Science Talk

Furious New Science Fiction from Mark Alpert

Scientific American editor–turned-sci-fi-writer Mark Alpert, author of Final Theory and Extinction, talks about his latest book, The Furies 


Steve Mirsky:    Welcome to the Scientific American podcast “Science Talk” posted on August 3rd, 2014.  I’m Steve Mirsky. On this episode…

Mark Alpert:       If you look at very early life-forms, like single-cell life-forms, they divide all of the time, and they don’t age in a way.

Steve Mirsky:    That’s science fiction author Mark Alpert.  Mark got a degree in astrophysics from Princeton and became a Scientific American writer and editor.  A few years back he left to become a respected novelist.  You’ve heard him on previous podcast episodes, after the publication of his earlier books Extinction and Final Theory. His latest is The Furies. We spoke about it at his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper Westside. 

Mark, it’s difficult to talk about a novel because I don’t want to give too much away.  So why don’t you just tell as much as you want about the plot and the science and the plot.  Now, I’ve read the book, so I can jump in there and try not to ruin with any spoilers.  But – take it away, Marky.

Mark Alpert:       I, as you know, am a writer of science thrillers, and my previous books have dealt with Albert Einstein and the final theory and also with neuroscience in my last book Extinction.  But for The Furies it’s a little bit different.  I wanted to move more in the direction of fantasy but still keep it a science thriller. 

You know, I love fantasy books.  I love the Harry Potter books.  But I’m the kind of who when I read those books I say to myself exactly how do those quidditch brooms work?  I mean, what exactly – what kind of antigravity phenomenon are they using to make this work?  So I love fantasy, but I wanted to keep it scientifically – give a scientific basis for it. 

So I’ve always been fascinated by witches, and my son was writing a term paper about the Salem Witch Trials.  And what he discovered was that the Salem Witch Trials were really very small compared to the witch hunting that was going on in Europe at the time. In the Salem Witch Trials 20 people died.  In Europe tens of thousands of people were massacred in the 16th and 17th centuries, mostly in France and Germany, and mostly women.  It was this gender genocide that was going on, and it was really just those centuries.  It wasn’t so much in the middle Ages.  A lot of people think maybe the Reformation or the Counterreformation had something to do about why there was this mass hysteria and killing of women in these villages in Germany and France.

And I thought wouldn’t it be interesting if there was something real there, if there really were witches of a sort – a family that had some genetic distinction.  You know, witches back then – a sign of a witch back then was red hair and green eyes, and I thought, okay, that sounds like a sex-linked genetic characteristic.  So what if there was a family where there was something genetically distinct about them, stemming from a mutation from perhaps hundreds of years before that made them so different from the surrounding population that they were persecuted and massacred. 

So I thought this will be interesting.  This will be the clan, I’ll call them the Furies, and they lived in Europe and they were massacred almost to – almost annihilated.  And then the few survivors came to America, and they settled in the wilderness of the Great Lakes, in what is now the Upper Peninsula of Northern Michigan.  And they’ve been living there for the past 400 years, rebuilding the family, guarding their secrets, pretending to be an Amish community, separating themselves from the outside world.  And in the present day, there is a civil war among the Furies, and their secrets are about to come out.

And my hero is an outsider named John Rogers, who meets one of these Furies, and falls in love with her, of course, and is swept into this civil war and learning about the secrets of this genetically distinct family.

Steve Mirsky:    You have the main Fury – Furies’ the last name of the family, by the way.  So the Furies, obviously, has connotations, but that’s the name of the group.

You have her say at one point that to use the word “witch” is really bad.

Mark Alpert:       Well, that’s what they accused them of being when they killed them, so I thought it would be interesting if for them this was a terrible term that they would never use, that they don’t think of themselves as witches.  That they actually see themselves as having a sort of holy purpose as steering the course of human history because this family has been in existence for hundreds of years, that they actually have this long-term plan for moving humanity toward peace rather than war.

And it’s a matriarchal clan.  It’s run by a council of elders, who are all women, and they have goals as far as – so it sort of is similar to the standard idea of a witch, that these witches involve themselves in human events.  But it’s sort of turning the idea around by giving them benevolent goals instead of the evil goals that people have always ascribed to witches.

Steve Mirsky:    Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s an excellent reason why – a very pragmatic reason why the elders are all women.

Mark Alpert:       You know, there’s always a question, again, of the spoilers.  I don’t want to give away too much.  And it’s related to what makes the Furies genetically distinct from their surrounding population.

Getting into the science now, what I found was that in – if you look at very early life forms, like single-cell life forms, they divide all the time, and they don’t age in a way, in the same way that multi-cellular organisms do because we’re more complicated and our bodies rundown, and we have to basically regenerate ourselves with each generation.  But with single-celled organisms, they can divide for long periods of time without – with staying pretty much genetically identical to their ancestors. 

