Bestselling author James Rollins is here on Mystery Playground to talk about his new book, mummification, and climate change. You'll need to read on to find out how they all tie together.
The story starts when an archaeologist—who vanished along with a survey team into the Egyptian desert two years prior—comes stumbling back out and dies in a small village. But what’s strange is that his body is already partly mummified, as if someone had forced him to undergo the painful and gruesome ritual while he was still alive. Unfortunately when he came stumbling out of the desert, he wasn’t alone. He was carrying a plague organism, one that traces back to Moses’s ten plagues from the Bible. As this disease spreads and threatens to trigger the other nine Biblical plagues, Sigma Force is called in to search for a way to stop it. From there the story blows up into a global adventure spanning from Africa all the way up to the Arctic Circle. It’s one of Sigma’s biggest adventures yet.
Is it actually possible for people to mummify themselves while still alive?
Shockingly it is. Sokushinbutsu—or Buddhas in the flesh—can be found in Japan, where the practitioners underwent great and excruciating lengths to preserve their tissues after death. This involves fasting, consuming special bark and teas, and swallowing stones—then as death nears, they entomb themselves while still alive. You’ll also find similar practices in China and India.
Back to those ten plagues from the Bible…could they really happen again?
This novel deals with an alternate timeline for the events featured in the Book of Exodus—the story of Moses, the plagues, and the flight of the Israelites from Egypt. It proves that these were historical events, not mere myths or legends. It’s a view well researched by Egyptologist and archaeologist David Rohl. Likewise, the plagues themselves have a rational and scientific explanation that not only shows they could have happened—but that they could indeed happen again.
Speaking of those plagues, you also tie this book to the current crisis involving the spread of the Zika virus. What does Zika have to do with your story?
The Zika virus originated in a monkey in Uganda, yet it’s grown into a tragic disease spreading around the world and now into the United States, causing crippling and deadly birth defects. Yet, as you can see from the media, we’re struggling to address it as it hits our shores. The organism in my novel is in the same family of viruses and causes birth defects and death, but only in male children, very much like Moses tenth plague—the deaths of the firstborn sons. So this novel serves as a cautionary tale about Zika and about our inability to face such crises.
Your novel also features “electric bacteria.” Those can’t possibly be real, can they?
They are very real. They’ve only recently been identified, but over a dozen different specimens have been found. These are microbes that feed directly on electricity, sucking electrons out of the environment and using them as an energy source. They’re so unique that a slew of labs are exploring practical applications for them—from growing them into living biocables that could conduct electricity to using them to power nano-machines capable of all sorts of industrial uses, including cleaning up the environment.
During this adventure, you also raise concerns about climate change. How does that play out in your book?
While I don’t intend my novel to be a diatribe about climate change, it’s hard to deny that the Arctic is getting warmer, the ice caps are getting smaller, and it’s opening up the entire north to exploration. Cruise ships are already plying the Northwest Passage, a trek once considered too hazardous to even contemplate and led to the deaths of countless explorers. Even more concerning, the whole region has become a political hotbed because the extensive melting is allowing easier access to the Arctic’s rich resources. Russia, Denmark, and Canada are fighting to divvy up the territory found under the Arctic Ice cap, with lots of butting heads, and Russian submarines are already patrolling under the ice, trying to stake a claim. It’s a powder keg waiting to explode.
You also look at a unique way of combating climate change, something called geo-engineering. What’s that?
These are massive projects, basically Hail Mary passes to save the planet. Most climate scientists believe we are near, at, or past the tipping point to do anything. So looking beyond just lowering carbon emissions, researchers are contemplating projects much larger: like enclosing the earth in a solar shield, or flooding Death Valley, or even wrapping Greenland in a blanket. The only problem—beyond the feasibility of funding or accomplishing them—is the danger of unintended consequences, disasters that no one could predict because the number of variables is so huge when talking about a global-wide engineering project. So, of course, I wanted to explore what might happen if someone actually attempted one of these projects.
The project featured in your book is tied to something actually up in the Arctic already.
It does. It ties to an Air Force installation called HAARP, which is an elaborate antenna array shooting energy up to the earth’s ionosphere, the electrically charged layer of our atmosphere. The installation has been the focus for many conspiracy theories, believing it might be a weather-control device or used to read minds. There were even concerns that is might set the sky on fire. So in my story, I built a larger, scarier version up in Canada—and make those fears come real.
As usual, you also fold some intriguing history into your novel, like featuring Mark Twain and his friendships with other historical figures, like the inventor Nicola Tesla.
I’ve always found it fascinating that so many bigger-than-life historical figures not only knew each other, but were involved in each other’s lives. Like how Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla were great buddies. Twain even spent time in Tesla’s lab, helping with experiments, and I’m sure being a general nuisance. I love one anecdote. Twain wanted to test Tesla’s “earthquake machine” to help with his constipation. Twain stepped onto the inventor’s large oscillating device and had to promptly and hurriedly excuse himself to the restroom. It’s such a fun relationship that I wanted to give that pair—a writer and an inventor—a great adventure of their own. And that’s what happens in this novel.
Besides Mark Twain, you even have Donald Trump’s uncle connected to Tesla’s story. Was that true?
Yes, and it ties into a great mystery surrounding Nikola Tesla. Tesla was a visionary genius, and later in life in The New York Times, he made the bold claim that he had discovered a new, and never-before-seen energy source, one that would change the world. But he never revealed his secret, so when he died, the U.S. government cleared out all of his papers and research journals, including notebook that Tesla had warned his nephew to secure upon his death. All of Tesla’s confiscated work was reviewed by the National Defense Research Committee, a group led at the time by John G. Trump, the uncle of a certain New York real estate magnate. Eventually, pressured by Tesla’s nephew, those papers were returned to his family, but not all of them. One conspicuous piece was missing—that notebook. In my book, it’s found.
Your stories are known for featuring animals in prominent roles. Is that the case with The Seventh Plague?
As a veterinarian, I love to fold animals into my story, and this book is no exception. I feature a young lion cub named Roho, but the emphasis is on the ingenuity of elephants. Elephants have the largest brains of any land mammal. In fact, they even have the same number of neurons and synapses in their cerebral cortexes as we do. And they put all that brainpower to good use. They use tools, are excellent problem solvers, show altruistic behavior, even self awareness. They are great painters, with a canvas done by a Picasso elephant named Ruby at the Phoenix Zoo selling for $25,000. They are also tremendous mimics, able to imitate other animals’ vocalizations, even surprisingly the sound of human speech. So I wanted to feature these great big beasts in my book, to highlight their majesty and intelligence.
Finally, as I understand it, this book is also very personal for you. Would you care to go into it?
I dedicated this book to my mother and father, who both recently passed away from complications secondary to Alzheimer's. In fact, my dad passed away while I was writing this book. In my series, the main character—Commander Gray Pierce—has been dealing with similar challenges of aging parents, including a father whose Alzheimer’s has been steadily worsening throughout the series. In this book, all of that comes to a head, as Gray tries to balance his professional and personal lives. It’s something we all struggle with in varying regards, so I think Gray’s struggle—and his shocking decision at the end of the novel—is something that will resonate with readers long after they close the book.