THE SEVENTH PLAGUE (cover by Tony Maoro, all rights remain with current holder) is James Rollins’ twelfth Sigma Force novel (concerning a DARPA team that defuses superscientific threats). It’s old-school pulp adventure repackaged for a more mainstream audience, close to the ways Michael Crichton and Dan Brown rework specfic and pulp tropes for the mass audience.
THE STORY: A dying professor, missing for two years, staggers out of the African desert, strangely mummified. When he dies, the medical investigation triggers a lurking disease in his body, which bodes to become a pandemic. Only not just any pandemic, it’s the plague that killed the first-born of Egypt and indirectly caused all the other nine plagues. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, armed killers are shutting down every attempt to research the disease or find out what happened to the dead man.
Is the bacteria a WMD? Not according to the big bad, billionaire Simon Hartwell. He believes he can use the bacteria to transmit electricity wirelessly (it eats and channels electrical energy), and also prevent global warming. And there’s not really any risk, no he has everything completely under control …
WHAT I LEARNED:
Pulp still sells! And this book is wall-to-wall pulp, which I mean as a compliment. We have a mad scientist so obsessed with saving the world he might destroy it instead; a lost city carved into the shape of a giant man; the potential death of millions from the bacteria; the elephant’s graveyard; intelligent elephants who help save the day; the Ten Plagues of Egypt turn out to be real; and the disease also transmits memories from previous victims, so characters keep having flashbacks to ancient Egypt and the like. That’s quite a wild mix.
I think what makes it sell is that it’s worked into a plausible enough framework for mainstream readers to set aside disbelief. Lots of pseudoscientific explanations (I’ll give Rollins credit for not being too info-dumpy), modern technology and contemporary settings make it seem realistic however insane the concepts really are. Rollins seems to hit the sweet spot between going too mundane or becoming “SF.”
Too many concepts spoils the broth. For the most part Rollins does a good job tying everything to one simple concept, an ancient bacteria that absorbs electricity. However adding in the intelligent elephants, even with a reasonable pseudoscientific explanation tied to the doomsday bug, was a stretch. The inherited memories were a bigger one. I think it would have worked better if Rollins dropped the inherited-memory aspect entirely, or played it up more — it falls right into an un-sweet spot, so to speak.
Don’t info-dump. Rollins does have a big info-dump at the end, which I can forgive — it’s the classic “So, Mr. Holmes, how did you know the laundryman was the killer?” scene. The opening, though, bogs down with lots of character detail on some of the cast. That got tedious fast, though Rollins wisely stuck it after a couple of much more memorable scenes. Still, that section dragged, which leads me to my next point—
Character counts, even in slam-bang adventure. The weird thing about the book is that while it was a compulsive page-turner, in the individual scenes, I frequently got bored. The problem, I think, is that the characters are almost entirely stick figures: smart scientists, tough fighters, with almost no distinction other than names, skill sets and who they’re involved with. That shouldn’t have been a major flaw — this is hardly a character-centric story — but Rollins’ characters are colorless, with no particular quirks or distinctive traits. I’d never hold up the Doc Savage pulps as complex characterization, but Dent never had trouble coming up with colorful, memorable, larger-than-life characters. Some of that in Seventh Plague might have helped.
Is this a trope now? The villain here resembles Samuel L. Jackson in Kingsman, a visionary entrepreneur billionaire who’s decided global warming is such a terrifying threat it must be stopped by any means necessary (though Hartwell is merely reckless with human life; Jackson’s character actually intended global mass murder). And Michael Crichton’s 2004 State of Fear used the same concept (Crichton definitely was a climate-change denier). It’s odd since nobody in climate-change activism is advocating mass murder that I’m aware of; are the books just plugging climate change into older tropes about environmental extremists (they love the Earth but they hate human beings!)? Or is it the clamor from skeptics who insist dealing with climate change will plunge us back into the technological dark ages? Or were both Kingsman and Rollins merely following Crichton’s lead? Time will tell, I guess.