Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Mark Alpert: Final Theory (2008)

The quoted reviews of this novel almost all compare it to The Da Vinci Code, and that is probably as good a place as any for me to start mine. Alpert is clearly a far better writer than Dan Brown, which may seem like faint praise, but the idea behind Final Theory is so closely related to The Da Vinci Code that it needs to be said.

Alpert studied physics, and now works for Scientific American, and the secret which is at the heart of Final Theory is a physical theory rather than a religious idea. Towards the end of his life, Einstein spent a lot of time searching for a unified theory which would bring together the physical forces and provide an explanation for the results of quantum theory, something which he was uneasy with despite his involvement in its early stages. He never succeeded in doing this. Alpert has combined this idea with Einstein's belief in pacifism, and the secret in Final Theory is a unified theory which Einstein did find, only to conceal it because of his concerns at the military uses to which it could be put. However, Einstein ensured that the secret theory would survive, by telling parts of it to each of his three assistants, so that if the world became peaceable, the theory could be reconstructed and revealed.

Many years later, one of the assistants posts his portion of the theory online before killing himself, and then Einstein's worst fears begin to be realised as several groups including the American government start a hunt for the keepers of the rest of the secret. The central character of Final Theory, David Swift, is, like Alpert himself, a science journalist who was once a physics graduate student. He is summoned to the hospital bed of his former professor, who was one of the three assistants, to be told a series of apparently meaningless numbers, which is designated "the key" by the dying man. This was the secret for which he had been attacked in his apartment and which leads the FBI taskforce which to take over the investigation from the NYPD, and then to illegally detain David. When the detention centre David is taken to is attacked by a Russian mercenary, David goes on the run, trying to find the secret - not necessarily the best thing to do in the circumstances, I suspect, but this gives a direction to his flight.

The big problem with Final Theory, as have been gathered from this summary, is that even for a thriller the plot is extremely implausible. It hinges around the willingness of large numbers of government employees to act illegally on a minimal suspicion that David might know something about the secret, and that the secret will be something which can be used to create a devastating weapon (and if it were possible, the development process involved would be decades long);  but this is bread and butter to a conspiracy theory novelist. The problems arise more from David's escape and the ensuing chase across the United States, during which he and other amateurs consistently outwit or have superior skills to those of trained police and mercenary soldiers. Thrillers do not have to be plausible in these respects, but the action sequences in Final Theory do not distract the reader enough to stop holes in the plot being noticeable.

Unsurprisingly given Alpert's background, the physics used as the background is interesting and works well. His idea about how Einstein could plausibly have found a unified theory despite his rejection of quantum mechanical uncertainty is quite convincing, though  those readers who have never read popular explanations of relativity and quantum mechanics might find unexplained terms including "timelike closed curve" intimidating - and these people probably make up most of the intended readership for Final Theory. The periodic pauses in the action during which the physics is discussed is probably the reason why the holes in the plot are quite as evident as they are.

Entertaining for the most part, but generally unconvincing and unlikely to hold up for thriller fans not already interested in the science. My rating - 3/10.

Edition: Pocket Books, 2009
Review number: 1438

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