And in The Furies, I create this – I try to get into the actual mutation that created the Furies, and it had something to do with something that’s on the X chromosome, that the chromosome rearranged itself, and this resurrected the gene that is the same thing that keeps unicellular organisms, what maintains their DNA in a pristine level, so that basically the Furies do not age.  So they have this – the gene which improves cellular repair.

Steve Mirsky:    The female Furies.

Mark Alpert:       Yes, and it’s sex linked, right.  It’s just like the red hair and the green eyes.  This is a sex-linked trade.  So the females – only the females have this longevity.  They can still – they’re not immortal.  They can still die from accidents or homicides or something like that, but they do not age; whereas, the men do age.  And another effect of the same gene is that it produces – the proteins of the gene produces – interfere with the genes on the Y chromosome that have to do with fertility.  So all of the male Furies are – not only are they not long-lived, but they’re also infertile, which is a double-whammy for them.

So what happens is the Furies, in order to sustain themselves, they actually have to go outside their community and mate with ordinary men.  And in order to maintain their secrecy, they impregnate themselves and then they return to their community without – just leaving the --

Steve Mirsky:    Without a relationship.

Mark Alpert:       Yes, exactly.  So that’s how John Rogers, who is the hero of this book, meets Ariel, who is the Fury, who he encounters at a bar, and then they have a little tryst.  And then, of course, he – it doesn’t go according to plan because there is now a war among the civil Furies.  The men have learned because in recent times the Furies are aware of the same genetic research that the outside world is.  And they’ve come to realize that they’re – they’ve come to pinpoint the gene, which is responsible for the long life of the women.  And of course the mean are saying we want to have this gene too.  Is there any way that we can avail themselves of the same protein that’s giving the women a long life.

So they start agitating for this, and it leads to a civil war between the men and the women because the main priority of the women is that they do not be discovered. They want to keep their family as secret as possible. So some of the men rebel. They leave the community. They start killing each other. And this is a civil war that John Rogers, the hero of The Furies gets involved, and that is how he learns about their existence.

Steve Mirsky:    You keep calling him the hero.  I thought she was the hero?

Mark Alpert:       Yeah, well, sure, she’s the heroine; he’s the hero.

Steve Mirsky:    I’ll buy.  I really thought of her as the main character and he was a major supporting character.

Mark Alpert:       Well, yeah, I mean, she’s probably more interesting in the sense that what would it be like to live for 400 years.

Steve Mirsky:    Well, that’s really key because the whole – the science aspect of the book, in large part, revolves around the fact that let’s say we buy the premise that they’re incredibly long-lived.  That enables them to engage in research projects as scientists themselves because they are very serious scientists.  And they have this expanse of time to engage in various research projects that no actual scientist would be able to do or even consider. 

I mean, if you know, well, I’m not going anywhere, I’m going to start doing some research that I understand is going to take 300 years, you know, it would change your entire outlook on what kinds of things you could investigate.

Mark Alpert:       Right.  Yeah, I think I wrote this book because I was frustrated by the limits of the human lifetime.  I mean, I guess everyone feels on some level, “I wish I could live longer.  There are so many things I want to do.”  Well, imagine if you really did have the opportunity to live for hundreds of years, and you could indulge in all of your passions and interests.  It would be great.  But there would also be a possible negative effect because you would think, well, I have all of this time.  Why do anything?  Why can’t I just put off everything?  And there’s also the possibility that over time you might lose the will to live because you might see that your long life has become sort of a sentence in some way.

And in order to live for that long, I think you would have to dedicate yourself to a purpose.  You would have to have even a more purpose-driven life than you would in just a 70- or an 80-year lifetime.  That’s why so many of these Furies take up – they need a purpose.  It’s either a scientific purpose to learn about the world or a purpose to improve society.

Steve Mirsky:    And one of the things that the men complain about is they think that at least some of the women, because of their extreme longevity, no longer consider the men to be, let alone equal, but even worth having anything to do with because they’re such short-lived people that to the women who live for hundreds of years, these guys never really attain any kind of maturity.

Mark Alpert:       Right.  Yeah, and I thought – what made me think of that was I was imagining a mother who is giving birth to generations of children over hundreds of years, and her sadness upon seeing the men, who might die of normal old age after 70 or 80 years.  And for her that’s really no time at all.  And I would imagine that some women, at a certain point, might not want to invest so much emotion in their sons because they know that their sons would be dying before them.  And so they would very – maybe unconsciously give more emotional investment in their daughters than their sons, and of course this would lead to even more resentment among the sons.

