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), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

A Question From My Daughter

By Mark Alpert

Okay, I’m hanging out right now with my daughter, who will be graduating from high school next month and attending Northwestern University in the fall. She’s taking a creative writing course this spring, and she has a question for all you prolific fiction writers:

Do you usually start writing out of a flurry of emotion — that is, only after inspiration hits — or can you sit down at your desk and start telling a story without the need for an emotional trigger?

I thought that was a good question! When I first started writing poetry as a teenager, I usually wrote in a highly emotional state, inspired by some passionate incident (seeing a girl I loved) or traumatic insight (realizing that my parents were crazy). That doesn’t happen to me so frequently now that I’m a 58-year-old novelist, but every once in a while I get stirred up by some strange, beautiful thought that eventually turns into a story.

For example: well, it’s funny, I was going to tell you what inspired me to write my trilogy of Young Adult novels (THE SIX, THE SIEGE and THE SILENCE), but now I can’t remember why I started those books. The things that inspired me were like the scaffolding of the building I was constructing, but the scaffolding came down after the books were published, and now only the novels stand there.

What about you?

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Mixing It Up With Nonfiction

By Mark Alpert

My reading habits are completely out of whack. On average, I read at least twenty novels for every one nonfiction book. This extreme asymmetry isn’t strictly a result of my career choice; although I’m a novelist and I get a lot of inspiration from reading other authors’ fiction, that’s not the reason why I plow through so many novels. I just can’t help it. I read the stuff because I love it.

And here’s what makes the imbalance even more severe: I read so much fiction that it makes me intolerant of nonfiction that’s poorly done. A book about politics or sociology or science or art might have persuasive, important arguments, but I’ll quickly lose patience with it if the author doesn’t tell an interesting story, or if his or her voice isn’t lively and compelling.

I won’t waste your time complaining about nonfiction books I hated. Instead, I’ll talk about the ones that cleared my ridiculously high bar. One of my favorite history books, for example, is Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. This monster has nearly 3,000 pages in all (1.2 million words!) but it’s riveting. The opening of the book is brilliant: instead of torturing readers with a deadly dull recitation of all the causes of the war, it starts with the tale of how in 1835 a 27-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant named Jefferson Davis (the future president of the Confederacy) fell in love with the daughter of Zachary Taylor, his commanding officer (and future U.S. president). Davis asked for Taylor’s permission to marry his daughter Sarah, but Taylor refused, so Davis resigned his commission, eloped with Sarah, and fled with her to his family’s plantation in Mississippi, where a few months later she died of either malaria or yellow fever. Ten years later, Davis was elected to the U.S. Congress, but he rejoined the army when the Mexican-American War broke out. He held the rank of colonel now, and his commanding officer, once again, was Zachary Taylor.

Awkward, right? But Davis distinguished himself so well at the Battle of Buena Vista that Taylor actually apologized to him: “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”

This opening chapter hooked me. After reading it, I was ready to go wherever Shelby Foote wanted to take me, sloshing through the blood and gore of Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg. Foote was a novelist too, so I guess it should’ve been no surprise that he could tell the story of the Civil War so well.

Another novelist who wrote excellent nonfiction was David Foster Wallace. As it turns out, the author of the literary bestseller Infinite Jest also wrote Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Books about math are usually not known for their wit and verve, but Wallace somehow managed to stir my interest in Georg Cantor, the founder of set theory and the “infinity of infinities.” Until reading this book, I never really understood how one kind of infinity (say, the set of all real numbers) could be larger than another kind of infinity (say, the set of rational numbers). But Wallace presented the mathematical proof in a way that nearly anyone could understand.

Right now I’m reading a nonfiction book about another difficult subject, the current state of theoretical research in fundamental physics (string theory, supersymmetry, all that good stuff). Titled Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, it was written by a physicist named Sabine Hossenfelder who became well-known in the physics community because of her popular blog that questioned some of the conventional wisdom in the field. Unlike most people who write science books — usually naïve journalists who are way too wide-eyed about the latest theories, or pretentious Nobel Prize winners who love to pontificate — Hossenfelder has a wry, skeptical voice, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes pissed off. Here, for instance, is her summary of one of the book’s chapters: “In which I meet with Nima Arkani-Hamed and do my best to accept that nature isn’t natural, everything we learn is awesome, and that nobody gives a fuck what I think.”

