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Biological beach read

The Judas Strain by James Rollins

Åsa Karlström 2 August 2009

Rampant: a mysterious plague threatens mankind

I would have liked to have seen a solution that did not involve a supernatural explanation

In 1293, Marco Polo starts his journey back from Mongolia. Two hundred and fifty people accompanied him on the trip home, and yet only ten people eventually make it back to Italy. Just after their return, the bubonic plague breaks out and more than a third of the population of Europe is wiped out. Was there something horrible travelling with Marco Polo?

This is the foundation of The Judas Strain (Orion), a recent novel by thriller writer and ex-veterinarian James Rollins. Cut back to today and into the Pacific Ocean, where a professor is diving in search of shipwrecks and collecting water samples. She notices that the water is a strange colour and that her skin is starting to sting. What’s more, a dog that has also been in the water is writhing in pain. Then it all goes black...

At the same time two researchers on a beach on a small island notice that the crabs have gone missing from the beaches, although many dead fish are washed ashore. When the scientists find the crabs, they are clawing their way through the jungle and seem to have gone a bit crazy, pinching and turning on one another. Actually, all animals appear to be infected by this “plague”, an agent that seems to alter the DNA of those inflicted.

Yes, all this happens in the first twenty pages.

The main scientist working on the case, Dr Lisa Cummings, is a part of the Sigma Force, a fictional division of US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It’s made up of expert scientists and military operatives. The lead military operative, Gray Pierce, is charged with battling The Guild (the Sigma Force’s evil counterpart) and generally saving the day for humankind. The story jets off from the Pacific Ocean to Rome and the Vatican, Hagia Sofia and a scattering of small islands, ending up in Angkor Vat, the ancient temple in Asia. Mixed into this global hunt are clues about the mysterious plague and how it may or may not be altered to save mankind. A cruise ship plays a pivotal part in the plot, as it make a perfect quarantine situation with the potential to study the disease and its progression and spread. The evil Guild see the potential to engineer the strain into an even more powerful biological weapon, opening up the opportunity to extort various governments all over the world. To prevent this from happening, the Sigma Force will have to pull out all the stops, even when the Guild moves in on Pierce’s own family.

It’s not surprising to find out that Rollins, a pseudonym for Jim Czajkowski, was hired to novelize the script of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The Sigma Force books have similarities: globe-trotting adventurers, the reliance on superstition to explain aspects of the plot, romantic dalliances between the sides of good and evil. Rollins/Czajkowski, as a former veterinarian, seems to have a firm grasp of virology which gives the storyline a coherent, scientific backing, and the way the author plays with the idea of what could happen with zoonotic diseases is interesting. As a scientist, however, I would have liked to have seen a slightly different solution to the main plot line, in particular one that did not involve a supernatural explanation. But if you’re after a story with fairly correct biology mixed with an adventure that might make Dan Brown envious, The Judas Strain is for you.

Related information

The Judas Strain is available from Amazon.