In Alpert's latest nanotech thriller, a space probe from a solar system 200 light-years away lands with an explosive bang in a marginal area of Manhattan, infecting several park regulars with malevolent alien technology.
Inwood Hill Park, a historic piece of old New York near the Hudson River, is the site of the crash, where black metallic tentacles snake out from the bowling ball–like probe, hook into the city's power grid, and shock the unsuspecting humans. The first of its targets is Joe, a one-time doctor who has fallen on such drunken hard times after his wife kicked him out that he sleeps in the park in a cardboard box. Injected with a brain implant, he is issued commands from a voice inside his head. Dorothy, a former minister suffering from cancer, is spiked in the foot by a tentacle when she goes to help Joe and is introduced to an even worse kind of suffering. After Emilio, a former gang member, comes into contact with the alien metal, he finds himself gunning down Special Tactics soldiers called to the scene. The fate of the world is largely left in the hands of NASA Sky Survey expert Sarah Pooley. When she first detected the object crashing to Earth, she suspected it was a Russian probe. Now, she only wishes it were. Alpert (The Six, 2015, etc.) does a masterful job of establishing this grave threat to humankind; the book is full of unsettling moments. But as fresh and convincing as his vision is, it runs aground in the home stretch. The ending, including tepid explanations of the probe's origins, feels rushed. And in indicting mankind's violent and destructive ways, the AI voice of the aliens, Emissary, comes across as a pale imitation of Klaatu, the humanoid in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Alpert, one of the best writers after Michael Crichton at transforming futuristic science into believable fiction, devises such a scary scenario here, it's a shame he doesn't develop it further.