote four novels by the time I was forty.

Then my wife and I had kids, and everything changed. We became friends with the parents of our children’s friends. We spent our weekends shepherding the kids to soccer practices and Little League games and dance classes and play rehearsals. My novels started to get published, and I made enough money to quit my magazine job and write fiction full-time. In short, my social life was completely transformed. Instead of seeing my journalism colleagues every day, I had to arrange occasional lunches and get-togethers. I spent most of my time with my family and my characters.

Now, though, one of our kids is in college, and the other will be matriculating in the fall. My wife and I are thinking about traveling and catching up with old friends. And I’m trying to attend as many literary events as I can. This week I went to a reading at a wonderful bookstore in Brooklyn called Unnameable Books. The event was organized by the editors of Conjunctions, a biannual literary journal published by Bard College. Four contributors to the journal’s current issue participated in the reading, and one of them was my good friend Dave King, author of the 2005 novel The Ha-Ha.

It was a fun evening. I had two glasses of wine. That’s about as crazy as I get these days. But it’s enough.

The Toronto Star, Canada’s biggest newspaper, recently ran a nice review of my latest novel, THE COMING STORM. You can read it here.


Dealing With Death

By Mark Alpert

Earlier this week I finished reading Pet Sematary, one of Stephen King’s spookiest novels. Spoiler alert (in case you’ve never read the 1983 book or seen the 1989 movie): It’s about dead things that come back to life, but not completely. The resurrected animals (and people) are irreversibly damaged by their contact with death. When they rise from the grave, they’re hideously transformed.

It’s a great idea for a novel. And it’s more chilling than many of King’s other books, which sometimes fly too far into the realms of the fantastic. (The novel It, for example, loses some of its power after the homicidal clown transforms into a spider-like monster.) In contrast, the monsters in Pet Sematary are the characters’ departed loved ones. Creepy, right?

Some of the best ideas for novels tap into our primal fears, the ones that have tormented us since childhood. I learned about death for the first time — its suddenness, its finality — at the age of twelve, when my grandfather died. My parents told me it was a heart attack, but that wasn’t exactly the truth. Decades later, I found out that when my grandfather started having chest pains, he got into his car and tried to drive home. He was very dependent on my grandmother, and in his moment of crisis he desperately wanted to get back to her. The chest pains got worse, the car crashed, he died. It was a bad decision, but very human, very understandable.

And in a way, my grandfather was resurrected. Several weeks or months after he died, I saw him in a dream, standing in the kitchen of my grandparents’ apartment in Yonkers. He opened the refrigerator and peered inside, looking for the orange juice. I asked him, “Aren’t you dead?” and he nodded. “Yeah, I died of a hog coronary.” Then he found the carton of orange juice and poured himself a glass.

Hog coronary? What the hell does that mean? I still don’t know. Maybe I was under the impression that pork was bad for you, that it led to heart attacks.

Anyway, reading Pet Sematary brought those memories back. Although I enjoyed the book, I think I’ll steer clear of horror novels for a while.

If you’ve been reading the newspapers lately, you might’ve noticed a few articles about climate change, genetic engineering, and the 25th Amendment. Oddly enough, all those topical topics are featured in my new novel, THE COMING STORM, which got a few more nice reviews this month. For an in-depth look at this thriller, check out my essay on the Criminal Element website.


Venereal Soil

By Mark Alpert

I was in Florida last weekend, visiting my parents, and whenever I travel to the Sunshine State I think of the great poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). He was a successful insurance executive who spent most of his life in Hartford, Connecticut, but he would often vacation in Key West, Florida, and that place inspired many of his best poems.

A good example is “O Florida, Venereal Soil,” which extracts the word “venereal” from its unpleasant associations and returns it to its original meaning: of Venus. For Stevens, Florida was Venus’s domain, the place of love.

He was a poet obsessed with words and their sounds. “Concupiscent curds” in “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” “She sang beyond the genius of the sea” in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” From “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night”: “As the night conceives the sea-sounds in silence/and out of the droning sibilants makes/a serenade.”

