Please welcome Mark Alpert back to the blog! His new book, The Orion Plan, will be out tomorrow, and he answered a few questions about it. Also, courtesy of the publisher, we’ve got one copy to give away to one lucky US winner, so be sure to enter to win using the widget below the post!
Will you tell us a little about The Orion Plan and what inspired you to write it?
I love stories about space travel and alien civilizations. When I was a kid I devoured space-opera classics such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. I continued this obsession in my adult years and discovered fantastic science-fiction writers such as Vernor Vinge, author of the galaxy-spanning novels A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. And of course I became a big fan of space-war movies such as Starship Troopers and Independence Day. But when I started to write a space opera of my own, I faced a cosmic challenge: how could I make my novel fresh and different? I decided to pursue a “less is more” premise.
One thing that really bothers me about alien-invasion stories like Independence Day is that the extraterrestrial spaceships are so freaking huge. Traveling from one star system to another in a reasonable amount of time — say, less than a thousand years — involves accelerating your spacecraft to a significant fraction of the speed of light, and then decelerating the craft at the end of the journey. The energy required to propel just one of those gargantuan Independence Day spaceships from the aliens’ home planet to Earth would be colossal, mind-boggling. In fact, the resources needed to transport the alien invasion fleet would be far, far greater than the resources that could be extracted from our planet, even if the aliens scoured every square inch of Earth’s surface.
And there’s no reason why the alien spaceships need to be that big! It would be so much easier to propel a small, automated probe — the size of a bowling ball, say — across the vast distances of interstellar space. A small probe that’s packed with miniaturized circuitry and manufacturing tools could establish a foothold on any planet or asteroid it lands on. On Earth, it could use the minerals and metals at its landing site to manufacture a network of alien machinery. It could even tap into our underground power lines to jumpstart the process. This small-scale, secretive kind of alien invasion is not only more logical than the Independence Day scenario — it’s also scarier. So it became the premise for The Orion Plan.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I’m a contributing editor at Scientific American, and way back in 1999 I edited a story about interstellar spaceflight. Written by esteemed science journalist Timothy Ferris, the article described the technologies that a small interstellar probe would require. It would need sophisticated electronics, of course, and probably an artificial-intelligence system to run the probe’s operations and decide how to exploit the resources at its landing site. (The AI would have to make all these decisions on its own because communications between the probe and its home planet would be impractical. For example, if an alien spacecraft came from a star system a hundred light-years from Earth, it would take two hundred years to send a radio message to the probe and get a response.) The probe would also need automated manufacturing tools to build everything it needs to explore the planet on which it lands. And if the purpose of the probe is to colonize the planet, it would need advanced biotechnology.
I had a lot of fun learning about these technologies and weaving this cool science into the plot of The Orion Plan.
What is your writing process like?
Once I’ve come up with the idea for a novel and sketched an outline of the plot, I set a quota for the number of words I have to write each day. Then it’s just a matter of sticking to the schedule. Because my outlines are a bit vague, I have some freedom to change the story while I’m writing it. The details of each chapter usually don’t come into focus until I actually start writing it.
What did you enjoy most about writing The Orion Plan?
I enjoyed inventing the characters. The novel’s heroine is Sarah Pooley, a NASA scientist and true believer in the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Sarah stirred up controversy at the start of her NASA career by claiming to have discovered fossils of ancient microorganisms in a Martian meteorite. Her colleagues refuted her claims and turned against her, and for years afterward she sought revenge and vindication. So when a telescope operated by Sarah’s team of researchers catches a glimpse of an exceptionally speedy object plunging toward Earth, she’s determined to find out exactly where it came from. Her counterpart is Joe Graham, a homeless alcoholic who stumbles upon the bowling-ball-size probe at the bottom of a shallow impact crater in a wooded park. Joe dreams of recovering his old life and reuniting with his family, but instead he becomes a victim of the alien probe, which is programmed to take advantage of all the resources at its landing site, including all the biological resources. The alien machines inject microscopic devices into Joe’s body and start to change his biochemistry and behavior, inducing him to serve the probe’s programmed goals.
It’s been a while since we caught up. Have you read any good books lately? Anything you’d recommend?
I highly recommend Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a dark, literary Wild West adventure that uses the language of the Bible to describe bloodthirsty mercenaries. I had to look up plenty of words in the dictionary, but it was worth it. Right now I’m reading a nonfiction book, Everything and More, an odd history of mathematics written by David Foster Wallace. Believe it or not, the book is funny. Wallace is such a brilliant writer, he somehow manages to make calculus amusing.
If you had to offer advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
Don’t get discouraged. Just keep writing.
What’s next for you?
I also write science thrillers for young adults. My first YA thriller, The Six, came out last summer and got rave reviews. It’s about six terminally teenagers whose lives are “saved” when their minds are downloaded into combat-ready U.S. Army robots. The next book in the series, The Siege, will be published in July.
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About The Orion Plan:
Scientists thought that Earth was safe from invasion. The distance between stars is so great that it seemed impossible for even the most advanced civilizations to send a large spaceship from one star system to another.
But now an alien species―from a planet hundreds of light-years from Earth―has found a way.
A small spherical probe lands in an empty corner of New York City. It soon drills into the ground underneath, drawing electricity from the power lines to jump-start its automated expansion and prepare for alien colonization.
When the government proves slow to react, NASA scientist Dr. Sarah Pooley realizes she must lead the effort to stop the probe before it becomes too powerful. Meanwhile, the first people who encounter the alien device are discovering just how insidious this interstellar intruder can be.
In The Orion Plan, Mark Alpert presents a fascinating story of first contact with an alien intelligence far beyond what we can imagine.