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

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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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. 

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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!

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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?

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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.

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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.

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First-Page Critique: The Key to Writing Science Fiction

By Mark Alpert

What a fantastic fall evening! I just came back from a Friday-night college football game at Baker Field in Upper Manhattan, where the Princeton Tigers thrashed the Columbia Lions 45-10. And now, for your critiquing pleasure, here is the latest first-page submission from one of our courageous TKZ contributors:

Title:  Stars

Leon hated Vahrian airships, but since unloading them put beers on his table, he faked a smile as he picked up the last crate.

“Have a good evening, Captain,” he said.

Hope you fall in the sea and drown, Leon thought.

The Captain kept reading his book and reclined further in his chair. Scowling, Leon carried the crate out of the cabin. He stumbled along the jetty. Wooden planks groaned underfoot, and a wave crashed against the rocks, spraying him with water. He fumbled with the slippery crate, but kept hold, staggered off the jetty, and dumped the box beside the others he’d unloaded.

His back twanged and he winced. Back in his Academy days, he could’ve hauled cargo through a swamp for hours, but now he was past forty and those days were behind him.

The Captain strode along the jetty and walked past Leon, whistling. Buttons gleamed on the Vahrian’s jacket, and he swayed like a dancer as he strolled to the harbor office.

Prick, thought Leon.

He watched until the Captain disappeared amongst the harbour’s bustling sailors. It wasn’t enough that Vahria had bombed the hell out of Paya’s Discs in the War, or that the airship’s crates weighed more than an asteroid. No. The worst part was people like him. Young men in starched jackets, who refused to look Payans in the eyes.

Someone tapped Leon’s shoulder. “Leon de Velasco?”

He turned. A young woman stood behind him, wrapped in a bulky, dirt-stained cloak. A cowl cast her face into shadow. She couldn’t be over twenty, and looked odd amongst the rancid-smelling fishers and the greasy-haired merchants who sniffed unattended crates.

Best of all, the girl was a Payan like him — not a Vahrian — which meant Leon didn’t need to hide how pissed off he was.

“What?” he asked.

“My name’s Elena. I need your help.”

Leon raised an eyebrow. With disheveled, shoulder-length hair, a tangled beard, and ratty clothes that reeked of beer, he didn’t get many requests for help, especially by young women.

“Got a ship you need unloaded?” he asked.

“I–”

Two Vahrian soldiers swaggered past and bumped Elena.

“–we’ll catch them by tomorrow, chaps,” one soldier said.

Elena glared at the Vahrians as they strutted away. Leon frowned. Most Payans looked down when soldiers passed, but Elena’s eyes only grew harder.

“You were saying?” he said.

———-

What’s the key to writing science fiction? I think it’s striking the right balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary. We read sci-fi to give our minds a chance to roam free, to cruise across the Milky Way at warp speed, to delve into the microscopic innards of a DNA molecule, to shatter the invisible barrier between our universe and its neighbors. At the same time, though, we want to see recognizable characters having realistic and believable reactions to all the amazing things they’re experiencing. As sci-fi writer Margaret Atwood put it, “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real.”

Think of the first book in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The opening chapters are set on Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire, a planet that’s entirely covered by a single global building. When I read the book for the first time at the age of thirteen, I was totally fascinated by this idea. It sounded so insane, and yet it also made sense: if people kept constructing new houses and malls and office buildings, then eventually they’d pave over every last parcel of the planet’s surface. It was the ultimate vision of overdevelopment, the real-estate agent’s dream and the environmentalist’s nightmare. But who were the residents of Asimov’s imagined megastructure? They were mostly bureaucrat types, the plodding functionaries who kept the Galactic Empire humming. They were very pleased with themselves and very proud to be living at the center of their civilization, and they had no inkling that their empire was about to collapse. Sounds familiar, right?

Or think of the Dune books by Frank Herbert. Most of the action takes place on Arrakis, a desert planet where gigantic worms burrow underneath the sand and where water is so precious that the fluids in every human corpse are recycled. It’s also the battleground for two powerful dynastic families, House Atreides and House Harkonnen, whose members spy and betray and assassinate each other just like the Borgias and Medicis of Renaissance Italy. The weapons on Arrakis are futuristic, but the motives of the murderers are very familiar.

In today’s submission, titled Stars, I’m not getting a strong enough sense of the extraordinary. I want to be intrigued right away by the planet where the Vahrians have apparently subjugated the Payans, but in this draft I don’t see anything that’s particularly fascinating. One possible source of intrigue is the Vahrian airship, which is mentioned in the very first sentence of the piece but not described in any detail. Is it huge? Is it a space-going ship? Is it hovering beside the jetty or floating in the water? The opening sentences would be so much better if they included some flabbergasting detail such as, “It was one of the smallest Vahrian airships, only a thousand meters long.” Or maybe “Like a sea creature, the Vahrian airship took sustenance from the ocean, its gills extracting oxygen from the water and storing the fuel in the ship’s propulsion fins.” The opening scene needs to grab the readers right away and make them want to learn more about this crazy civilization.

I also wondered if there were any physical differences between the Vahrians and the Payans. It sounds like they’re both humanoid species or races, but are Vahrians generally taller or darker or hairier than Payans? Or maybe every Vahrian has an extra finger on his or her left hand? And what kind of weapons were the Vahrian soldiers carrying? The author should take every opportunity to start creating a whole new world, complete with marvels and mysteries.

Last, I wanted the encounter between Leon and Elena to be more dramatic. After the Vahrian soldiers bumped Elena, she should do more than simply glare at them. Maybe she should make a surreptitious obscene gesture that only Leon notices, an ancient Payan hand motion that means “Screw you” or something similar. It would be the kind of gesture that would get Elena arrested and maybe even executed if the Vahrians had seen it, and so this act of defiance impresses Leon greatly. It makes him think, “Okay, this woman is serious.”

What do you think, TKZ-ers?

———

Speaking of science fiction, check out my website to see the latest news about my next novel, THE COMING STORM.

“Mark Alpert’s latest nail-biter THE COMING STORM starts with a terrifyingly plausible look at what lies just beyond our political horizon and ends on a note even more disturbing and frightening. This novel isn’t just ripped from the headlines, it’s an alarm bell ringing from the near-future, a prescient warning of where we’re headed next. Read this now—before it’s literally too late.”
— James Rollins, author of New York Times bestseller THE DEMON CROWN

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Another Deadline

By Mark Alpert

Me to Editor: I’m writing the book’s epilogue right now. As we speak.

Editor: Really?

Me: Yes! I’m, like, three paragraphs from the end. And I’m pushing aside everything else to get it done. No phone calls, no emails, no social media, no blog posts. I’m not even reading the newspaper.

Editor: So you didn’t hear what happened with Paul Manafort?

Me: Okay, I read that story. I mean, I had to. But nothing else, I swear.

Editor: All right, all right. Just send me the manuscript as soon as you can.

Click.

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New Favorites

By Mark Alpert

When I think about my favorite authors, I usually divide them into two groups, the Old Favorites and the New Favorites. The Old Favorites are the writers I’ve loved for decades: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Pynchon, etc. The New Favorites are the authors I’ve embraced in just the past few years: Colson Whitehead, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Olen Steinhauer, and so on.

Who are your New Favorites?

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