All writers have favorite words. Back in the 1980s, when I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, my desk in the newsroom was directly across from my colleague Ray Locker, who went on to have a very distinguished career in journalism. One afternoon, while Ray was writing one of his excellent investigative pieces, he paused his typing and gave me a gleeful look. “Dude,” he said, “I just worked the word ‘labyrinthine’ into my copy.”

I don’t know why, but I’m particularly fond of the word “abate.” When I was in college I wrote a poem that began with the line, “These days my lust abates.” I also like “slew” and “murmur” and “porcelain.”

What about your favorites? Which words do you enjoy working into your copy?

CrimeReads just put an excerpt from my new novel, THE COMING STORM, on their website. You can read it here.


Five Ways To Become A Happier Writer

By Mark Alpert

First of all, notice that the title of this post isn’t “Five Ways To Become A More Successful Writer.” There’s plenty of information already out there about how to write better books and sell more copies. I can’t add much to that topic, and I’m not the best authority on it either, because my success in this business has been modest.

No, I want to focus on happiness, not success. The two goals are often linked, but not always. There are miserable authors on the bestseller list, and there are jubilant writers who work in blissful obscurity. Which goal is more important? Well, if you’re looking for success alone, writing novels isn’t the most promising occupation. The competition is fierce and the monetary payoffs are meager. In financial terms, you’re better off investing in the stock market, even with all the current volatility.

It’s much easier for a novelist to reap emotional rewards. There’s the joy of writing a beautiful sentence, the satisfaction of creating a likable character, the sneaky elation of engineering an unexpected plot twist. And those rewards are magnified when readers recognize a novel’s virtues and share their admiration with the writer. I love getting emails from readers who’ve enjoyed my books. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.

But there are other forces in the publishing business that can spoil the party. Rejection by agents and editors always hurts. Bad reviews aren’t fun either. Worst of all, perhaps, is the massive indifference of a nationwide audience that already has too many novels to choose from and is reluctant to try new authors and new kinds of books. After a writer spends months or years perfecting his or her manuscript, it’s deeply disappointing to see it ignored.

So how can a fiction writer maximize happiness and minimize distress? I’ve come up with five useful tips:

1. Don’t let your happiness depend on things that are beyond your control. This rule applies to everyone, not just writers. I repeated it all the time to my kids when they were working on their college applications. I urged them to make their college essays as good as possible, but I also warned that there were no guarantees. Sometimes a college will reject even the best applications, for no evident reason. Let’s say you’re a straight-A student from Weehawken who can compose operas and pitch no-hitters and solve differential equations; you assume you’ll be a shoo-in at the college of your choice, right? But if that particular college has already accepted a different student from Weehawken who excels at baseball, math, and music, the school might not want to admit another. You’ve done the best you could, but the final decision is out of your control. So the smart strategy is to apply to at least a dozen colleges, increasing the chance that one or two of them will recognize and reward your talents.

The college-application game has become ridiculously competitive, but it’s a cakewalk compared with the process of winning a book contract with a major publisher. Thousands of brilliant manuscripts are rejected or ignored every day. Publishing a book in the traditional way is a worthy goal, but don’t let your happiness depend on the often arbitrary decisions of literary agents and editors. They have to consider many factors when deciding whether to represent or buy a novel, and a good number of those considerations have nothing to do with the quality of the book. (For instance, has the publisher just issued a very similar book? Is the agent already overloaded with promising clients? Is the editor about to make a job change and therefore not interested in buying anything at that moment?) Given that all these random influences are at work, it seems absurd to sulk after a rejection or pin all your hopes and dreams on your next submission. Don’t withdraw from the game; just understand that it’s a crapshoot. That way, you won’t be so disappointed when you lose, but you’ll still be just as excited when you win.

2. A writer’s happiness is not proportional to his or her number of readers. Because we live in such a competitive society, we create lots of rankings. In the publishing business, the critical measure of success is the number of books sold. Certain categories of books sell better than others; short-story collections, for example, don’t do as well as novels, on average. A traditionally published debut novel that sells only 1,000 copies would, in most cases, be considered a commercial failure. Conversely, a debut novel that sells 100,000 copies would be considered a commercial success (unless the publisher paid the author a seven-figure advance for the book, in which case it too would probably be considered a disappointment).

