What happens when you combine the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, great apes (both modern and extinct), a 17th-century priest known as the “Leonardo da Vinci of the Jesuit Order” and a NASA conspiracy theory? If you’re bestselling author James Rollins, you create another page-turner in the Sigma Force series.
In The Bone Labyrinth, the 15th installment in the series, Rollins melds a disparate group of scientific theories and historical figures into a thrilling story. For those of you familiar with the series, this book focuses on Kowalski, who has served as a supporting character for most of the books. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, you can dive into this compelling tale without reading about the previous adventures of the Sigma Force team.
Paste caught up with Rollins to chat about the science behind The Bone Labyrinth, how his background as a veterinarian influences his storytelling and the next book in the series.
Paste: I’m a primatologist with a keen interest in evolutionary biology, and both of these topics are key themes in The Bone Labyrinth. I found the science very sound while reading the novel, so how do you research the science in your books?
James Rollins: I start looking for the next big idea; I’m looking for science that excites me—makes me ask, “What if?” I’m looking for science that can do one of two things: create a thrilling story and, more importantly, test who we are, our morality and where we’re headed next. With this specific novel, I’ve come across a combination of both. It’s a historical mystery and a scientific mystery.
I had an article about “the great leap forward,” with various anthropologists hypothesizing what might have triggered the sudden surge in ingenuity, creativity and art in man 50,000 years ago. We know we hadn’t changed much for 200,000 years, so why the sudden spike 50,000 years ago? That was the time when man was moving out of Africa and into Europe, encountering different challenges and types of land. One anthropologist thought it had to do with the change in diet from that move, that we were consuming more fatty acids to promote brain development. Another thing that I had in an idea box was that some of the human genome had come from Neanderthal tribes.
I’ve got a veterinary background. One of the questions my clients would ask me is, “What is the best breed that I should get? What will be the healthiest?” And I’d tell them, “If you want to get the healthiest, get a mutt. When you cross two species, often the hybrid is the better adapter.” What I was taught in college is that the mule, which is a cross between a donkey and a horse, passes more spatial awareness tests than either of its parents. Here we see hybrid vigor spurring intelligence. So I wondered about the first true hybrid, between man and Neanderthal. Could we have seen some of that hybrid vigor, some sort of spike in intelligence that sparked the great leap forward?
This information from my past and new research got me looking at the controversy of human germline editing. [Editor’s note: human germline editing involves modifying the genes passed onto future generations, i.e. altering eggs/sperm/tissue so that the modification could be inherited.] Some scientists don’t want that to happen; others think it is something we should explore. This past September, the National Institute of Health passed a moratorium against using human stem cells in this type of research. They haven’t banned the research in its entirety, but they have banned the use of human stem cells.
Even when I was writing this novel, I was finding that I had to keep tweaking it as more information was coming out. As I was writing, there was the revelation that there was a third hominid that likely contributed to our genome besides the Neanderthals. So that got me thinking and editing the plot. I’ve always got my ear to the ground for what’s happening, and I try to stay as cutting-edge as I can. It’s a matter of interviewing people and calling people. I’m the laziest researcher in that I would rather somebody tell me something than have to look it up.
Paste: Does it begin with a story idea for the novel, or does it start with the research?
Rollins: That’s the scary thing. I collect those bits of history and science in one cardboard box, and I keep adding to it. I’ll see something on the History Channel or read something in a scientific journal. I’m subscribed to 55 scientific journals. I’ll read an article and chop it out and throw it in the box. It can accumulate rather rapidly, so I’ve made a commitment to myself to keep that information to one box. I have to cull through it—find topics that interest me or that another author hasn’t covered. Often, pieces of science and pieces of history will end up in my hands at the same time and I’ll start to see the threads pick up. No way in my own head would I have put those together out of pure imagination.
What happened with this book was that, due to the fact that I had the Neanderthal gene and anthropology’s great leap forward right next to each other, I began to see that connection. I’ll take some time to see if I can make enough connections and build the story, and sometimes I’ll say, “Nope I’m wrong. Back in the box.” Sometimes it will snowball; I’ll get gut feelings. It will feel like the story is building. Once it gets to that point, I’ll allow myself 90 days to research.
