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'The 6th Extinction:' A Talk with James Rollins

James Rollins is more than a thriller author. He's a veterinarian, a man of science, and writes best-selling novels evocative of Michael Crichton and Isaac Asimov, but with a uniquely imaginative flavor of their own.
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Photo credit: James Rollins

James Rollins is more than a thriller author. He's a veterinarian, a man of science, and writes best-selling novels evocative of Michael Crichton and Isaac Asimov, but with a uniquely imaginative flavor of their own. His novels combine elements of history, scientific fact and speculation with military suspense and threats of global destruction. His books transcend all genres.

He's well known for his Sigma Force novels. The 6th Extinction is the 10th in this imaginative series and finds Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma in its greatest challenge: a frantic race to save every living thing on earth from extinction by a spreading blight.

For those who are not familiar with this series, tell us what Sigma Force is.

It's a group comprised of former Special Forces soldiers who have been drummed out of the service for various reasons but because they possess certain abilities such as great intellect or unique skills, have been recruited by the Defense Department. Basically, they're scientists with guns whose mission is to protect the U.S. against various technological threats.

Before the novel begins, you have a section called Notes From The Scientific Record. In it you say, "Life on this planet has always been a balancing act -- a complex web of interconnectivity that's surprisingly fragile. Remove or even alter enough key components and that web begins to fray and fall apart." Talk a bit about this.

That's been the seed for this story. According to most scientific thought, we're currently involved in what will be the sixth mass extinction on our planet. We are now seeing an extinction rate of species about a thousand-fold higher than the rate of extinction since the arrival of mankind on the planet. This is a unique extinction because it's the hand of man driving it, as opposed to volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes or other cataclysms that caused previous extinctions.

My goal in writing this novel is to help determine, if through human genius and imagination, we can we reverse or extricate ourselves from this forthcoming extinction. This drove me to do research about conservation efforts, and the work of synthetic biologists. The more I read, the more fascinated and horrified I was regarding our ability to re-engineer and modify many organisms, which could lead to our ultimate destruction.

The 6th Extinction addresses genetics, altering life forms and ecoterrorism. Will you comment on these issues?

One of the fascinating things I discovered is that there has been a democratization of the scientific process. We're now seeing genetic labs popping up not only at the university or military level, but in backyards, garages and small private centers. Because the costs of setting up such a lab have dropped dramatically from tens of thousands of dollars to pennies, now, someone can build a genetics laboratory in a garage. People are patenting life forms right now. Most of it involves grass roots activity with no oversight. Only recently, at the NIH, a vial of smallpox virus was found in someone's closet. This raises enormous concern for the potential of some lethal organism being let loose in the population. It could be the result of terrorism or an accidental occurrence.

Do you think people will eventually be able to hack into genetic codes the way they can hack into computers?

Actually, there's a very active biopunk movement, which is a spinoff of the old cyberpunk days. Cyberpunks of the past are the biopunks of today. I've talked with some of these people. They've actually patented some of their creations. It's a burgeoning industry.

What's your take on Genetically Modified Organisms in our food supply?

I dealt with that in The Doomsday Key. There are many factors responsible for our not being able to produce a more abundant food supply. I uncovered some very weird things in the field of genetically engineered foods. In 2001, a biotech company called Epicyte announced it had just developed a corn seed with potent contraceptive properties. Consumption of the seed lessened fertility. It was proposed as a solution to the overpopulation problem. When this was announced, an outcry rose and the product disappeared. Genetically modified foods have no formal risk assessment guidelines, and rely mostly on self-regulation. FDA standards do not apply to genetically modified organisms. Often, approvals are based on filtered or fraudulent reports by the industry. For example, of the forty GM crops approved last year, only eight have published safety studies.

The 6th Extinction deals with the vast implications of genetic modification to existing life forms. What might some others be?

