The Nephite Conspiracy:
Mormon elements in James Rollins’s The Devil Colony

11.15.11 | | 12 comments

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Let me start by admitting that I pretty much hated this book. Let’s just get it out there so we won’t have to keep talking about it. I hated the flat characters, the adrenaline-pimping pacing, the absurd science, the conspiracy theories within conspiracy theories, the Illuminati/Cobra badguys, the kitchen-sink idea inclusiveness, the audience pandering, the prestidigitational narrative breaks, the wowza-zowza phrasing —

I could go on.

Anyway. In addition to the usual suspects (Thomas Jefferson, painters, corrupt military, secret societies, ancient families, villains with broken bodies as well as souls), this book also features Mormons.

I came across the book in question, The Devil Colony (2011) by James Rollins (part of his bestselling Sigma Force series), via recommendation from a friend. It’s actually the second Sigma Force novel he’s recommended to me. I never got around to reading the first, but this one he really sold me:

It blends Native American lore, history from the founding fathers (focus on Thomas Jefferson), and Mormonism in a thrilling international adventure. What’s really interesting is the author isn’t LDS, and it’s cool to see how he spins it in.

I immediately put the book on hold and waited my turn. When it came, I started at the beginning and read the Acknowledgments, Notes from the Historical Record, and Notes from the Scientific Record. After reading those, I had to put the book down for a few hours before I could bear to pick it up again. The Acknowledgments were basically a list of informed people whose suggestions he intends to ignore. The Notes from the Historical Record lists some facts, with holes ( to be filled later with “facts”). And Notes from the Scientific Record reminded me of my nanowizard friend Tom Lowery‘s disgust with Michael Crichton’s Prey.

At this point, even without beginning the actual novel, I was predisposed to hate it. Instead of engaging me with characters or situations, he was saying Shocking Things About the Real World! with the promise of fictional resolutions. This is not the sort of gimmick I appreciate.

Now, I should pull back and admit that, since these books are bestsellers, and because they were recommended to me by one of the best friends I’ve ever had*, that many people less snobby than me must really like them. And I admit that if this collection of ideas had been better written, I might have liked them too. However, I did not. And thus I won’t be worrying much about spoiler alerts or anything else from here on out. Consider yourself warned.

* (The funny thing is that it might be his fault I didn’t like The Devil Colony. Back in high school, I was gaga over The Millennium File by Glenn L. Anderson, a book that shares many surface traits with The Devil Colony: cutting-edge science rendered wrongly, Mormons, mastodons, the Lost Tribes of Israel, painfully obvious plot. My friend pointed out all the books faults and I felt suitably ashamed. And now here we are, fifteen years later. And I think his beloved book is stupid. . . . Suddenly I wonder if I’m hating it out of some weird need for revenge. . . .)

Here’s the background you need in order to understand this novel’s use of Mormon elements:

  • The U.S. government has a group of super secret scientist spy scholars called SIGMA FORCE!
  • An ancient group of families called the Guild — “the secret within all secret societies” (445) — bent on world domination (or something) makes life hard for our heroes.
  • Even Thomas Jefferson had to deal with those Guild people.

That should cover it.

The book begins with a couple teenagers in Utah who discover a cave filled with gold plates. And an ancient nanotechnology that has the potential to destroy the world. Unless first destroyed by volcanoes. You know. Normal Utah stuff.

But gold plates! Sounds interesting! (Though any Mormon tempted to believe in Rollins’s descriptions of American history and nanotech will be given pause by the fact that the Golden Plates these gold plates were inspired by were translated by a gent named John Smith.)

Not that I think a silly thriller like this requires an army of fact-checkers, but after a million discussions over The Da Vinci Code, I’m a little leery about being known through a popular throwaway novel. Because let’s face it — Mormons are awesome material for conspiracy-theory thrillers. Don’t you think? Mysterious history! Missing artifacts! Colorful characters! Secret/sacred spaces! Things impossible to prove wrong! Things possible to prove wrong that are really juicy anyway! The only miracle is that books like this don’t become bestsellers every year.

With all my negativity, I suppose you’re expecting me to now come down on Rollins for his terrible depictions of Mormons.

Wrong!

Actually, I thought, given the standard set by his takes on everything else, he did an excellent job.

First, Mormons aren’t just shadowy figures in the background. One of the main characters (this volume only) is a Mormon. A Mormon and a Shoshone. And he’s one of the better developed characters (which, granted, isn’t saying much), and probably the most inherently interesting. Besides being a dem Marmin and a dem Injin, he’s a historian, naturalist, old fellow, has a dog, chews cigars (a leftover habit from his wild days), a respected if controversial figure in the Native American community, and pretty nimble, all things considered. Hank Kanosh, of course, is who first recognizes that Indian mummies with red and blond hair buried with gold plates might find some explanation in Mormon lore. And when their writing is a sort of protoHebraic? Well.

