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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Extinction: Welcome Chinese Overlords!

If you like Michael Crichton, you definitely need to check out Mark Alpert. Heck, right there on the cover of his new thriller, Extinction, novelist Michael Preston proclaims he's "truly the heir apparent to Michael Crichton."

In Alpert's last novel, Omega Theory, he asked us to consider the question (from the "It For Bit" theory) of, if the universe is a program, what could cause it to crash? Extinction deals with a similar humanity-threatening problem — what if a morally dubious Chinese artificial intelligence project (ominously dubbed Supreme Harmony) becomes conscious, and decides that humankind is inefficient, and therefore must be destroyed? It's the worst-case-scenario for the long-predicted Singularity — the point at which machines can replicate themselves better than humans can build them.

So, our hero is soldier-turned-scientist Jim Pierce, who, after losing his arm (also, his wife and son) to a terrorist bomb in the late 1990s, dedicates his life to building high-tech prosthesis limbs for soldiers. Meanwhile, his surviving daughter Layla, a computer genius hacker, with whom his relationship has deteriorated since the tragedy, has got herself into some hot water with the Chinese by discovering their dastardly artificial intelligence program.

So Jim and Layla, and Jim's former colleague at the National Security Agency Kirsten, must collaborate to save the world. All the while, we get little riffs on up-and-coming-and-super-cool technology — like a brain implant that can upload memories to a computer (or video screen), mini-bug-sized drones that fly in swarms and can shoot poison darts, and optical implants that, when wired into the brain, can allow a blind person to see again. It's all very cool.

The novel itself is good, but not great. It's a fun, plane/beach-read thriller — with all the elements of near-future science that make Alpert fun to read. But there are too many minor conveniences in the plot — "Luckily, the keyboard was in English (not Chinese), so Layla had no problem hacking," for instance. And, outside the technology discussions, there isn't too much depth. At the end of the novel, Alpert gives us a short real-life review of "The Science Behind Extinction." There, he briefly mentions that "consciousness" has been philosophized about for centuries, but that's it. It would've been cool to see a conversation or discussion about why/how/if Supreme Harmony was really conscious.

Still, though, if you like Crichton's novels, you'll certainly enjoy this fiction about science, too. 

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