This field is changing so rapidly, I had to edit the novel within months of it going to press. As an example, in May 2014, the Scripps Institute produced living, replicating bacteria with two new nucleotides from the genetic alphabet inserted into them. They were added to the standard four that comprise the DNA of all life on this planet. That very genetic modification -- the introduction of foreign nucleotides into DNA -- occurs in the novel. While writing the book, I thought I was brushing beyond the fringes of science, but each time I manage to step beyond that edge, science catches up with me.

At the end of The 6th Extinction, there's an Author's Note to Readers. You mention we are on the cusp of several critical changes in this world, and few scientists doubt the planet is undergoing its sixth extinction right now. Will you give us a bit more detail about this?

More than a decade ago, Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard naturalist, estimated an extinction rate of roughly 30,000 species a year comprised of every group of animals and plants. We've lost half the world's amphibians, a quarter of all mammals, and about one-third of all conifer trees. There's an unprecedented loss of diversity. The extinction rate I mentioned before is considered conservative, meaning some scientists believe the rate is ten-thousand times the one antedating mankind's appearance on the planet. As a consequence, there are teams of scientist's working on methods to extricate us out of this extinction. There are those trying to preserve the remaining species. This involves two techniques. One is re-wilding, such as we're now seeing with the gray wolf. The other involves de-extinction, in which genetic techniques are used to return some extinct species to life -- to resurrect them.

A Russian scientist, Sergey Zimov, is building Pleistocene Park, which will be a Siberian preserve and the future home of the resurrected wooly mammoth. It's almost right out of a Michael Creighton novel. Other scientists want to genetically engineer our way out of this extinction by creating new, hardier species capable of resisting changes to our planet. There's a fascinating installation by a woman named Alexandra D. Ginsberg, called Designing for the Sixth Extinction. She proposes bioengineering various creatures, and releasing them into the wild in an attempt to correct some of the damage we've done to the planet.

As a man of science, how do you decide where to draw the line between fantasy and biologic fact in your novels?

It's a challenge to keep ahead of the curve of what I thought was fantastical, but really is not. I love taking my readers into the realm of what's really going on in the world today. I then extrapolate, look beyond the horizon to where that might lead us. I love doing this in all my novels, and coincidentally, it's the tenth in the series and it's the tenth anniversary of the Sigma Force series. I enjoy harkening back to some of the themes I addressed at the beginning of my career, such as creating strange biospheres that while not real, are supported by science as being quite possible.

That was very evident in The 6th Extinction.

I love the scientific details, but they have to be digestible and explained in an entertaining way. Ultimately, my goal is to entertain the reader -- get the heart rate up while telling a plausible story.

Speaking of the story, a woman named Jenna appears in the story along with her Siberian husky, Nikko. It reminded me of The Kill Switch with Tucker Wayne and his military dog, Kane. Is there a dog companion in each one of your novels?

Well, about half way along the Sigma Force series, lots of animal sidekicks began to appear, whether it was a jaguar cub in Amazonia or a search and rescue dog in another. I realized these animal companions began appearing in the novels as I weaned myself from my veterinary practice and became more of a novelist. It was not purposeful, but I realize now, I missed working with animals. The animal-loving part of my brain seemed to have shifted over into the novelistic part. So, animals began infiltrating my books.

Speaking of Jenna and Nikko, I ran a contest where I asked people to have pictures taken of themselves and their dogs while reading The Eye of God. The person who took the most creative photo would be featured, along with the dog, in my next book. And the winner was Jenna from San Diego and her Dog, Nikko. The picture will soon go up on my Facebook page.

Does your recent blockbuster contract with the publisher make you feel liberated or constricted regarding the next four novels?

I try to ignore the contract. I received far less for my first books. Despite the blockbuster contract, I hope I'm very much the same writer I've been all along.

Congratulations on your tenth Sigma Force novel and your ability to harness scientific fact, fiction, and imagination in so compelling a way. The 6th Extinction is a thrilling novel that not only entertains, but makes the reader think a great deal.

Mark Rubinstein is the author of Mad Dog House, Love Gone Mad and The Foot Soldier.