But what about the happiness dividends of publishing? Even a novel that sells only 1,000 copies will give its author a fair amount of pleasure. There’s the joy of seeing the novel at your local bookstore, perhaps stacked next to the masterpieces written by your literary heroes. There’s the burst of pride you’ll feel when sharing the book with friends and family. And your novel will most likely be catalogued in the Library of Congress and perhaps a few local libraries as well, giving you at least a smidgeon of literary immortality. I’ve had eight novels published so far, and though none of them was a huge commercial success, each made me very happy.

Now consider a novel that sells 100,000 copies. It will no doubt give the author more pleasure than the thousand-copy-seller, if only for financial and/or egotistical reasons. But will it provide a hundred times more happiness? I don’t think so. So why obsess over sales numbers?

3. Write about things that make you happy. Now this doesn’t mean you should limit your fiction to Christmas stories, tales of adventurous puppies, and other feel-good subjects. Stories of murder and mayhem also give pleasure to readers and writers. If you love to write about serial killers, go right ahead. If zombies or vampires are your thing, take a stab at it. It’s much better to give free rein to your fictional passions, whatever they are, than to force yourself to write about a subject you hate, no matter how commercially appealing it may be.

My latest novel, THE COMING STORM, is about an erratic U.S. president who persecutes immigrants, ignores global warming, and orders the creation of an American Gestapo. Writing this kind of novel probably wouldn’t have been fun for most writers — it hits a little too close to home — but I loved it. During the months when I was working on the book, my wife would sometimes spot the secret smile on my face and interrogate me: “Why are you smiling? Did you kill off one of the characters in your novel today? Someone in the White House?”

4. Figure out how important writing is to your happiness, and adjust your life accordingly. There are many gradations of pleasure. For example, I love skiing, but only in small doses. Skiing once every winter is enough for me. I enjoy cycling once or twice a week, but doing it more often would get boring. And then there are the pleasures I would enjoy every day, if I could: dark chocolate, good coffee, sex, listening to music, hanging out with friends. Some authors feel the same way about writing fiction — they can’t miss a day of it — but for me, the passion waxes and wanes. I write one novel each year; if I tried to write two books a year, I’d probably be miserable. I need some downtime between books. Each year, I spend six or seven months hammering out a novel, and during the rest of the year I do freelance journalism, participate in a video-art festival, and toss around ideas for the next book.

That’s the writing schedule that makes me happiest. What works for you?

5. When good things happen in your writing career, celebrate like crazy. I love throwing launch parties for my novels. I invite all my friends to an independent bookstore in Manhattan and arrange a FreshDirect delivery of beer and wine and party platters. I chat with everyone, I do a reading, I sign books. It’s a ton of fun.

Some authors stage a celebratory ritual when they finish a manuscript. (Remember that scene in Stephen King’s Misery?) Others party hard at writers’ conferences. The publishing world can be stingy about doling out rewards, but that shouldn’t stop us from rewarding ourselves.

Speaking of parties, this week I’ll celebrate the publication of THE COMING STORM. The novel has already received some great reviews, and I’m scheduled to do a radio interview to promote the book on Tuesday. You can learn more about THE COMING STORM at my website, and the buy links for the book are here. I hope it makes you happy!


How To Make Your Novel Seem Real

By Mark Alpert

Have you ever picked up a newspaper and seen a headline that sounded like the premise of a novel? It happened to me two weeks ago. And the headline was eerily similar to the idea for my latest thriller.

On November 26th, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of the first genetically modified human babies. The researcher had used a new technique known as CRISPR to alter a gene in a pair of human embryos, which were then implanted in the mother’s womb. The goal of this genetic change was to make the twin girls resistant to H.I.V. infection; their dad is an H.I.V. carrier, and if he’d fathered children in the usual way, he might’ve passed the disease to the mother, who in turn might’ve infected her babies during pregnancy or birth.

The announcement unleashed a storm of criticism from the scientific community. Until this case, genetic researchers around the world had abided by a moratorium on making so-called “germ-line” changes to human DNA that can be passed down through the generations. One good reason for this ban is that scientists are still uncertain about the safety of the CRISPR technique, which alters genes by doing a cut-and-paste job on their DNA code. (CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats. It’s a description of the molecular tool that targets the genes to be cut.) In early experiments performed on tissue samples and animals, CRISPR sometimes made unintended “off-target” changes to the wrong genes, which could trigger cancer and other devastating consequences.

