Steve Alten is the New York Times bestselling author of twelve novels that characteristically deal with situations of extreme emergency and crisis affecting humanity. He has a new novel out. The Omega Project, set in a future when the world’s oil reserves run out, leading to war and mass starvation, is another high octane emergency thriller. Steve met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about the future and identity.
Tell us about The Omega Project.
Robert “Ike” Eisenbraun and his fiancée, Andria survived the Great Die-Off of 2020-2025 when the world’s oil reserves ran out, leading to war and mass starvation. Five years and five billion deaths later, mankind attempts to begin anew, devoting its remaining resources to fusion energy – a clean-burning system that requires Helium-3 to forge a stable reaction. One problem: He-3 only exists on our moon and Jupiter’s ocean moon — Europa. Man is ill-equipped to exist in near-zero gravity; the mining equipment will be operated remotely using GOLEM, a super computer programmed by Ike to “protect and preserve the human race.” All goes well until the computer determines the mined He-3 isotope to be unstable and takes it upon itself to jumpstart a mission to Europa. GOLEM designs Oceanus, an underwater habitat, and selects six men and women — including Andria — for the six year mission.
Has GOLEM gone rogue? Ike is charged with finding out – he will join the Omega crew on a 45-day training mission beneath the Antarctic Ice Shelf where the crew will spend the last thirty days of the prep cryogenically frozen. Ike is forced into his cryogenic pod by the men, who accuse him of working as a spy for the coal industry.
Time passes. Ike awakens to find Oceanus collapsing into a sea trench, the ice gone, the world changed dramatically. Either he is still asleep, caught up in a vivid Omega dream – or 12 million years have passed.
Do you think the future is more frightening than the past?
The question is relative to how far you go back or ahead. In the near future society will be hit with the reality of PEAK OIL. Translated — world oil reserves peaked in 2005. When the oil runs out there will be a massive food shortage, followed by starvation, anarchy, and nightmares categorized in THE OMEGA PROJECT as the Great Die-Off. We can avoid the G.D.O. if we prepare, only we won’t as the world’s corporations are vested in the problem, not the cure. Then there’s an asteroid threat in 2028…
Do you think we are the victims of the economy?
Victim is a term that infers we are innocent. I feel the economy and society’s problems are a result of our negative actions — greed, ego, etc. When we transform from selfish to selfless, things will get better.
To what extent does The Omega Project challenge notions of identity?
What will our planet look like 12 million years from now? How will a potential cataclysm in 2028 affect the future? How will it affect evolution? What species will replace man? These are questions that are answered in the pages of THE OMEGA PROJECT. Publishers Weekly calls THE OMEGA PROJECT “an exuberant thriller.” I wrote it as part entertainment, part warning.
Our news stories are inundated with petty issues, political corruption, and royal births. THE OMEGA PROJECT deals with a major speed bump that – unless we prepare now — will lead to a Great Die-Off, followed by something far worse.
The novel opens with a foreshadowing — an actual press conference which occurred on March 11, 1998 when an administrator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab refuted Harvard astronomer Brian Marsden’s prediction that Asteroid 1997 XF11 might impact Earth on its pass on October 26, 2028. The news story received worldwide coverage, with scientists assuring people that by NASA’s calculations the asteroid would come no closer than a moon distance away. Ah. . . but what if this very real mile-in-diameter asteroid struck the moon?
The story’s protagonist becomes our eyes and ears to world events leading up to the 2028 cataclysm as well as an Earth freed from the shadow of man. I spent long hours researching post-human evolution as well as the aftermath of a major asteroid strike on the moon and its potential effects on Earth. At the same time I kept my creative license, describing exotic backdrops, bio-diverse fauna and food chains that had never been penned before. In the end, it comes down to our identity and future as a species and how we relate to one another.
How much is the fear of evolution and its threat to humanity part of the novel?
There is a very real threat to humanity; evolution is what happens after the event takes place. So the hero awakens 12 million years later in a post-human world and now he must a) survive and b) figure out what happened. His decisions will affect the planet for millenium to come.
What skills are necessary for your protagonist to survive?
The protagonist is the man who invented ABE, the Amalgamate Biological Enhancement chip he had surgically implanted in his brain stem. Like a computer, our brain was designed to process information – in our case about 400 billion bits of information a second. We’re only aware of an infinitesimal percentage of that storehouse of memory because our brain must adhere to the programming limitations imposed by the blinding forces of our perceived reality – a reality anchored by natural selection and the weight of our evolution as a species. While there are exceptions to the rule; photographic memory. . . Mozart composing music as a child – solving abstract problems of logic or recalling previously read texts was not a skill our ancestors required to survive while hunting and foraging. Furthermore, the human brain cannot relay to the mind what our senses cannot perceive, and our senses lie to us during every waking moment. As an example — our planet is rotating on its axis as it soars through space at a speed exceeding eleven hundred miles a minute. And yet, we feel nothing. Why? Because our senses lie to us; concealing the velocity from our brain. The walls of this train possess atoms, each a universe unto itself, and yet we cannot perceive of the micro any more than the macro. If our senses cannot perceive it, Ms Helms, then for us it does not exist, and yet it does. What is needed is a pair of neural spectacles that will allow us to see. Enter ABE, a bio-chip that allows its user to direct his or her thought impulses to the parts of the brain best suited to download, comprehend, store, and retrieve the information. Think of ABE as a television remote control, one that uses thought energy to enable its user to channel surf or immediately dial up their desired program or app. ABE’s temporal lobe setting stimulates memory, allowing its user to create his or her own data base in the time it takes one to listen to a language CD. Read a book and you’ve memorized the text; engage ABE’s dictation unit and you can record a letter or even a novel and simultaneously download it to anyone else who possesses an ABE chip. Program ABE’s self-diagnostic app and your brain will boost your body’s immune system to prevent cancer or cure virtually any ailment. Immortality is within our reach; ABE bridges the gap between human frailty and human perfection; unfortunately it doesn’t come with an app that conquers human ignorance.
Is there a particular event that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
Picking up and reading a TIME article in Aug. 1995 about the Mariana Trench spurred the idea for my first novel; MEG and kick-started my career.
Do you think publishing is learning necessary lessons epitomised in the rise of Amazon?
I think book sellers were affected more, which hurt all of us.
What are you working on now?
The sequel to THE LOCH. It’s a crossover novel that teams Zachary Wallace (Loch) with Jonas Taylor (MEG) and sets up for MEG 5; NIGHT STALKERS.
What makes you angry?
Politicians who care only about being reelected, hypocrites.
Thank you Steve for an informative and perceptive interview.
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