Another thing I like about this book: it’s only 236 pages long. Hey, I love physics as much as the next guy, but I have a big stack of unread novels on my desk!


Here’s a novel about science that definitely won’t bore you: THE COMING STORM

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Five Reasons To Write Short

By Mark Alpert

The first fiction I ever wrote was a short story titled “The Sweet Smell of Parchment.” It was about the Vietnam War, and it was only two-and-a-half handwritten pages long. I’m not sure exactly when I wrote it, but it had to be before the end of the U.S. involvement in the war, so I’m going to guess either 1972 or 1973. I was either 11 or 12 years old.

No copies of this story survived (there was only one), but I remember it pretty well. It had two scenes. The first scene was told from the point of view of a character named Otto, a guard at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Otto’s job is usually pretty dull, but one morning when he comes to work he finds the night-duty guard lying bound-and-gagged on the floor of the Archives lobby. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Otto rushes over to the glass case where the Declaration of Independence is usually displayed, but now the case is empty except for a note addressed to the U.S. Congress: “Get out of Vietnam, or we’ll burn it.”

The second scene jumps forward in time a few days, and it’s told from the point of view of the Senate Majority Leader. (I gave him a name, but I don’t remember it.) The senator is driving home after a really exhausting afternoon at the Capitol. Congress got into a fierce debate over whether to comply with the demands of the revolutionary group that stole the Declaration of Independence. Some senators said it would be wrong to give in to this kind of blackmail; others argued that it was high time for the U.S. to get out of Vietnam anyway, and this was the perfect opportunity to commit to a withdrawal. When it came time to vote, the Senate split right down the middle, and it was up to the Majority Leader to break the tie. (I didn’t realize at the time that the Vice President is supposed to break ties in the Senate. I was only 11!) But as I described the senator’s drive home, I didn’t reveal how he voted earlier that day. Although I was just starting out as an author, I’d already realized the importance of keeping readers in suspense.

Then the senator parks his car in the driveway next to his house and he notices something burning on his front lawn. He runs over to put out the fire, but there’s nothing left but ashes. The last line of the story was something like, “And the sweet smell of parchment spread across the neighborhood.”

I’m telling you about this fictional debut because I’m working on a short story right now (actually, it’s a “novelette”), and the experience has reminded me how much I love this kind of fiction. So here are five reasons why you should consider writing short:

1) It gives you confidence. When you’re just getting started as a fiction writer, composing a novel can be a daunting proposition. It’s a big commitment of time and energy, and so many things can go wrong. Can you create fascinating characters and put them in exciting situations? Can you keep readers interested in the story by constantly surprising them and raising the stakes? Can you avoid all the pitfalls of novel writing — boring passages, too much explanation, repetitive scenes, ridiculous plot twists? If you don’t feel confident yet about your authorial abilities, then writing a few short stories may give you the practice you need.

2) There’s a quick payoff. It usually takes months to write a novel, but you can bang out a short story in just a few days. I started writing my first novel, THE EMPEROR OF ALABAMA, in early 1988 and didn’t finish revising it until the end of 1989. When I was done with it, I wrote “My Life with Joanne Christiansen,” a quick, funny story about two guys discussing their love lives. I wrote it in two or three days, then sent it off to my agent. Well, the novel didn’t sell; in fact, I wrote three more novels that didn’t sell before Simon & Schuster bought my fifth novel, FINAL THEORY, in 2007. But my agent sold “Joanne” right away to Playboy magazine, and it appeared in the February 1991 issue. I’m sure you can find a copy of it in a cardboard box at a garage sale near you. (Actually, it’s available on eBay, like everything else.)

3) Some stories are meant to be short. Just consider my first effort, “The Sweet Smell of Parchment.” What fascinated me back in the early Seventies was the idea that someone could try to end the war by holding the Declaration hostage. If I had been older and more ambitious, I suppose I could’ve elaborated upon the idea and turned it into a blockbuster novel, with a Jack Ryan-like hero crisscrossing the country in search of the hallowed document and battling hippie terrorists in a climactic showdown in front of the Washington Monument. But I wasn’t interested in all that melodrama. I just wanted to put this cool idea on the page and then get back to eating Ring Dings and watching “The Partridge Family” and doing all the other things I enjoyed at the time.