But even if CRISPR worked perfectly, scientists would still be uneasy about using the technique to create “designer babies.” There would be strong temptations to tinker with DNA to produce children with enhanced intelligence, better looks, and greater athletic abilities. Over time, this new kind of eugenics could produce a horrific dystopia of genetic have’s and have-not’s, as portrayed in novels such as Brave New World and movies such as Gattaca. For this reason, scientists argued that the only acceptable germ-line change to human DNA would be one that combats a terrible illness that couldn’t be prevented any other way.

By that standard, the genetic changes made by Dr. He Jiankui were completely unwarranted. There’s already a proven method for H.I.V. carriers to father babies without infecting anyone: the semen can be “washed” to separate the sperm from the seminal fluid that contains the virus. Dr. He said he’d received permission for his experiment from a hospital ethics board, but the hospital denied it. He didn’t have permission from his university either; in fact, he’s been on a no-pay leave from the school since February. His cavalier actions have underlined the potential dangers of CRISPR, which is far easier to implement than older genetic-engineering techniques.

But for any reader of thrillers, Dr. He’s behavior is totally familiar. Think of all the novels in which the mad scientist is warned, over and over again, that his or her reckless experiments would lead to disaster. And yet the scientist conducts the experiment anyway, out of greed or hubris or some other perverse motivation.

The idea behind my new novel, THE COMING STORM, isn’t exactly the same as Dr. He’s, but it comes pretty close. CRISPR can also be used to alter the genes of adults. The primary method involves taking advantage of the simplest form of life, the virus, which is just a packet of genetic information enclosed within a membrane. When a virus invades a cell in your body, its genetic material (either DNA or RNA) takes control of the cell’s organelles and uses them to manufacture more viruses, which go on to invade other cells (and trigger an immune response that makes you feel sick). But researchers can design a virus that doesn’t cause illness; instead, it orders the cell to manufacture the molecular targeting and cutting tools needed to alter the cell’s genes. For example, if billions of specially designed CRISPR viruses are injected into the muscles of a patient suffering from muscular dystrophy, they can repair the flawed dystrophin gene inside the patient’s cells, enabling them to produce the crucial proteins that keep muscles healthy. (Experiments show that this technique works for dogs, and it will be tested in humans soon.)

The CRISPR viruses can be injected into the brain too. In THE COMING STORM, the U.S. president suffers from frontotemporal dementia, a degenerative neurological illness. It’s somewhat like Alzheimer’s, but its early symptoms are more behavioral; its victims often have poor impulse control, and their conduct becomes increasingly inappropriate and compulsive. Over time, frontotemporal dementia impairs speech and causes tremors; eventually, swallowing and breathing become difficult, which usually leads to death by pneumonia. There’s no treatment for the illness right now, but it’s been linked to flaws in several genes, which means that the dementia’s deadly progress could be halted by a CRISPR virus designed to repair those flaws.

You see where this is going, right? The president in my novel is suffering so badly from dementia that he starts to worry that his political enemies will record his outbursts and use this evidence to remove him from office (under the provisions of the 25th Amendment). So, in secret, he orders a crash program to develop a CRISPR treatment for his illness. And because the process is so rushed, disaster surely follows. I won’t go into the details; you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens. (St. Martin’s Press will publish THE COMING STORM next month. You can preorder it here.)

I did a lot of reading about genetics before I wrote the novel, and I could see where the CRISPR research was headed. So I wasn’t really surprised to see the news about the genetically modified babies in China. There’s so much potential for the abuse of CRISPR. It was bound to happen.

But I was surprised a few months ago when the New York Times reported that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein had mentioned the possibility of recording conversations with President Trump and removing him from office under the 25th Amendment. This news report surfaced more than a year after I imagined it. Rosenstein may have made the comments only in jest, but it was still a weird coincidence. 

