A homeless man sleeps fitfully in a park in New York City. He’s startled awake when an object crushes the box that affords him only a modicum of protection for the elements. He clambers out of the box and gapes at a:
black sphere at a center of a pit, half-buried in the mud. It looked like a bowling ball but slightly bigger, about a foot across. Its top half shone in the moonlight … it was as black as coal and yet its surface gleamed as if it were polished … it seemed to be glowing.
Joe’s a broken man … an alcoholic, divorced and separated from his family and now forced from his latest home, however transient it may have been.
Several members of a local Latino gang, led by Emilio, hear the crash and descend on the same location where Joe’s rotting around the object that crashed from the heavens.
Several hours later, an old woman drops off groceries to the homeless in the same park … in the same location where Joe was sleeping.
Joe, Emilio and Dorothy are drawn to the same extraterrestrial object as Sarah, an astronomer who tracks asteroids on potential intercept courses with Earth. Four people connected by a rock that falls from the sky. But it’s not just a rock, of course.
Mark Alpert has been creeping into the authorial space made viable by the works of Michael Crichton, Douglas Preston and James Rollins — the pseudo high-tech thrill rides that are ready-made for film and paperback sales. The Orion Plan plays in the well-mowed space of First Contact stories: an object hurtles through space, crashes outside of New York City, and connects four otherwise disconnected souls in a search for the truth about the aliens and their reasons for coming to Earth.
The Orion Plan comes from the title of the document that details how the U.S. military should respond to the discovery of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. In this case, the alien life comes in the form of sentient programmed nanotech tasked with establishing contact with intelligent life on Earth. It names itself The Emissary. The Emissary embeds itself in Joe, Emilio and Dorothy with three very different motivations. Joe is the mouthpiece, Emilio is the brawn, and Dorothy is tabbed to carry the alien race’s genetic makeup.
It’s not until approximately mid-way through the 336-page novel that the true alien-nature of the story is reveled, though it’s doesn’t take a large stretch of the imagination to figure it out. The story was interesting but only really resonates in the last third as the alien motives and backstory were revealed.
Alpert writes cleanly, and the characters will be familiar from any over-the-counter sci-fi novel or film. Alpert’s promoted as a successor to Michael Crichton and he writes a similar story but without the intensity or smart simplicity in form and characters. I won’t reveal the alien backstory here, but suffice it to say it was compelling and likely warranted another hundred pages or so to of more thorough exploration.
The Orion Plan is an interesting diversion. It won’t be memorable, but it’ll be familiar.