The Coming Storm by Mark Alpert

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Publisher: St. Martin’s Press | Release Date: Jan. 8, 2019 | Pages: 336

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mark Alpert is a new-to-me author, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from The Coming Storm. I struggled with it initially, particularly as Alpert set up some of his central characters and their circumstances. You’ve got your lovely leading lady, Jenna Khan, on the run from insane government operatives who have targeted her for unknown reasons. Cue up the genetically modified rogue soldier, Powell, who kidnaps her in order to rescue her from the evil sanctioned killers who have their own CRISPR gene mods and…

It’s a story I’ve read at least a hundred times by so many other sci-fi thriller authors. But, it was at least readable and I decided to stick with it, placing a few mental bets as to which cliches Alpert would mine next, predicting where the story would go as it followed the formulaic cut-and-paste script of its forebears.

The Coming Storm was not meant to surprise the hell out of me, and yet it did. I thought I’d had it all figured out, knew all its conventions and story beats because of how familiar its opening chapters felt. Damn it all if I wasn’t ultimately wrong in pretty much every one of my guesses on how it would all play out. Alpert surprised me big-time on two separate occasions, and the novel’s midpoint reveal spins this book off on a wildly unexpected plot twist that sucked me all the way in and kept me fully invested straight on through to the end.

A former editor for Scientific American, Alpert has been following news on CRISPR gene-editing methods, such as current endeavors to learn if human genes can be modified to fight off cancer and other illnesses. Alpert takes the science a few steps further, presenting several frighteningly plausible scenarios and how they could be used by rogue agencies and bad actors who seek to undermine American democratic norms by any means necessary, including scary fringe science.

While its backbone is rooted in scientific speculation, The Coming Storm is also surprisingly political, so for all those readers out there who hate the real-world intruding on your pleasure reading, you may want to brace yourself. Alpert sets his novel just a few years ahead of us in 2023. Climate change is wreaking havoc on New York as its islands get absolutely pounded on a regular basis by massive, catastrophic storms. Large areas have turned desolate as the city’s white elite have fled the flood zones beyond the recently built walls separating these poor, ravaged districts from their new, wealthier, heavily policed neighbors. These walls are manned by the Federal Service Unit (FSU), an authoritarian strike-force that makes ICE look like a bunch of leftist handwringers, designed to Make America Great Again.

Alpert pulls no punches in broadcasting the fact that the FSU is wildly fascistic, presenting the organization and its policies through the genetically modified, blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan ideal of Lt. Frazier. Frazier views the world through a wildly racist lens - if you’re black or poor, you’re a criminal; if you’re Arab, like Khan, you’re a terrorist raghead; if you’re trying to get past the fence separating neighborhoods to escape the storms and flooding, you’re just another illegal immigrant. It didn’t take long at all for me to rage against Frazier and hope for his violent end; the sonuvabitch gets introduced in chapter two and I pretty well hated him by the second paragraph. The FSU, of course, is the brainchild of America’s orange-tinted white supremacist leader and his administration, who, having secured a second term in office in 2020, is now working hard to weasel his way into a third term, the Constitution be damned.

Off-hand, I don’t think the (supposedly fictional) president is ever named directly, but Alpert is very, very clearly writing about Donald Trump. One of his advisors notes how difficult it is to explain even basic concepts to POTUS, and that speaking with him is like talking to a child. The president is suffering from dementia, refers to events and people as either terrific, tremendous, or awful, possesses quite the imagination when it comes to estimating crowd sizes at his rallies, and keeps on rallying simply to receive the adoration of his supporters since nobody else can stand to be around him.

In a wonderful repudiation of Trump’s white supremacist attitudes, Alpert has delivered a small band of heroes consisting of marginalized voices. Jenna Khan and her family are Muslim, super-soldier Derrick Powell is Black, and when territorial pissing contests between the NYPD and FSU heat up, it’s the Latino gangbangers who turn out to be the most patriotic warriors.

Despite its generic set-up over the course of the book’s first act, The Coming Storm genuinely surprised me, and, even if it was only initially begrudgingly so, I’m grateful I stuck with it. Alpert had a number of neat little tricks up his sleeve and he won over this jaded reader with some smart commentary on current affairs in the US . The Coming Storm turned out to be a mighty fine thriller, as well a potential warning sign of things to come if we’re not careful, both scientifically and politically. Here’s to hoping that Alpert is way off the mark and we can keep Trump’s second term in office confined solely to the works of speculative fiction where it belongs.