If you want to give your fiction a realistic feeling, get fully immersed in your subject. If you’re writing a novel about rock & roll, go on the road with your favorite band. If you’re writing a legal thriller, get friendly with the folks at your local courthouse. (I did this in my first newspaper job, when I was a cub reporter in New Hampshire. In addition to sitting through dozens of hearings and trials, I spent many hours in the hallways of the Sullivan County Courthouse, chatting with the judges and attorneys and secretaries.)  

Fiction is all about imagination, but the most fascinating stories grow from the rich soil of reality. 


How Do You Come Up With The Ideas For Your Novels?

By Mark Alpert

It’s Black Friday as I write this, and my daughter and I are protesting the annual capitalistic orgy by refusing to buy anything. Instead, we’re writing. She’s working on a paper about King Lear. I’m going to write about the sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating process of finding new ideas for novels.

At this moment (4:23 p.m.) my daughter and I are doing our creative work at a salad place called Sweetgreen, mostly because we wanted to get out of the apartment for a while. Sweetgreen is a restaurant/takeout chain that’s spreading across Manhattan like a weed; it features salads with cute names like the Kale Caesar, which sells for the very uncute price of $13. Since this place opened a year ago across the street from our apartment building, I’ve dropped at least a thousand dollars on their artisanal greenery, so I’ve definitely earned the right to come here on Black Friday with my daughter and commandeer one of their tables for creative writing and not spend a dime. Because we’re protesting. We hate mindless consumerism. And yet we’ll continue to buy their overpriced salads on the other 364 days of the year.

Sweetgreen is actually a pretty good spot for writing, much better than any of the fancy coffee shops that have opened nearby (Joe Coffee, Joe & The Juice, Blue Bottle, etc.) It’s much less crowded at this place, and there’s plenty of room on the table for our laptops. The Sweetgreen chain has an organic, healthy-living philosophy that’s probably more strategic than sincere. It’s expressed with odd business practices such as refusing to stock sugar or any other sweeteners alongside the dispensers of Jasmine Green Iced Tea, Lemon Fresca, and Kale Gingerade. (Because sweeteners are bad for you! We’re not going to let you give yourself diabetes!) But more pertinent to my writing topic today is the inspirational message printed on Sweetgreen’s recycled-paper napkins: “Some of the best ideas have come from the back of a napkin. Ready to share yours?”

None of my ideas for novels has come from a napkin. I’ve written 14 books so far (nine of which have been published) and the process is still mysterious to me. I can’t remember how most of my plots and characters were born; their origins are clouded by a sort of primordial mist, and all I can do is make guesses about what I was thinking at the time. This is because the process of writing a novel is so immersive and overwhelming. Writing Chapter Two obliterates the memory of writing Chapter One, and so on. The process of parenting is much the same; the time-consuming task of raising a toddler mostly swamps the memories of feeding and diapering the same kid as an infant. When I look across the table at the brilliant 17-year-old writing about King Lear, it’s very difficult to recall the eight-year-old who lived for SpongeBob or the three-year-old who loved to dress up like a butterfly. I rely on photos and videos to remind me what she was really like back then.

But I have no photos or videos to illuminate why I started writing my books. My forthcoming novel, THE COMING STORM — scheduled to be published by St. Martin’s Press in January — was inspired by politics; I started writing it soon after Trump was elected, and all the outrageous events over the following year spurred me on. I made some obvious choices — one of the book’s characters is an unnamed U.S. president who looks and sounds very familiar, and the novel’s hero comes from an immigrant family — but I don’t remember how I composed the plot or selected the other characters. While waiting for that book to be published, I wrote a Young Adult novel that I’m still revising, and in the meantime I’ve started tossing around ideas for yet another book.

Like most novelists, I have certain obsessions I keep writing about. Mine are death, God, and the apocalypse, not necessarily in that order. For me, the key to success is finding an idea that taps into those obsessions, allowing me to work up the passion I need to write the book. But that’s easier said than done. Right now I’m at a loss. I’m still looking for an idea that grabs me.

When I was writing poetry in grad school, one of my teachers told us that writing a good poem was like getting struck by lightning. The great poets were the people who were willing to stand below a thunderstorm all their lives. I used to spend hours in Columbia University’s library, reading Berryman and Bishop and Roethke and Stevens, keeping my notebook open on the table in front of me just in case the lightning should strike. And these days I still follow that strategy. I read voraciously, devouring novels of every genre. This week I’m reading The Adventures of Augie March and trying for the umpteenth time to understand why Saul Bellow is so celebrated. I’m also plowing through the recently released third season of the television adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle.

