Like so many others, I’ve been a fan of James Rollins’ Sigma Force series for a long time. Over say, the last ten years, Rollins has been one of the more consistent thriller writers in the genre, constantly treating his readers to a high-stakes, unique, and action-packed reading experience. But something changed a couple of years ago. As if he suddenly found a new gear, Rollins has been on an unprecedented run since The Seventh Plague came out in 2016.
Last year’s The Demon Crown was brilliant, but in my opinion, there’s no question, Crucible is the best thing he’s written so far. And for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, Rollins’ style and pacing are on point here. He opens the story with a bang, stunning readers by placing beloved characters in harm’s way. Within two chapters, readers–longtime fans especially–will be hooked, helplessly flipping pages to see how things play out. And all of that is before he reveals the meat of the story . . .
At the heart of Crucible is a tragic story, mixed with a cautionary tale. In fact, Rollins opens his latest novel with a warning to readers to proceed at their own risk, noting that they may never quite be the same after taking in his story. Why the warning? Well, because this time around, the Sigma Force gang are dealing with the most dangerous opponent they’ve ever faced. . . something Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Russian President Vladimir Putin have warned against.
Rollins, who was a veterinarian well before becoming a novelist and dominating the New York Times bestsellers list, is one of the only fiction writers smart and crafty enough to constantly toe the line between action thrillers and sci-fi, often combining the two to make his own hybrid sub-genre in a way not seen since Michael Crichton was in his prime. And though he’s done it for a long time, he’s never done it better than this, masterfully crafting a terrifying, unputdownable thriller that’ll have readers asking tough questions . . . like, where is technology heading, and why are we trying so hard to get there if the end result could look even remotely close to Crucible and the scenario that plays out within Rollins’ latest novel.
In my first-ever interview with James Rollins, I asked him about everything from what kind of research he did for this book to whether or not fans can expect another Tucker and Kane story or other Sigma spin-off books in the future. He graciously agreed to go on the record for our Five Questions segment and provided some really terrific answers.
Read the full Q&A below, then click here to buy your copy of Crucible, James Rollins’ must-read 13th Sigma Force thriller, today.
TRBS: I don’t know how you keep topping yourself, but Crucible is my favorite book you’ve ever written. From the very first page, things kick off with a bang and never let up. How did you come up with the plot idea for this one?
Rollins: I’ve always got my antennae up for that next BIG idea for a novel or story. I’m typically looking for some historical mystery to tackle, some bit of history that ends in a question mark. Then I’m searching for that bit of science, something with a “ripped from the headlines” vibe, that makes me go “What if…?”
For Crucible, I had been accumulating some interesting historical tidbits regarding the persecution of witches: from the Salem Witch Trials to the centuries-long burnings across Europe. I was especially fascinated by an ancient tome called Malleus Malificarum, or The Hammer of Witches, a book known as the “Witchhunter’s Bible.” This lone text was the spark that started the great conflagration that killed thousands of heretics and witches across Europe and over to the States.
For the science, I paired this bloody history to what many consider to be modern “witchcraft,” namely science so advanced it looks miraculous. In this case, the quest for the first human-like artificial intelligence. Researchers in countries and labs around the world are racing to be the first. Crucible offers both a glimpse about what’s going on in those labs today, specifically how close scientists are to achieving this goal. The story also serves as a cautionary tale about what might happen if that goal is ever achieved.
TRBS: You’re known for doing some intense research when it comes to your books. What kind of research did you have to do for this one, and did anything you learn genuinely surprise you?
Rollins: Since there is always a lag between finishing a book and seeing it published, I always want to make sure that the science is as up to date as possible, especially in an industry like artificial intelligence that seems to be making leaps forward on a weekly, if not daily, basis. So rather than just reading about advancements in the field in science magazines, I went directly to the source and interviewed experts to ask them “Tell me what you’re working on now. Look over your shoulder and tell me what’s on your lab table.” I needed that immediacy to make sure Crucible offered as accurate a glimpse behind that digital curtain as possible. As to what surprised me—it was something that actually terrified me. I asked all of the scientists I interviewed one question: How soon to do you think we’ll have that breakthrough and produce the first true human-like artificial intelligence? The answers ranged from 5 to 12 years, but basically in our lifetime. But two researchers said: “Oh, I think we’ve already reached it—and here’s the proof.” And it was convincing. So who knows? Perhaps Crucible will be too late to serve as a warning against what’s coming—because it’s already here.
TRBS: Back in 2016, WAR HAWK, a Tucker and Kane novel was released. Do you have any plans for a third book in that series, or any other additional Sigma Force spinoff books in the works?
Rollins: Actually I just completed a novella featuring that dynamic duo of a former Army Ranger and his military war dog. It’s a new hundred-page story that will appear in an upcoming anthology of my short fiction. I love that pair too long to leave them idle—especially knowing the mischief and mayhem they are too apt to get themselves into. As to other spinoffs from the Sigma series, I don’t have anything planned as of yet, but I do have an outline for a new stand-alone thriller—and ideas for others. It seems that little-twisted corner of my brain won’t stop whispering stories in my head. The only way to silence them is to write them down.
TRBS: A few years ago, news broke that Sigma Force movie was in the works. Are there any updates that you can share with us?
Rollins: The project is still active, but it has morphed from feature film to television series. So fingers crossed, we’ll see Gray, Monk, Kowalski, and the rest of Sigma getting into even more trouble.
TRBS: Lastly, now that Crucible is set to come out, what’s next for you, and when can readers expect to see the Sigma Force gang again?
Already hard at work on next year’s thriller. It’s a massive story with ramifications that will leave the team forever changed—and possible each and every reader. And the scene I just wrote yesterday…oh yeah, this story will be a gut punch. That’s all I can say.
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck (“The Godfather of the thriller genre” — Ben Coes) has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.