I usually have three prongs in my research: the history, the science and the locations. I firmly believe your setting should be as much of a character in your novel as any of your characters of flesh and blood. It’s from the research that my story appears.
Occasionally, I’ll get questions afterward: “Do you hire anybody to do your research for you?” Absolutely not. What I’ve stumbled across countless times in multiple novels—and multiple times in novels—is I’ll be looking for a certain fact that I need, and I’ll discover something else that is more exciting and more applicable to the story. I never would have discovered it if I assigned someone to do it.
Paste: You have a background in science with veterinary medicine, but where does the historical piece come in? I’ve found through reading your books that you’ll use historical figures I’ve never even heard of before.
Rollins: Besides being a veterinarian, which I knew in third grade that I wanted to be, second on my list was an archeologist. There was an interest in exploring the past and digging through dusty bones and tombs. The hard part comes in trying to dovetail the two together.
Paste: You started writing standalone novels before you began the Sigma Force series. Do you intend to go back to standalone novels?
Rollins: I resisted doing the series for a long period of time; that’s why all of my first stuff is standalone. I had an issue with what I call the “Jessica Fletcher syndrome.” Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote is always stumbling over dead bodies, and I’ve never stumbled over a dead body. So how come this woman keeps finding dead bodies? It eventually strains credibility and the suspension of disbelief.
When I wrote Sandstorm, I thought it was going to be standalone, but ended up being the prequel for the Sigma Force series. I was getting a lot of pressure from my publishing house to write a series, because it’s easier to sell. So I asked them, “What about this set of characters?” They loved those characters, so we structured the series around the group.
Having a group of characters allows me to knock off major characters, because the group can always recruit someone else. It also allows me to shift my spotlight onto a different character in the group for each novel. I’d never written a book from Kowalski’s point of view. Since [The Bone Labyrinth] includes Neanderthals and he’s a big lug of a character, I put the spotlight on him for this novel.
I do have the option to make the novels feel standalone-ish. At this point, I believe some of my readers have not read the books in order; they hop on the bandwagon wherever they feel interested. With character development, if you read the books in order you can appreciate it, but it’s not necessary.
I still do throw in an occasional standalone novel. I did Alter of Eden a couple of years ago, which is a standalone. I worked on some co-written projects for the fun of it. One was a vampiric series written with Rebecca Cantrell. I also used a character from the Sigma universe, Tucker (and his war dog, Kane) and co-wrote [with Grant Blackwood].
Paste: In The Bone Labyrinth’s epilogue, without giving anything away, there’s a hint for something that involves one of the major characters. Can you say anything about where the series is going?
Rollins: I like to throw my readers for a loop in the epilogues. I’ve got a general roadmap for most of the major characters. For the arc of maybe the next four books, I know what’s going to happen to each of them. How that’s going to fold into the actual plot, I don’t know at this point. I’m not a strict outliner; whenever I write my stories, I know the beginning and the end and a lot of the tent poles that are going to hold up the story in the middle. But I don’t necessarily know how A connects to B connects to C. The joy of writing, for me, is the discovery of how to bring the story through.
Sometimes, sitting down, I’ll have no idea what I’m going to write that day. Those are the days, oftentimes, that are the most fun to write. Similarly, I know the big roadmap, so there is a hint in the epilogue that something dramatic is going to happen to one of the characters. I know what that is, but I’m not going to tell you.
Paste: Are there any other big themes in science or in history that you want to explore?
Rollins: I’ve got a boxload of stuff. I just finished another Tucker Wayne book that deals with the fact that the next step in warfare is probably not going to be boots on the ground but information warfare—cyber-attacks and psychological operations using the Internet. So that’s going to be something you’ll see for Tucker and Kane. I’m working on Sigma 16 right now that deals with—well, I’ll give you the title, but I won’t tell you what it deals with. It’s The Seventh Plague, and that’s all I’m going to say.