And my daughter is an inspiration too. In the two-and-a-half hours since I sat down at this table in Sweetgreen I’ve written about 900 words, but she’s written more than 1,800. I need to catch up!

By the way, an hour ago we broke our anti-capitalist promise and purchased a couple of Jasmine Green Iced Teas (for $3 each!) To circumvent Sweetgreen’s anti-sweetener policy, I ran back upstairs to our apartment, poured some sugar into a plastic baggie, and smuggled it into the place so we could sweeten our drinks. But I poured way too much sugar into the baggie, and now the bulging thing is sitting on the table next to our laptops, making us look like a couple of coke dealers.

Which explains the picture of our workspace, shown at the top of this post!


What’s Your Hobby?

By Mark Alpert

Writers can’t spend ALL their time writing. You have to take a break every now and then.

This weekend I’m emceeing the 2018 Video Art and Experimental Film Festival. Hundreds of video artists from around the world submit short films for this festival, and a team of hard-working curators selects a few dozen pieces to screen at the Tribeca Film Center and the Downtown Community Television Center in Manhattan. My role is to introduce the films and moderate the panel discussions. (For more information about the festival, go here.)

It’s a lot of fun. I love interviewing the video artists. Some of their films are truly amazing. Volunteering at the festival is a wonderful escape for me, but it’s also a great source of new ideas. One of the films we screened last night featured an Alexa-like virtual assistant who encourages an unhappy housewife to take revenge on her ungrateful husband. That sounds like a neat idea for a techno-thriller, doesn’t it?

So what’s YOUR hobby? Do you have another outlet for your artistic energy?


Fiction and Politics

By Mark Alpert

True story: one evening in 1968, when I was six years old, my dad made an unusual request at bedtime. He told me that a man named King had just died and gone to heaven. He was a good man, Dad said. He asked me to pray for King before I went to sleep that night.

My dad was no liberal. He was a Nixon supporter then, and he’s a Trump supporter now. He’s going to turn 82 soon and spends a large part of his day watching Fox News. But his bedtime request from 1968 is the beginning of this story. It’s a true story, but it’s a bit fictional too, because memory is selective, especially when you’re trying to remember things from so long ago. This incident stands out.

What made Dad’s request seem so unusual at the time was the prayer thing. We were a very secular family. Technically, we were Jewish, but we never went to synagogue or followed any of the Jewish laws. And because we lived in New York City — the Sodom-and-Gomorrah of the 1960s — there weren’t many religious people in our neighborhood either. The idea of a “bedtime prayer” was completely foreign to me, something I’d seen kids do in storybooks but never in real life.

But the strangeness and seriousness of Dad’s request seemed to give it extra weight. So before I got into bed that night, I knelt on the carpet and pictured the man named King, newly arrived in heaven. I had no idea who he was. They didn’t teach current events in my kindergarten, so I knew nothing about Martin Luther King Jr. or the civil rights movement. All I had to go on was his name, so I assumed — with a six-year-old’s unassailable logic — that he was an actual king. I pictured him wearing a gold crown and an ermine robe, standing amid the clouds and waiting for his interview with God.

Now let’s move ahead four years. It’s the spring of 1972 and President Nixon is running for re-election. I’m with my mom in our dining room while she’s opening the mail. She opens an envelope and pulls out a campaign flyer for George Wallace, the Alabama governor and segregationist. He’s running in the Democratic presidential primaries and getting a surprising number of votes. Mom stares at the Wallace flyer for several seconds. Then she tears it to pieces. I’m shocked to see that she’s crying.

