11 April 2017
I did a double-take in the library last week. I was scanning the shelves of audio books, looking for something interesting, when I saw one called The Sixth Extinction. Ahh, such a good book – Elizabeth Kolbert did such a great job with – WAIT – This one has “James Rollins” listed as the author. It wasn’t Kolbert’s book. It was a different The Sixth Extinction. The full title is The Sixth Extinction: A Sigma Force Novel. It’s an adventure novel, the tenth in a series I had not been aware of. Out of a sense of curiosity, I checked it out. It’s basically a thriller -a pulp adventure novel without much to redeem it in terms of intellectual stimulation. However, I think it’s worth mentioning here, briefly, because it does weave in numerous scientific threads that are worth exploring. One idea that features in the novel is the idea of XNA, an information-containing nucleic acid with a backbone built of a substance other than the sugars deoxyribose or ribose. The novel opens at Mono Lake, California, site of the most famous “arsenic life” controversy from a few years back. The novel unfortunately relies on the trope of the “mad scientist,” in this case a conservationist with geneticist chops, who basically wants to replace the Earth’s biosphere with something more robust – an ecosystem of genetically engineered creatures whose genes are written in XNA. Surprisingly, there’s a hidden ecosystem based on XNA hidden in caves beneath Antarctica. Anyhow, the rest of it is pretty much to be expected: good guys, bad guys, a fetish for guns and military culture, romance sub-plots, gruesome deaths for bad guys but not good guys, etc. Unremarkable in that regard – very much cut from the same cloth as Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels. This Sixth Extinction is popcorn; a beach read. You’re much better off if you read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction instead.