4) You can actually make some money. That short story my agent sold to Playboy? The magazine paid $3,000 for it. Given the cumulative inflation since 1991, that’s the equivalent of nearly $6,000 in today’s cash. Admittedly, that data point is an outlier, because few periodicals pay as much as Playboy once did. But I did some research last week after I started writing my short science-fiction piece, and I discovered that sci-fi magazines such as Analog and Asimov’s pay about ten cents per word for fiction. That rate is pretty low compared with the already criminally low rate for freelance journalism (where $1-per-word is still the standard), but it compares favorably with the typical compensation for novels. It can be tough to get more than a $10,000 advance for a 100,000-word novel, even from the biggest publishers. And that works out to ten cents per word.

5) There are more options than ever. While leafing through recent issues of Analog and Asimov’s, I learned that those magazines divide their short-fiction offerings into two categories: short stories (under 7,500 words) and novelettes (7,500 to 20,000 words). In addition, Analog will publish longer works (40,000-80,000 words) in installments. I haven’t researched the policies or pay rates for the comparable magazines in the mystery genre (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and so on) but I bet some of the TKZers out there are familiar with them. (Please let me know!) And even if you can’t sell a short story to a magazine, you can offer it as an online freebie to show off your writing chops and entice potential readers to purchase your novels.

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Do you enjoy audio books? If so, check out my audible.com page, where you can find audio versions of seven of my books, including my latest novel, THE COMING STORM.

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Black Hole Dreams

By Mark Alpert

Every so often we experience an event that’s so amazingly big, it makes everything else seem petty. That happened on Wednesday. We saw something that introduced us to a whole new concept of bigness. We’re talking billions-of-times-more-massive-than-the-sun big.

I’m referring of course to the glorious picture of the gargantuan black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy (see above). This monster is as big as our entire solar system, and it’s phenomenally far away, more than 50 million light-years from Earth. But an array of radio telescopes was able to capture an image of the stuff swirling around the black hole — the so-called accretion disk — which emits copious amounts of radiation before it spirals into the hole, never to be seen again. The picture brilliantly confirms Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicts that space and time can be warped so mightily that not even light can escape.

Is it inspiring for us fiction writers? Definitely! The picture provokes all kinds of existential questions. At the center of the hole — according to Einstein again — an amount of mass equivalent to billions of suns has been crunched into a singularity, an infinitely dense point. Whaaaat??? It sounds crazy, and maybe it’s not true; we don’t yet have a theory that combines relativity with quantum mechanics, so we can’t say for sure how gravity works at the smallest scales. Perhaps the singularity is a rip in spacetime. Or a portal to another universe. Studying the exact shape of the boundary of the black hole — the event horizon — may give us clues to what’s lurking inside. Or maybe not. Maybe God has drawn a curtain between us and the ultimate truth, preventing us from ever seeing it.

On Wednesday night I had a dream about a dying physicist. Did the picture of the black hole trigger that dream? I don’t know. But I’m writing a short story about it. I have three thousand words so far.

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My latest novel, THE COMING STORM, was featured in the Los Angeles Review of Books this week. Check it out!

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Five Tips For Legal Thrillers

By Mark Alpert

This week I was on a jury that sent a young man to federal prison. In my opinion, he definitely deserved the guilty verdict. But that doesn’t mean I feel good about it.

This was the first time I’d ever served on a jury, even though I’ve been summoned for jury duty on several occasions since the 1980s. New York tightened its jury-duty rules a few decades ago, making it harder for people to slip out of their civic responsibility, so the state and federal courts now have a large pool of potential jurors to choose from. On my previous visits to the various courthouses in Lower Manhattan, there were so many people thronging the juror assembly rooms that I never even got chosen for voir dire, when jurors are asked questions about their backgrounds and possible prejudices. But this time I was selected for a criminal trial in the federal courthouse on Foley Square, a monumental building designed by Cass Gilbert and constructed in the 1930s (see photo above). Massive Corinthian columns loom over the courthouse’s entrance, and carved into the granite portico are portraits of four ancient lawgivers: Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, and Moses.

Although my novels feature plenty of police officers and FBI agents, I’ve never written a legal thriller, and now I’m glad I didn’t attempt it, because I surely would’ve gotten it wrong. During my brief exposure to the court system I learned a few surprising things that I never saw on Law & Order or any other TV show. If you want to write a courtroom scene, please pay close attention.

