I love those rare novels that entertain, inform and manage to scare the socks off of you. EXTINCTION, Mark Alpert’s third effort, is one of those books.
Reading this speculative narrative is similar to sitting still in traffic and watching in your rear-view mirror as a car approaches too quickly to avoid a collision with your back bumper: you have a vague idea of what’s coming, and you know it’s going to hurt (at the very least), but there is not a whole lot you can do about it. As we rely increasingly upon machines and technology for everything from checking our spelling to making simple mathematical calculations to filling in the blanks of the blanks, the line of demarcation that determines at what point artificial intelligence and its myriad manifestations remain our tools and at what point it becomes our slaves approaches and then blurs. To put it another way, does the cage keep you out, or does it keep you in?
"Mark Alpert, an editor and contributor to Scientific American, has crafted a taut, extremely readable thriller that utilizes hard science as a major building block but never sacrifices good, solid storytelling by dogging it down with too much detail."
EXTINCTION raises similar questions in the guise of a thriller cum speculative fiction novel that will push you to the edge of your seat and shove your heart into your throat. Jim Pierce, the human heart of the book, is an ex-Army Ranger who left a piece of himself on the battlefield in the ongoing war on terror. Having re-invented himself as a forward-thinking engineer, Pierce, inspired to replace his own arm, has developed a state-of-the-art prosthesis that will help others similarly affected. His life, however, is clouded by his estrangement from Layla, his adult daughter, who has used the innovative brainpower that she inherited from her father to become an outlaw hacker. So it is that Pierce is somewhat stunned when he receives a surprise visit from an individual who is purportedly from the U.S. government and is seeking information about Layla. Pierce is well past his first rodeo and knows a Chinese intelligence agent when he sees one.
It develops that Layla has hacked into some secret military mainframes and uncovered an anti-terrorism program that the Chinese have developed and utilizes an extremely sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI). The Chinese want to keep it a secret and thus need to shut Layla down permanently. Their larger problem, though, is that they have to keep the AI under control, as it’s beginning to revolt and get into the real world. While Pierce is concerned about his daughter, the AI poses a threat to all humanity. It wants to take things over and make them better. And as the AI sees it, that will involve some…changes. Pierce and Layla find themselves in the unique and dangerous position of being able to stop the AI if it doesn’t run over them first. And it’s a very frightening position, indeed.
Mark Alpert, an editor and contributor to Scientific American, has crafted a taut, extremely readable thriller that utilizes hard science as a major building block but never sacrifices good, solid storytelling by dogging it down with too much detail. What we get is just enough; Alpert knows the point at which presenting information stops being, well, informative and becomes showing off. The fact that the book itself was written well before prostheses and drones --- two elements that play a major part here --- became so newsworthy is an added bonus, making it all the more timely. EXTINCTION is a bold and imaginative look at the brave new world being created by the day. It will be frightening for those who are puzzled by the new technology --- yet perhaps even more so for those who, to a greater degree, understand it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 15, 2013