Fast-forward another thirteen years. It’s 1985 and I’m looking for a job as a newspaper reporter. In those pre-Internet days, the Bible of the newspaper business was a book called Editor & Publisher, a thick tome you could usually find in the reference section of any decent public library. E&P contained information on every newspaper in the country, including the names and addresses of all the managing editors, so it was very useful for journalistic jobseekers. (Are those E&P reference books still published and updated every year? Or is all that information online now?) I opened the bulky book and started copying the addresses of the newspapers, which were listed by state, alphabetically — Alabama to Wyoming. At first I tackled the task with great fervor, writing down the names of all the managing editors in each state, but after a while my energy began to flag. By the time I reached the letter M, I was copying only the addresses of the very largest newspapers, which of course were the ones least likely to hire a neophyte like me. So that’s probably why I got a job offer from a newspaper in Alabama. I applied to more papers in that state than in any other, simply because it was at the front of the alphabet.

Or maybe that’s not the whole story. Maybe I was fated to go there.

Either way, within a few weeks I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in the state capital. I attended press conferences and other events at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor from 1954 to 1960. I reported on the funeral of E.D. Nixon, who was president of the NAACP’s Montgomery chapter in the 1950s, when Rosa Parks served as the organization’s secretary; it was E.D. Nixon who bailed Parks out of jail after she refused to move to the back of the Montgomery city bus on December 1st, 1955. (He also selected King to lead the bus boycott that followed.) I interviewed Parks at the cemetery; she was in her seventies at the time and no longer living in Alabama, but she came back to Montgomery for the funeral.

Last but not least, I met George Wallace. To my astonishment, he was still governor of Alabama. Back in the 1972 presidential campaign, just a few weeks after my mother tore up his flyer, Wallace was shot by an unemployed busboy at a rally in Maryland; the governor survived the assassination attempt but was paralyzed from the waist down. Although his presidential hopes were dashed, he was re-elected governor in 1974 and won yet another term in 1982. By then Wallace had apologized for his segregationist past, and by the time I started going to his press conferences he was a pretty pathetic creature, wincing and squirming in his wheelchair, barely coherent (because he was taking so many painkillers). When he did emerge from his narcotic haze, he talked obsessively about history and his place in it, clearly frustrated that he would be remembered for all the horrible things he said and did in the 1960s. And though I was still just as irreligious as I was in my childhood, I couldn’t help but think that divine justice was at work.

That was the point in my life when I started writing fiction. I’d found a story I wanted to tell, one with complex characters and deep, unsettling questions. My first novel was about a governor like Wallace, and though it was never published (mostly because it had all the typical faults of a first novel), it paved the way for all the books that followed. (If you’re curious, I’ve posted the first chapters of The Emperor of Alabama here, here, here, and here.) My latest novel, The Coming Storm, is about politics too, and I make no apologies for choosing this subject. I write fiction about politics because it’s interesting.

Yes, politics can get divisive. And it can get pretty tiring as well, especially in the middle of a campaign season like the one we’re in right now. When we’re bombarded by so much bitter rhetoric, it’s natural to feel the urge to get away from it all, and fiction does a good job of providing an escape. But fiction writers can also explore and confront the bitterness. We need those kinds of novels too.

I’ll end this story by mentioning another. My favorite part of the film of To Kill a Mockingbird (which also takes place in Alabama) is the scene where Gregory Peck (playing Atticus Finch) delivers his stirring summation in the trial of the falsely accused Tom Robinson. “In the name of God,” he tells the jury, “do your duty!” Whatever your politics, make sure you vote on November 6th. Our national story is being written, and each of us has a duty to contribute to it.


Science Fiction and Reality

By Mark Alpert

Ever since I wrote the Kill Zone post about science fiction two weeks ago, I can’t seem to let go of the topic. I started rereading some of my favorite sci-fi stories by Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison. I wrote an article for Scientific American about the genre’s “golden age” (the late 1930s to the late 1940s). And I remembered meeting Arthur C. Clarke at the Chelsea Hotel in 2001.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure when the meeting occurred. Was it actually in 1999? Or 2002? I have a vivid memory of the great science-fiction writer, but I’m a little fuzzy on the date. But for the purposes of this story, let’s say it happened in 2001. That would give some symmetry to the tale. It was in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel that Clarke and Stanley Kubrick wrote the screenplay for “2001: A Space Odyssey” (which was based on two of Clarke’s short stories, “The Sentinel” and “Encounter in the Dawn”).