Steve Mirsky:    Let me ask you something – and we haven’t talked about this.  I’m throwing this at you from left field.  But as a person who knows a lot of science, did you consider trying to find the telomere explanation for the longevity, or did you decide to just go with this genetic mutation?

Mark Alpert:       I didn’t want to make it too complicated.  I mean, telomere – obviously there’s been a lot of research about how they’re involved in protecting – when they get shortened, that’s what leads to excessive degradation of the chromosomes. 

I did a fair amount of research into aging, and it gets wonderfully complex.  There’s questions about DNA repair.  There’s also questions about cellular junk just accumulates in I think it’s the lysosomes, is it?  Those little vacuoles in the cell where basically there’s this indigestible stuff that starts accumulating in cells.  I thought this was fascinating, but I couldn’t put too much detail into the book.  So basically I left it at sort of a general level, that there was a rearrangement of the genes that would encourage greater DNA repair, and, therefore, aging wouldn’t have an effect.

The one point I made was an evolutionary biology point, which was that this type of gene would not necessarily be favored as the animal kingdom developed from the unicellular king because as far as evolution is concerned, it doesn’t care how long an individual lives.  It’s the amount of offspring that you produce.

Steve Mirsky:    And their fitness.

Mark Alpert:       Right.  So if this gene, in some way, hurts your ability to reproduce – and the Fury gene does hurt their ability to produce.  I think half of all of their embryos are automatically – are not viable.  So you would see how this --

Steve Mirsky:    Plus, you have a ______ square in the book –

Mark Alpert:       Yeah, I have.

Steve Mirsky:    – that shows that.

Mark Alpert:       Right.  So I thought, well, it sort of makes sense that any gene [alarm sounding in background]

Steve Mirsky:    That’s just our ride.  We’ll be back in a moment after these words from the New York City Police Department.

Mark Alpert:       Sorry about that.

Steve Mirsky:    That’s all right.  That’s all part of doing business.

Mark Alpert:       It’s life in New York.

Steve Mirsky:    It’s life in the big city, man.

Mark Alpert:       So the point I was trying to make was that any – this gene for long life was not selected for – as animals arose because it just hurt their reproduction.  So it sort of makes sense that it would disappear from the evolution somewhat.

Steve Mirsky:    In fact, we see much higher rates of cancer with longevity, in many cases.  You sort of have it both ways.  You design for your plot a mutation that confers long life but also keeps the chromosomes repaired.

Mark Alpert:       Right.  I guess the gene for long life improves the efficiency of cellular repair, including DNA repair.  And I believe that – the current theory about cancer is that there has been some kind of mutation that happens in some of the cells.  This genetically different cell has no limits on cell death, and so it reproduces wildly.  And what makes it interesting is that this is a very difficult thing to fight because if you develop a chemical, a chemotherapy that can control that cancer, then maybe it works for 99 out of 100 of the cancer cells, but then there’s one that’s a little genetically different from the others.  It’s resistant to the drug.  And because this cancer cell has no controls on its cell growth, then, therefore, that cancer will soon dominate over all of the other varieties.  So they’re chemically resistant.

Steve Mirsky:    They’re doing massively efficient selection from an evolutionary point of view within the tumor cells.

Mark Alpert:       Right.  And that’s why people become – that’s why chemotherapy often doesn’t work more than a few months.

Steve Mirsky:    Right.  So you have other science in the book.  You have geothermal energy.  You’ve got the clan there in their secret hideaway has developed a really efficient way to draw energy from geothermal sources.

Mark Alpert:       Right.  The Furies, like I said, are in the Upper Peninsula of Northern Michigan.  If you’ve ever been there, there’s not much there.  It’s a very isolated area.  And there’s thousands of these Furies, and over time they realize we have to hide ourselves from the world, so they started building more and more things underground.  And eventually they realized they needed their own underground energy source because, as you know, they were posing as an Amish community, and Amish communities do not go on the power grid.  They’re allowed to use their own generators, but they cannot go on the utility grid.  So I had to create their own power source.

So I did a little research on geothermal energy.  And actually there are some limestone karst caves in the Upper Peninsula, so it’s not too unrealistic that they could be building underground there.

Steve Mirsky:    Do you think – this was something else that I was thinking about when I read the book.  Do you think it’s possible today for a couple of thousand of people to be living in a community that’s hidden away without some government agency figuring out that something weird is going on there?

Mark Alpert:       Yeah, well, in my book the FBI starts poking around and realizing, you know, this Amish community, they’re buying a lot of building materials, and it looks pretty suspicious.  But there is a hesitancy to do anything about it because, again, it’s a religious community and you don’t want the government putting its nose into that too much.

