by James Rollins. Sigma Force #10
(extraordinary; top 10-15% of SciThri)
Publication date: August 12, 2014
Category: science thriller
Tech rating (out of 5; what does this mean?):
Summary (from the publisher):
A remote military research station sends out a frantic distress call, ending with a chilling final command: Kill us all! Personnel from the neighboring base rush in to discover everyone already dead-and not just the scientists, but every living thing for fifty square miles is annihilated: every animal, plant, and insect, even bacteria.
The land is entirely sterile-and the blight is spreading.
To halt the inevitable, Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma must unravel a threat that rises out of the distant past, to a time when Antarctica was green and all life on Earth balanced upon the blade of a knife. Following clues from an ancient map rescued from the lost Library of Alexandria, Sigma will discover the truth about an ancient continent, about a new form of death buried under miles of ice.
From millennia-old secrets out of the frozen past to mysteries buried deep in the darkest jungles of today, Sigma will face its greatest challenge to date: stopping the coming extinction of mankind.
But is it already too late?
If you’re a fan of science-themed or techno-thrillers but you don’t know author James Rollins and the Sigma Force series, it’s past time to join the party.
Rollins is easily one of the top three writers of science-themed action thrillers working today. The phrase “the next Michael Crichton” has been horribly overused, but Rollins has a legitimate claim to the title. The Sixth Extinction, his newest Sigma novel, is a masterpiece of imaginative, suspenseful storytelling with plenty of science and science fiction elements.
The Sixth Extinction is as good as or better than any other book in the Sigma Force series. I was particularly entranced by the science themes, which focus on synthetic biology and bioengineering. (Bringing microbes and molecules into a story is always a plus with me!) Strange life forms, both micro and macro, aren’t the only newcomers to this Sigma novel. Rollins introduces Jenna Beck, a California State Parks ranger who has brains, courage, resourcefulness, and a search-and-rescue dog named Nikko. (Rollins, who was a veterinarian in his previous life, has started writing great dog characters. Check out his Tucker Wayne stories, featuring military dog Kane: Bloodline (Sigma Force), Tracker: A Short Story (Sigma Force Novels), The Kill Switch: A Tucker Wayne Novel (Sigma Force Novels).)
As readers expect in Sigma tales, the action in Sixth Extinction is wild and nonstop and set in several exotic locales. In this installment, Antarctica and the Brazilian Amazon are key settings. My favorite setting is actually the one least exotic to me: California’s eastern Sierra Nevada, including Mono Lake, the village of Lee Vining, and the ghost town Bodie.
Readers will recognize strong echoes of Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Micro in this novel. Rollins displays impressive creativity in constructing worlds teeming with predators that are believable and terrifying. He also uses his story to thoughtfully explore some important issues about how humans might or are responding to what many believe is a real-life sixth great extinction happening right now. See his notes at the end of the book for discussion.
There is generally less development of Sigma team member life stories in this volume (though there are wedding bells in the air) but there is a setup for more stories to come.
In his Sigma Force thrillers, Rollins is known for mashing together crazy mixtures of real science and history and turning them into action-packed plots. Sixth Extinction is no exception. What I found particularly appealing about this installment of the series is the science focus on biotechnology. I’m a sucker for DNA stories. Rollins plays games with real science, taking bits of truth and sometimes stretching them into pure science fiction. In this book, the stretches are shorter, maybe because (as he points out in the end notes) science reality in the field of synthetic biology is perilously close to fantasy. Hence the 4 biohazards rating, higher than Sigma usually gets from me. Rollins actually had me looking some stuff up (CRISPR-Cas technology, to be precise) and I enjoyed learning about the new technology.
In short, take it as a given that if you follow this website, you should be reading James Rollins. The Sixth Extinction may not be the best place to start, given the long history of the characters in the series, but then again, it’s a fabulous page-turner and who cares if you don’t know all the details? Pick up whichever Sigma novel you can get your hands on and get started.
Unusual words: synthetic biology; XNA; nucleotides; codons; arsenic; facilitated adaptation; de-extinction; CRISPR; MAGE / CAGE; pleistocene park; extremophiles; retrotransposons; biohacking; panspermia; Darwin; Tierra del Fuego; tepui; prion