I was in my office at Scientific American that afternoon when the editor-in-chief rushed over. He said Clarke had called the magazine, completely out of the blue, and invited all the editors to his hotel suite for a chat. He was in town to give a speech at the United Nations, I think, or maybe for some kind of medical treatment. (Clarke was in his eighties then; he made Sri Lanka his home for the latter half of his life.) He didn’t tell the editor-in-chief why he wanted to meet, but it didn’t really matter. Within minutes, four Scientific American editors were in a taxi, heading for 23rd Street.

The Chelsea Hotel was rundown and bohemian, famously so. It had a reputation for catering to writers, artists, and musicians, some of whom came to very bad ends in the hotel’s shabby rooms. (Dylan Thomas spent his last drunken nights there before slipping into a coma. Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend to death in Room 100.) These days the hotel has a new owner who’s renovating the place, but back then it looked nothing like a Hilton. The rooms were dark and decorated in the tenement style. But when we stepped inside, there was Arthur C. Clarke in the room’s sitting area, dressed in a bathrobe and holding court on a recliner, with a pink, swollen foot propped on an ottoman.

He was suffering from gout, maybe? Or he’d just had surgery? I don’t remember the nature of his malady, but it certainly didn’t depress his spirits. He cheerfully welcomed us in and told his Sri Lankan assistant/valet to bring us some refreshments. Then, before we could find out why he’d summoned us, he started asking friendly questions. He seemed genuinely interested in each of us, genuinely curious about why we’d become editors at Scientific American and what kinds of stories we were working on. I tried to answer as best as I could, but it was hard to say anything intelligible. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was making small talk with the author of Childhood’s End and “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

Eventually, though, Clarke got around to his agenda: he wanted to know if Scientific American planned to run any further stories about cold fusion.

Okay, I need to take a step back and play science teacher for a moment. Fusion is the merger of atomic nuclei, a reaction that produces heavier elements and enormous amounts of energy. It’s the process at the heart of every star, the source of life-giving sunshine. But because all nuclei are positively charged and thus repel one another, fusion can’t happen unless the nuclei bang into each other at really high speeds, and that doesn’t happen unless the temperature of the material gets really hot — at least 13 million degrees Celsius. Outside the core of our sun, where the tremendous pressure of all that hydrogen produces ultra-high temperatures, the only place in our solar system where significant amounts of fusion have ever occurred is inside hydrogen bombs. (Those warheads detonate a nuclear-fission bomb first, which raises the temperature high enough to initiate nuclear fusion in the warhead’s hydrogen fuel a fraction of a second later.)

In 1989, though, a couple of electrochemists announced that they’d triggered nuclear fusion in their laboratory at room temperature. This claim of “cold fusion” got everyone’s attention, but when other scientists repeated the experiment in their own labs they didn’t see the same effect. Within a few months researchers pretty much discredited the claim, but for years afterward a group of cold-fusion zealots continued to insist that the phenomenon was real and should be investigated further. Arthur C. Clarke, we discovered, was one of those true believers. In his cheerful but persistent way, he urged us to review the research and run a story about the cold-fusion debate.

Our editor-in-chief was a very diplomatic guy, and he assured Clarke that we’d look into the matter. But in truth, there was no significant new research to report, and we never ran the story. After we left the Chelsea Hotel, we talked for a while about Clarke’s fixation on cold fusion, which seemed uncharacteristic for someone who was so scientifically knowledgeable. For a scientist, evidence is everything, and if the evidence says cold fusion didn’t happen in the lab, then no amount of wishful thinking can change that verdict.

But as I look back on that meeting now, I realize that Clarke was speaking as a science-fiction writer, not a scientist, and science fiction is all about wishful thinking. Imagine the consequences if cold fusion were really possible: we’d be able to generate unlimited amounts of clean energy from seawater. We could put a stop to global warming right this minute and save the billions of lives that will surely be lost over the next century as climbing temperatures disrupt agriculture and rising seas ravage our coastlines (see my new novel, The Coming Storm). And cold fusion could be used to power spaceflight as well, bringing us closer to Clarke’s visions of the future.

So his “fixation” seems rather poignant to me now. Yes, it would be wonderful if we lived in a universe where cold fusion was possible. But we don’t.

Clarke died in 2008 at the age of 90.