'The Demon Crown,' A Conversation with James Rollins

James Rollins, known to millions of readers, has written bestselling thrillers that have been translated into more than forty languages. His books are noted for their originality and scientific authenticity; as well as for being rich in historical facts and in revealing secrets ranging from findings far beneath the earth’s surface to those deep within its seas.

His new thriller, The Demon Crown, describes the unearthing of a cache of bones preserved in amber and buried more than a century earlier. The scientists, led by Alexander Graham Bell, were safeguarding a wonder unlike any other: the secret of life after death. But the marrow of those bones contains a horror from the ancient past, one that has remained dormant but alive, and is now free to wreak havoc on the world. The Sigma Force, led by Commander Grayson Pierce, must solve a deadly mystery that began with the very origins of life on Earth. But the menace is spreading, growing and adapting, and will reconquer the world it once ruled. The novel both tells a compelling story and examines the greatest peril to the world’s future.

“The Demon Crown” details, among other things, that a comet wasn’t responsible for the death of the dinosaurs. Will you tell us about that?

I’ve always been a big Michael Crichton fan. One of the authors he researched when writing Jurassic Park talked about the role of insects in the demise of the dinosaurs. I must confess I’d never thought of insects as being capable of taking down those huge lumbering beasts. For a long time, I stowed that away in my idea box. After having read that Homeland Security is concerned that someone might attempt to weaponize insects, I decided it was time to write this novel.

It’s not at all far-fetched when you think about various current ecological concerns: pythons infesting the Everglades, and carp now swimming in the Great Lakes. Homeland Security is concerned someone might create environmental havoc by releasing certain flora or fauna that would be terribly difficult to combat. So, after reading about the role insects played in the extinction of the dinosaurs, I thought it would be interesting to pair up these two phenomena—insects and environmental havoc, and that became the crux of the novel.

All your novels, including this one, seem to deal with ‘what if’ scenarios.

Aside from looking for interesting ideas for plotlines, I’m always looking for interesting scientific possibilities—the ‘what if’ situations. With all my Sigma Force novels, I’m playing with the edge of the future, looking at technology and where it might be headed. As a writer, I’m interested in how technological change might pose a threat or challenge our moral values, whether we’re talking about cloning or gene manipulation in unborn children. These have all become realities in our world. In a real sense, technology has caught up with my books. This presents me with moral and scientific quagmires I integrate when writing novels.

Speaking of technology and the future, are there actual threats to our national security such as those described in “The Demon Crown?”

Yes, there are.

Homeland Security is now investigating these threats and trying to find ways of thwarting them. Of course, these threats can come from many different directions—whether they be foreign invasive species accidentally carried into the U.S. on a ship or airplane; or the result of a nefarious plot. Right now, one of our biggest concerns is the possibility of something entering our country that would be capable of devastating our national breadbasket. How would we be able to stop a pest that’s been modified in such a way thus making it potentially impossible to eradicate? Some pest that would be able to adapt to our environment to the point where it overtakes our indigenous species and becomes supremely dominant.

Speaking of those possibilities, “The Demon Force” describes indestructible organisms. Tell us about Lazarus microbes and the secret of ‘life after death.’

I’ve read about scientists’ ability to move genes from one specie to another. There’s a specie of animal called tardigrades, which are water-dwelling microscopic animals. They’re virtually indestructible. They can survive high temperatures, high pressure, and radiation. They’re capable of entering into a state called cryptobiosis where they become almost indestructible. In May 2017, an issue of New Scientist described the astounding ability of Lazarus microbes to survive for hundreds of millions of years in salt crystals. Their lives are suspended in what’s called ‘a twilight zone between life and death.’

Various species can ‘borrow’ advantageous genetic codes from others, especially following viral or bacterial infections. So, there’s the distinct possibility that someone could take the advantages locked into the DNA of Lazarus microbes and tardigrades and transfer those properties into other species, thereby wreaking havoc on the environment.

Alexander Graham Bell and James Smithson play important roles in ‘The Demon Crown.’ Will you talk about them?

I’ve always loved putting historical facts in my novels. The Sigma Force has its base in the subterranean chambers of the Smithsonian Castle. The Smithsonian was essentially founded by James Smithson, a British chemist and geologist who never set foot in the U.S., yet left his fortune to this country

Smithson died and was buried in Italy. Alexander Graham Bell and his wife took a steamship to Italy and returned to the U.S. with Smithson’s bones, which are buried beneath the lobby of the Smithsonian Castle, near the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

We’ve talked about this before, but I’m again struck by the fact that your Sigma Force novels often predict scientific advances, so that even as you’re writing them, you must sometimes revise a manuscript because your predictions have come true. Tell us about that.

It takes a while to write a novel. Sometimes, science catches up with the novel as I’m writing it. I keep my finger on the pulse of new findings, so when a scientific article comes out that might alter the storyline, I have to go back and make revisions, even if a novel is ready to go to press.

What’s coming next from James Rollins?

I’ve written a number of short stories that have appeared in various publications. These are being collected and put into an anthology. I’m also writing a novella about the Tucker and Kane series that will appear in that anthology. I’m also about to start writing the first chapter of the next Sigma Force novel.

Congratulations on penning ‘The Demon Crown,’ a terrifying novel combining history, scientific concepts about the ‘dark matter of life,’ and high-octane action, guaranteed to keep readers awake late into the night.

Mark Rubinstein’s latest novel is ‘Mad Dog Vengeance.’

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