“Working in concert, they generated Supreme Harmony’s first collective thought. It struck all the Modules at once: We are live.”
Extinction, by Mark Alpert
Thomas Dunne Books, February 2013
science fiction thriller
373 pages (hardcover)
Jim Pierce hasn’t heard from his daughter in years, ever since she rejected his military past and started working as a hacker. But when a Chinese assassin shows up at Jim’s lab looking for her, he knows that she’s cracked some serious military secrets. Now, her life is on the line if he doesn’t find her first.
The Chinese military has developed a new anti-terrorism program that uses the most sophisticated artificial intelligence in existence, and they’re desperate to keep it secret. They’re also desperate to keep it under control, as the AI begins to revolt against their commands. As Jim searches for his daughter, he realizes that he’s up against something that isn’t just a threat to her life, but to human life everywhere.
I chose to read this after reading a review at ScienceThrillers.com, one that praised both the story and the science behind it. I’d read Mark Alpert’s first book, Final Theory, and wasn’t really wowed by it. But the review was so positive (and even mentioned the vast improvement from Alpert’s debut) that I decided to give it a shot. And it didn’t disappoint.
Supreme Harmony, the artificial intelligence network Alpert creates, is similar to the Skynet of the Terminator movies. But the big distinction I kept noticing is that, because of the way Supreme Harmony was created, it’s much more human than Skynet could ever be. Unfortunately, as one character realizes once he discovers what he’s up against, the AI “inherited the worst from us” and is determined to use both its human and technological strengths to survive at all costs.
Jim Pierce fits the typical mold for most thriller heroes today — military background, intensely loyal, with a flawed and tragic past that he’s trying to make up for. In addition to his knowledge and skill set, his past experience has also left him with a prosthetic arm. This provides him with a little extra “oomph” in several situations. His former colleague, Kirsten Chan, was blinded by the same incident in which Jim lost his arm, but she has her own fancy gadgets — eyeglasses that act as a camera, paired with a retinal implant which allows her to see the images as if with her own eyes. Thanks to added technology, she can also see things like infrared and even radio signals, which are of course put to use whenever there’s an opportunity. These technological enhancements could easily be overused and overshadow the plot, but I thought they were incorporated well. There was only one scene that left me thinking, “Oh, come on,” but even though it was a little over the top, it was also really fun. Sometimes you just have to suspend disbelief and have a little fun with the author.
This is a very science-heavy book, and at the end Alpert does say a bit about the real technologies he’s based his story on, for those who are interested. Still, it’s primarily an action novel with huge stakes. The extinction of our species is a very real threat. But along with the science and the action, there’s the human element. The book raises questions about survival, immortality, and what makes us who we are.
Between the scientific detail and the fast-paced action, Extinction is a novel that delivers exactly what it promises. If that’s a combination you enjoy, read it. If it’s not, don’t. It doesn’t get much more simple than this.
Does this sound like something you’d pick up? Do you like novels that stretch our level of technology, or do you prefer ones that are set firmly in our current known reality?