“Crucible” by James Rollins is a thrilling story about the Sigma Force characters fans have grown to know and appreciate, Gray Pierce and Monk Kokkalis and their families, and what happens when a young woman creates an artificial intelligence (AI) being whose intelligence and ability far surpass anything created previously.
Rollins begins with Notes from the Historical Record and shares information which becomes important in the story. It’s about witches and their persecution and the source of that, a witch hunters’ manual called the Malleus Maleficarum, The Hammer of Witches, written by a German Catholic member of the clergy in 1487. Notes from the Scientific Record include some frightening information about AI and its future. Both sets of information are very relevant to the story.
Many of Rollins’ books transport us deep into the past. This one begins in 1611, in Zugarramurdi, Spain. A witch is about to be burned at the stake. And visiting this accused witch, a priest, is Alonso de Salazar Frías, a member of the Inquisition who, in reality, saved many lives by determining the accused were not guilty of witchcraft. Although he was not able to save this life, an important religious artifact was passed to him.
The story then shifts to the present day in Coimbra, Portugal, where a young woman is ready to show her brilliant creation to her mentors, founders of Bruxas International, a group of brilliant women who work in the sciences. As Mara, a computer scientist, begins to unveil her creation, robed men break into the library and murder the women who have been watching Mara remotely through a computer monitor.
The story then goes to Silver Springs, Maryland and two members of Sigma Force, Gray and Monk, who are in a tavern. Monk is entertaining a group of men with his uncanny ability to predict the results of a coin toss. Over and over and over again. All correctly. The reader, at that point, thinks that it’s merely a silly game Monk plays with his prosthesis, one that is wired to work with his brain and be controlled by his thoughts. But the connection between the brain and a machine is an important point in this story, and the import becomes very real much later.
While Gray and Monk are gone, intruders break into Monk’s home and kidnap his two daughters and Gray’s pregnant girlfriend, Seichan. Kat, Monk’s wife, has been beaten so severely that she lies in a coma, unable to communicate. The men are frantic with worry, but the head of DARPA and Sigma Force believes that the kidnapping is connected to the murder of the women in Portugal.
The creator of the AI, Mara, has taken her creation and fled. She is now hiding, and there are many trying to find her. The group responsible for the murders is the Crucibulum, or the Crucible, whose goal is to eradicate “witches” and restore a form of religion that harkens back to when members of the Crucible were virtually in control of their world — a world where there was no freedom, no science, no healing. And they will do anything to regain that power.
That group, however, is not responsible for the kidnappings of Gray and Monk’s loved ones. A villain from past stories is responsible for that, but the reason is connected with Mara’s AI creation. As Rollins does brilliantly, the story is told in pieces, alternating between characters and places, forming the story bit by bit, and bringing it all together in the end.
Part of what makes Rollins’ novels so entertaining is that along the way, he shares real information about science and history that is fascinating. He takes facts about AI and seamlessly incorporates them into the story in a way that will cause readers to think about the implications of AI for our future and worry about that future. The information about brain research is just as fascinating but less worrisome for our future except as it relates to AI. Anyway, between Gray’s story, Monk’s story, Kat’s story, and Sichuan’s story, the reader will not want to stop reading until the last page is finished.
Incidentally, this reviewer loves Rollins’ adventure novels that feature dogs, and while this book doesn’t have a dog in it, it does have a virtual dog. To teach the AI about compassion, Mara gives it a dog. The dog, “…has strengthened her understanding of compassion and empathy, while also serving as a lesson about loyalty, even unconditional love.” And those of us who have a dog or a cat or any living creature that relies on us, know exactly that. The ability to love an animal, one who reaches back to us with unconditional love, is what many of us believe makes us human.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, William Morrow, for review purposes.