Our trial took place in federal court because the defendant had been arrested by agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The young man was charged with selling fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that has recently become the deadliest of all illegal drugs, killing more than 28,000 Americans each year. On four occasions during September and October of 2017, the defendant sold hundreds of fentanyl pills to his barber, who’d told the young man that he would resell the drugs to customers he’d found in North Carolina. In reality, though, the barber was a confidential source for the DEA. He was assigned to inform the agency about drug dealing in Manhattan in exchange for payments from the federal government and (in this informant’s case) deferral from deportation.

There was no doubt at all that the defendant had sold the drugs to his treacherous barber. The informant had worn a hidden camera and microphone to record the transactions, and afterwards he’d immediately handed over the fentanyl pills to the DEA agents. (The pills, which we saw in the evidence bags, were bluish, and each was stamped with the label M30.) But the defendant’s lawyers presented an entrapment defense. They claimed that the barber had persuaded and pressured their client to sell the drugs. If not for the informant’s wheedling, they argued, the defendant would’ve never committed such a crime.

Entrapment can be a legitimate defense. No one wants to live under a government that uses secret agents to lure innocent people into committing crimes. And in this particular case, there was some reasonable doubt as to who first suggested the fentanyl sales. The barber testified that the defendant offered to sell large quantities of the drug, and the defendant testified that the barber brought up the idea. There were no recordings of these preliminary discussions in the barbershop; the informant said he didn’t start taping their conversations until he got authorization from the DEA. What’s more, the informant wasn’t an especially believable witness. He’d been convicted of a drug crime twenty years ago, and after serving his sentence he’d been deported to the Dominican Republic. Then he slipped back into the U.S. illegally and faced deportation again. Working as a source for the DEA enabled him to stay in New York with his family, so the defense lawyers argued that he had a motivation to propose and facilitate drug crimes.

But even if the informant proposed the drug sales, that wouldn’t be enough to prove entrapment. According to federal law, the defendant couldn’t be entrapped if he already had a predisposition to commit the crime — that is, if he was ready, willing, and able to sell the fentanyl pills. The U.S. district judge in this case (the Honorable Katherine Polk Failla) outlined the three indications of predisposition in her charge to the jury: the defendant would be predisposed if he’d already committed a crime of this type, or if he’d made plans to commit such a crime, or if he’d promptly responded to the opportunity proposed by the informant.

Much of the evidence for predisposition came from the transcripts of the recordings made by the DEA’s informant. In those conversations, the defendant repeatedly claimed that he wasn’t new to the drug business. He talked about other customers he’d sold drugs to. He advised his barber on the tactics of drug selling — where to hide the pills, when to schedule their meetings, how to communicate using codes and multiple phones. Most damning of all, the defendant seemed to be leading the conversations, clearly in charge. He showed no reluctance to sell fentanyl. On the contrary, he kept urging his barber to buy more. During three transactions occurring over a two-week period, the defendant sold a total of 800 fentanyl pills to the informant, and DEA agents seized an additional 1,100 pills from the defendant’s car when he was arrested during the course of the fourth transaction.

When the defendant appeared on the witness stand, though, he claimed that his recorded statements were lies. He testified that he was simply boasting to his barber, trying to bullshit and impress him. In truth, he said, he had no prior experience in the drug business.

This claim didn’t seem credible to me. But the clincher, in my opinion, was the sheer size of the defendant’s drug sales to his barber. In their very first transaction, the defendant sold 200 fentanyl pills for $3,000 and also provided his barber with a free sample of heroin. The defendant testified that his supplier was a man identified only by a first name, Kelvin, whom he’d met at a disco several months after his barber broached the idea of doing a drug deal. So the defendant was asking the jury to believe that a wholesale fentanyl supplier would sell 200 pills, apparently on credit, to a first-time customer he’d met at a disco. And kick in a free heroin sample as well. For me, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Yes, I could still doubt that the defendant had some prior experience in drug dealing, but it wouldn’t be a reasonable doubt. Any reasonable person would’ve concluded, based on the evidence, that the defendant had a predisposition to sell drugs. Therefore, he couldn’t have been entrapped by the DEA informant.

Eventually, all twelve jurors came to the same conclusion. Each of us signed the verdict form, guilty on all four counts (one for each drug sale). Then we filed into Courtroom 110, and our foreperson announced the verdicts. The defendant, sitting next to his lawyers at the defense table, buried his face in his hands. Later, he was remanded to federal custody.

