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Crucible by James Rollins

Official Thrillerfix Review

30 January 2019

Release Date: January 22, 2019 | Pages: 480

Crucible is the latest in the Sigma Force series of novels by James Rollins, and I daresay it’s the best that I’ve read in the series so far.  It’s got all the action, the science and the drama that the Sigma Force series is known for, but in Crucible, the central theme on Artificial Intelligence (AI) – a pervasive topic nowadays – tied these elements into a perfectly balanced action-adventure thriller that provokes a lot of thinking around humanity’s technological advances.

For those not familiar with the series, it’s not necessary to have read any of the other novels to understand Crucible. Each of the novels are standalone adventure thrillers, though the main characters have been constant (Commander Gray Pierce, Seichan, Monk Kokkalis, Painter Crowe). There is no need to wonder about each character’s backstory as there are quick snapshots that position each character’s motivations within the context of the novel.  

Crucible, like all the other Sigma Force novels, starts off with a section called “Notes from the Historical Record” that outlines the period in history around the 15th century where hysteria engendered by a witch hunter’s manual called the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) triggered literal witch hunts, torture and executions of those judged to be witches.

Rollins makes the point in the “Author’s Note to Readers: Truth or Fiction” (another constant feature of this series, where he discusses the realities on which his novels are based) that this book, which is a central underpinning of the antagonists’ motivation, actually exists.  

Rollins then presents the section “Notes from the Scientific Record” where he discusses the inevitable drive towards an Artificial Intelligence (AI) that will eventually go beyond the bounds of its defined purpose into an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) that will quickly (in the blink of an eye, perhaps) evolve into an Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI). Such an ASI will be far superior in intelligence to us, and unpredictable — whether this is will be a boon or bane to humanity is unknown.

Rollins’ characters are drawn in such a way that their previous experiences fully inform their current actions without them becoming stagnant. As someone who has followed these series, I can confidently say that these characters have grown from the earliest novels into multi-dimensional characters afflicted with the same difficult choices and regrets that any flesh-and-blood human would go through.

As an example, Commander Gray Pierce is introduced in Crucible together with his friend Monk Kokkalis in a scene at a tavern where they are both having a Christmas Eve drink, having been shooed away by their respective partners who are busy wrapping gifts. While the scene ends in an expected bar fight which they both come out of on top (of course), Rollins sketches out the characters’ personalities and backstories without unnecessarily boring exposition while still maintaining the momentum of the scene.  

As the story unwinds, we are moving back and forth between seemingly disparate plotlines kicked off early in: kidnappings, bombings, murders, technology, AI development and evolution that eventually merge midway through the book to ramp up the excitement even more to roll up to a climax that, instead of fading, leaves the reader considering what makes us human? What is a soul? How are we different from a machine? 

Crucible leaves us questions that surprisingly profound. Highly recommended.

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