Jan. 20 2016 12:12 AM

James Rollins looks to the past in ‘The Bone Labyrinth’

Author James Rollins’ newest book, “The Bone Labyrinth,” proves his “idea box” is still brimming with good ideas. This is not a metaphor. When Rollins thinks of a good idea, he makes a note and drops it in an actual box. Later, he goes through the box to find inspiration for his popular thrillers.

“The Bone Labyrinth” is the 11th entry in Rollins’ popular Sigma Force series. The saga follows a group of elite soldiers who are thrown into extremely dangerous situations. In this installment, Sigma Force, led by Commander Gray Pierce, must look for the answers that are hidden more than 50,000 years in the past. In the book’s opening, an archaeological team stumbles upon a subterranean chapel that holds the bones of a neanderthal woman and some extraordinary primitive wall paintings that tell the tale of an unimaginable battle.

The dig is overrun by a strike team bent on capturing a group of scientists. Meanwhile, a primate research center in Atlanta comes under attack, and several researchers and an amazing primate named Bakko are kidnapped. Linking the two locations are twin sisters, Maria and Lena, who are geneticists and lead researchers in primate intelligence.

Rollins said the idea for his book comes from one of the great mysteries of civilization, what is called the “great leap forward.” The leap deals with a period about 50,000 years ago, when man evolved from neanderthal to human.

“Scientists today haven’t settled on the trigger for the leap forward,” Rollins said.

As the plot progresses, we learn that Chinese agents are behind the attacks. They are trying to create another great leap forward and are working on manipulating human DNA. The Chinese have been able to make great advancements in genetics, but they have run into a dead end. The twin sisters have made great strides with Bakko, and the Chinese agents are hoping to kidnap the sisters and steal their research. It becomes Sigma Force’s job to protect them.

“(The Chinese) are on the slippery slope of eugenics,” Rollins said of his book’s antagonists.

Sigma Force must protect one twin while working to free the second. The action is non-stop as the story unfolds simultaneously on two continents. The book’s underground escape segments are Rollins’ meat and potatoes of storytelling. But underneath the James Bond-style antics is Rollins’ love of science. Each of his Sigma Force books has a scientific underpinning. Some of it so unbelievable that Rollins has taken to answering his critics with a section in the book called “Fact or Fiction,” where he explains what’s real and admits what’s made up. The section was inspired by an email from a reader who claimed one of his scientific ideas was fiction.

“The reader said an idea was too outlandish, and he didn’t finish the book,” Rollins said. “The interesting thing was that the idea he pointed out was true. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction.”

In his dissection of fact and fiction, we learn about Athanasius Kircher. A historical figure referenced in the book, Kircher was a real-life Jesuit priest and scientist. We also learn that astronaut Neil Armstrong was indeed involved in a South American search for a lost library.

Many of Rollins’ ideas come from the 20 different magazines that arrive on his doorstep each month. Others come from his innate curiosity. On a recent book tour, he was being driven between New Orleans and Mobile when he came upon a large fenced in area.

“I asked the driver what it was for and he said it was secret. I made a note to research that site,” he said.

One segment in “The Bone Labyrinth” takes place in secret chambers under the Beijing Zoo. On a trip to the zoo, Rollins learned of the underground bunker, part of a massive underground system that was constructed during the Cold War to move troops and to protect the citizenry.

Rollins said the extensive research he does for each book is “one of the joys of writing,” but it can also reveal scary truths. In the course of writing this book, Rollins found studies that suggest our brains are growing smaller. This prompted him to ask the question, “Are we going backward or will there be another great leap forward?”

James Rollins

Author talk and book signing 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29 Schuler Books & Music (Meridian Mall location) 1982 Grand River Drive, Okemos (517) 349-8840, schulerbooks.com