So what lessons for legal thrillers can be drawn from this experience? Here are five:

1) Not all criminals are criminal masterminds. The transcripts of the informant’s recordings revealed that on at least one occasion the defendant caught the informant in a lie. (The informant said in a phone call that he hadn’t driven to their rendezvous point yet, but the defendant had arrived early and seen the informant’s car.) A truly savvy criminal would’ve scented danger and abandoned the whole enterprise, but the defendant chose to believe it was a misunderstanding and went ahead with the drug deal. Maybe he just couldn’t imagine that his barber would betray him? Perhaps the real lesson here is, “Don’t put too much trust in your barber.” He usually knows more about you than you know about him.

2) A jury must make its decision based on the available evidence. In every trial there are missing pieces. In our trial we wanted to know whether it was the defendant or the informant who’d initiated the drug deal, and when the first conversation about it had taken place. But because no recordings were made before the deal was in motion, the only evidence available to us was the testimony of the defendant and the informant, and neither man seemed reliable. The prosecution introduced the defendant’s phone records from the months before the first drug sale, and several lengthy calls to the informant were listed in the records, but that evidence was far from conclusive. We had no idea what they were talking about during those calls, so the records couldn’t answer our questions. It was frustrating, but we couldn’t waste our time lamenting that we didn’t know everything. We had to make a judgment based on what we DID know.

3) Drug weights can be misleading. To prove that the pills sold by the defendant contained a controlled substance, the government’s lab technicians crushed some of the pills and tested for the presence of fentanyl and other chemicals. (The trial testimony revealed that the defendant actually thought he was selling oxycodone, a different kind of opioid. That was also the DEA’s assumption until the lab results showed that the pills contained fentanyl. Legally, though, it made no difference; both oxycodone and fentanyl are controlled substances, and their use is regulated by the same federal laws.) The lab tests didn’t reveal the purity of the pills, but that’s a moot point for fentanyl, because the drug is so potent. Just a few milligrams can be fatal. The 1,900 pills that the DEA obtained from the defendant weighed nearly 200 grams in all, but the weight of the fentanyl in the pills was presumably much lower. Nevertheless, it’s the overall weight of the pills that the judge will consider when she determines the sentence for the crime.

4) The quality of federal judicial proceedings (at least in New York’s Southern District) is high. I was impressed by the competence and professionalism of everyone involved in the trial. The prosecutors did a good job of presenting their evidence, and the federal defenders (lawyers employed by the government and appointed to represent defendants who can’t afford to hire counsel) did the best job they could with the case they had. Both the defendant and the informant were Spanish speakers, so the defense and prosecution used teams of amazingly skilled interpreters to translate the testimony. Judge Failla was fair and courteous, but also tough when she needed to be; she kept things moving and brooked no nonsense. After we delivered our verdict, she visited the jury room to thank us and answer any questions we had. I can easily imagine her being promoted someday to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which is also based in the Foley Square courthouse and has served as a steppingstone to the Supreme Court. (That was the path taken by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.)

5) Justice is heavy. Legally, I believe we did the right thing. We reached a verdict based on the definition of entrapment. This definition is narrow and a bit ambiguous — what constitutes a “prompt response” to an informant’s proposal? — but if entrapment were defined more broadly, how could the government combat the sale of deadly drugs? Fentanyl and other opioids are devastating this country, and sometimes the only way to nab the dealers is to use informants to deceive them. Just think of all the overdoses, all the opioid addicts collapsing on the street and being rushed to emergency rooms. But as I sat in the jury box of Courtroom 110 and watched the defendant shake with sobs, I thought of another trial that had taken place in that very same courtroom 68 years ago. On March 29th, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage in that room. The jurors found the Rosenbergs guilty of conspiring to deliver atom-bomb secrets to Russian agents, hastening the Soviet Union’s development of its own nuclear bomb. (Historians still debate whether this was true, particularly the usefulness of whatever information the Rosenbergs may have handed over to the Russians.) Judge Irving Kaufman commended the verdict: “The thought that citizens of our country would lend themselves to the destruction of their own country by the most destructive weapon known to man is so shocking that I can’t find words to describe this loathsome offense.” A week later he sentenced the Rosenbergs to die in the electric chair.

In that case, the judge and jury also believed they’d done the right thing.

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In other legal news, Attorney General William Barr just announced that he will release the Mueller report — probably with lots of redactions — by mid-April. But if you want to get a sneak peek at the shenanigans of a loose-cannon president, check out my latest novel, THE COMING STORM, now available on Amazon for the low, low price of nine bucks!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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