I thought that was one of the most fun things about the book is creating this completely different society that has its own government, that has its own security force, that has guardsmen who are posing as Amish farmers walking the perimeter of this compound.  They also have a group called the rangers who are people who go into the outside world to serve whatever purposes the Furies need. 

I mean, this family has been around for 400 years, and in order to secure its future it’s made some investments over the years.  And so they have people who work on Wall Street who handle the family’s finances, and they have people who go out and investigate scientific discoveries in the outside world that could possibly be useful for the Furies.  So it was fun.

Steve Mirsky:    And you also have to bring in a lot of guns.

Mark Alpert:       Yes, yes.  They – well, you know --

Steve Mirsky:    I figured that might attract somebody’s attention.  They’re hoarding thousands of weapons at this point.

Mark Alpert:       Well, it is a thriller, of course.  This country, weapons are pretty easy to secure.  That doesn’t surprise me in the least that someone would be able to accumulate a large number of assault rifles.

Steve Mirsky:    Were they paying their grazing fees is what I would like to know.

Mark Alpert:       They – I guess their farm – I tried to actually do the numbers on this.  Their farm is about 1,000 acres, and they grow a certain amount of corn, and they have a certain number of cattle.  And I figure this might be enough to support a population of 1,000 or 2,000 people living underground.

Steve Mirsky:    That was a Cliven Bundy reference, but never mind.

You said at the beginning of the interview you’d always been fascinated by witches.  Why do you think that’s true?

Mark Alpert:       I think part of it is just the mystery of something different out there, something outside of our experience.  I mean, why do we write novels?  It’s what catches your imagination.  You know, I love – I have children.  When they were younger I read them the Harry Potter books, and I thought – part of what I loved about the Harry Potter books is in every book J.K. Rowling did something different, introduced some interesting, fun element that just captured your imagination. 

But also I think in all of my books I’m – I deal with this whole problem of being a little obsessed with death.  I think everyone – every writer – a lot of writers, I should say, especially myself, we’re just obsessed with death and thinking out, you know – I mean, why do we write in the first place?  We want to leave some record of who we are behind.

Steve Mirsky:    You kind of – rather than saying you’re obsessed with death, maybe you’re actually obsessed with immortality.

Mark Alpert:       Yeah.  Yeah, it seems like it would be a wonderful dream.  And I thought to create a family that could live for centuries, the people in this family could live for centuries, it would be a fascinating – it would be a wonderful dream.  But I started to think to myself, well, what would be the downsides of this?  You know, the oldest Fury of them all is named Octavia, Octavia Fury.  And she was named Octavia after the Roman emperor under whose reign she was born, Octavius. 

So she’s lived for more than 2,000 years, but at some point she went insane because she realized that even for someone who doesn’t age, she’s lived way past what you’d expect.  You would think that over that amount of time some accident would have killed her by now, and so she lives in terror of dying.  And they have to keep her in a locked room where there’s no sharp objects.  And she’s constantly worried that her caretakers are going to poison her.

And John Rogers, who is the outsider who comes into the Furies’ world and visits this woman, it’s an education for him to realize that sometimes it – maybe the idea of living forever would not be as wonderful as you would expect.

Steve Mirsky:    Do you know what your next book is yet?

Mark Alpert:       I do.  I have a contract to write two more books, so that’s exciting, except the next one is due in November, and I’ve only written one chapter, so I’ve got a lot to go.  It’s going to be sort of an offbeat alien invasion story, but based on something that I wrote for Scientific American.  Actually, I edited a story about 10, 12 years ago about if interstellar travel were actually possible, what kind of form would it take.  And it was a story actually by Timothy Ferriss who – I edited his story – where he said you’re unlikely to see a Starship Enterprise coming from another solar system because it’s just too big.  It’s too expensive and too massive an undertaking to transport something so large from one solar system to another.  If anything were to travel between solar systems, it would be something really small, like maybe the size of a grapefruit, but it would be a self-replicating probe, so that it could land on whatever planet it wanted to, and then quickly – it would have simple tools enough to utilize the local resources and start building machines, so that it could create more of a presence for itself.

And so that’s the thing that I imagine lands right here.

Steve Mirsky:    Very cool.  And that’s due in November?

Mark Alpert:       Yes, so that’ll probably come out either next year or – probably by the end of next year.

Steve Mirsky:    Very cool.  We’re looking forward to it.

Mark Alpert:       Thanks, Steve.  I appreciate it.

Steve Mirsky:    Well, that’s it for this episode.  Get your science news at our website, www.scientificamerican.com where you can learn how to build a solar oven out of a pizza box.  The recipe is in the Education section.  And follow us on Twitter where you’ll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website.  Our twitter name is @sciam. 

For Scientific American’s “Science Talk” I’m Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us.

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