Naturally, Sigma Force’s resident Indian finds the idea of his people being Israelites unlikely and Hank agrees, suggesting ways to reconcile the story to the science that we’ve all heard and pondered ourselves (198-199). The most compelling evidence arrives when our heroes and villains, forced to work together in a race against time!, come to Yellowstone and discover a gold copy of Solomon’s Temple in a cave. (It may not surprise you to hear that Rollins wrote one of the novelizations for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.)

Sadly, the ancient nanoweaponry yet again destroys all the mummies and the temple and the scores of gold plates and everything else. Save one plate.

And then, in the most delightfully Mormon passage in the book, Hank takes that plate to the Salt Lake temple, having fasted and prayed, where he is admitted to “the threshold of this temple’s Kodesh Hakodashim, the Holy of the Holies’ chamber at the heart of the Mormon temple” (468). Frankly, without reading the rest of the book, this scene might not pay off as well, but I have to say that I thought it was pretty terrific. Best two pages in the book. Most interesting, most daring, most surprising. In part, probably, because it is so understated. And in part because Rollins could enjoy the mystery for mystery’s sake, as the Mormons ain’t coming back in the next book.

In the end, although I’m not convinced Rollins is a very careful researcher and although I find his writing nearly unreadable (believe me — I’ve listed not a hundredth part of this book’s sins), I still want to give him props.

The Devil Colony accomplishes the following:

  • Engages with Mormon story in a new and compelling way.
  • Does so in a way that is integral to the plot.
  • Does it seriously, without being dismissive or mocking.
  • Provides a Mormon hero.
  • One that doesn’t look or sound like Mitt Romney!
  • Does all this before a national audience.
  • And does it in a way that people — lots of people — really like.

So although I basically hated this book and could never in good conscious recommend it to you, pretty cool, right?

    12 comments: “The Nephite Conspiracy:
    Mormon elements in James Rollins’s The Devil Colony

    1. Ardis E. Parshall

      Gee. You make *my* review sound absobloominlutely positive. Only I recommended it for fans of the genre, and thought your two favorite pages were the absolute worst, stupidest, ugliest, even dangerous pages in the book. Ick. Awful. Exactly what we can do without!

      I donated my review copy to the Church History Library. I thought it belonged there, but I didn’t want them spending tithing dollars to buy it.

    2. The Only True and Living Nathan

      As, um, “intriguing” as this sounds, I’ve already read my quota of Rollins novels for my life (one) and unless sentenced by some tribunal which specializes in punishments specifically chosen for their cruel and unusual nature, I won’t have to again.

    3. Jettboy

      I didn’t hate the book. It was actually one of his better. What did bother me, and I think having a Mormon read at least his inclusions, was the anachronistic Mormon ways of talking about themselves and the Nephites. Once again, Mormons don’t believe the Book of Mormon is about any Lost Tribes of Israel. I am not aware that Manasseh is considered part of a lost tribe. His whole Mormon views of the Indians seemed off or at least 100 years out of date.

    4. kevinf

      Ha! I read this in ebook format on my Nook after reading Ardis’ review. I recognize all the problems you mention (questionable science, supersecret conspiracy led by a European family, the supervillain right out of the movie Unbreakable, and some ridiculous action sequences. I also was impressed that the character of Hank Kanosh and his Mormonism was so respectfully drawn, and the most fully developed character in the book. Dumb, yeah. Still entertaining in a B-movie sort of way? Yeah. I have a quota for how much of this stuff I will read in a year, and I try not to exceed that. Dan Brown sells lots of books using a similar format, and is way less respectful of religions or careful about his science than Rollins. I have no great desire to go read any more Rollins, and I am totally through with Dan Brown forever. But while this book was certainly not going to show up on anybody’s great moments in 21st Century literature, I don’t count it as a complete waste of time.

      ps – 1 agree with Ardis that your favorite two pages were high on my list of problems with the book. However, thanks for the review.

    5. Wm Morris

      I just remembered that I got pitched by the publisher and replied with the following questions (and received no response in return):

      “Thanks for pitch. Some quick questions for you: can you tell me a little more about how Rollins treats the Mormon content? Are the gold plates mentioned in the book description on Amazon really real? How does he position them in relation to Mormon canon?

      Also: did Rollins consult with any active LDS Church members during the writing of the book so he was certain to get the Mormon-related details correct?

      Finally: could you expand a little on the Mormons/The Devil Colony <> Catholics/DaVinci Code parallel?”

    6. Th.

      .

      Those are hard questions, William. You can’t possibly expect a publicist to be able to answer those!

    7. Linda rose

      Sorry I like Rollins ability to entertain with out bogging the story with unneeded sex and four letter words which is why I stopped reading King. If I want accurate science I will go to the Library and look in that section.

      I read heavy book but sometimes I just want some fun border line science fiction that’s a quick read. That is where Rollins and Cussler comes in.

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