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Bookends: Back to the Beginnings of SIGMA Force August 16, 2012

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Back to the Beginnings of SIGMA Force

By Dan Davidson

July 11, 2012,    Star, July 13/12

– 780 words –



By James Rollins


569 pages



The pulp adventure novels of the 1930s through the 1950s appeared mostly in magazine form and contained stories that ran to perhaps 20,000 to 35,000 words at most on a monthly basis. Writers like Lester Dent (writing as Kenneth Robeson) and Walter B. Gibson (writing as Maxwell Grant) produced hundreds of short novels in their respective series, Doc Savage and The Shadow, with occasional fill-ins by other writers when they couldn’t make a deadline. Dent went so far as to create a formula for writing short stories, which could also be expanded to longer forms.

“Split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it…All your main characters have to be in the first third. All your main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third.”

If the basic idea sounds pretty familiar it’s because there are a lot of writers out there who still use it. Some, like Dan Brown, don’t admit it. James Rollins is one of those who do. This former veterinarian freely admits to having been inspired by the Doc Savage novels he would have read when they were reissued in paperback form by Bantam Books during the 1970s.

In his SIGMA Force series, as in the Dirk Pitt novels of Clive Cussler, his cast of characters roams around the world in a variety of adventures that blend science with ancient secrets. The stories often involve lost wisdom of the ancients and mysterious scientific discoveries that link to past civilizations.

I had read a couple of the later SIGMA Force books and picked up the reissue of this 2004 novel, which is the first of the series, just to see how it all began.

The central character of this book is Painter Crowe, an American Indian who works for SIGMA, the clandestine arm of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. While Rollins does shift viewpoints from character to character, SIGMA does not yet have the Doc Savage like team of experts that are a feature of the later books, so there aren’t quite so many storylines to follow.

We have Kara Kensington, a millionaire; Dr. Safia al-Maaz, an archeologist; Omaha Dunn, a nod to the Indiana Jones style of adventurer; and Cassandra Sanchez, a former colleague of Crowe’s who has gone rogue.

The story begins in London, where a wing of the British Museum full of Egyptian antiquities is suddenly blown up when rare ball lightning is attracted to some substance encased in one of the exhibits. This attracts the attention of both SIGMA and the shadowy Guild organization and sets both outfits on a race to discover the lost Arabian city of Ubar. What clues are available regarding the explosion suggest it may have been caused by anti-matter and that Ubar may hold the key to unlocking the secrets of that powerful and potentially very destructive substance.

The book’s 22 chapters are divided into five sections that follow the Dent Formula pretty closely, though they certainly expand on it. Crowe is faced with protecting the women and other members of the expedition against the well-planned assaults of Cassandra, his former SIGMA mate and one who knows a great deal about his own methods and resources, in addition to having access to resources he cannot tap. Also, it seems that someone higher up the chain of SIGMA command must be feeding her information, because she always seems to know just what his objectives are and be just a half step ahead of him.

In addition to this challenge there seems to be a group of amazingly competent women who have the ability to vanish into shadows. Both Crowe and Cassandra are baffled by their involvement, but it is Crowe to whom they eventually reveal themselves. They have an amazing genetic secret and a lineage that stretches back to the Queen of Sheba.

All of this is complicated by the sandstorm of the title, a killer mega-storm that will seal the fate of Ubar and nearly take the lives of everyone in the story.

While easily five times the length of those old pulp adventure novels, books like Sandstorm follow very much the pattern that they used. They are great palette cleansing light reading after a few volumes of heavier stuff.














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