Author Talk: November 24, 2010
Hold on to your seatbelts, because international bestselling author Steve Berry is back with THE EMPEROR’S TOMB. This latest installment in his Cotton Malone series follows the former Justice Department operative around the world as he embarks on a harrowing search for Cassiopeia Vitt, a woman from his past who has saved him more than once…and is now being tortured by a mysterious man on the Internet. In this interview, Berry’s elusive hero gives the scoop on his most recent adventure, sharing his impressions of the People’s Republic of China and details about the covert agents who have helped him on the ground. He also offers insight into China’s alarming child trafficking epidemic, reveals his knowledge of Chinese culture and the brutal, secret brotherhood known as the Ba, and talks about his plans for the future --- including a possible return to the United States.
Agent Interviewed: Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone
Status: Retired (on special assignment here)
Interview Location: Café Norden, Copenhagen, Denmark
Subject: Recent incursion into the People’s Republic of China
Question: Your impressions of China?
Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone: Amazing. Here’s a culture that has been around for over 4000 years yet is still struggling to identify itself. An ancient place, and that old-world feel is still there, especially in the areas I visited. I learned that well over 50% of the world’s great inventions and innovations originated in China --- things like printing, the zero, the compass, the stirrup, the abacus, the seismograph, the rudder, the parachute, and masts and sails. The list is long. But, because of the country’s isolation, and the tendency of one emperor to eradicate all vestiges of those who came before him, the Chinese literally forgot what they had accomplished. Can you imagine?
The country is incredibly varied in geography and culture, it stretches more than 3000 miles east to west, and it contains two of the world’s great deserts, the Gobi and Taklamakan, which I skirted. Some of the highest mountains on the planet rise from the Tibetan plateau in the south, which I visited. Maybe most impressively, 1.3 billion people live in China, so it’s the most populous place on the planet. But despite all that, the country remains tremendously fragile, its political culture is volatile and unpredictable, bound together only by force and fear. It would not take much to send it over the edge.
Q: Who was there, on the ground, with you?
CM: Stephanie Nelle, head of the Magellan Billet, authorized the incursion, facilitated by a cooperating Russian agent known only as Ivan. Cassiopeia Vitt accompanied me, along with Viktor Tomas, a freelance agent I’d dealt with previously in a file titled THE VENETIAN BETRAYAL. This time Tomas was covertly working with Karl Tang, China’s deputy premier. Cassiopeia and I have not worked together in awhile, as my experiences in Germany and the Antarctic last Christmas (detailed in a file titled THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT) and then in France (THE PARIS VENDETTA) did not concern her. Her involvement here came as the result of a long term friendship with a Russian ex-patriot, Lev Sokolov, and the abduction of his son. There’s a file, THE BALKAN ESCAPE, which explains in detail her connection with Sokolov.
Q: Are you able to offer any insight into the epidemic of child trafficking in China?
CM: This is truly a major problem, which Lev Sokolov experienced firsthand. Some estimate that as many as 70,000 children are stolen in China every year. Its one-child policy and a cultural preference for boys has fostered a vicious trafficking industry. Sons traditionally care for their parents and, of course, carry on the family name, so female fetuses are many times either aborted or abandoned. Incredibly, it’s illegal to abandon, steal, or sell a child in China, but not illegal to buy one. I learned that a young boy costs around $900 U.S. That’s a lot of money considering the average Chinese worker earns only about $1700 U.S. annually. But people pay it. The government is doing something, but not nearly enough to stop it. Lev Sokolov was fighting an uphill battle, and that’s why he called Cassiopeia.
Q: What observations, if any, can you offer on Qin Shi’s tomb?
CM: The tomb mound itself has stood in central China for over 2200 years. It was once the size of the pyramid at Giza in Egypt. It took thousands of men over 12 years to complete the underground palace complex where Qin Shi is buried. His body still rests beneath the mound. The tomb itself is the size of a football field, topped by a jeweled ceiling representative of stars and a floor that depicts Qin Shi’s empire in three dimensions including mountains, villages, roads, and rivers, lakes, and oceans fashioned of mercury. It has remained unexplored, as no Chinese emperor or government has ever allowed anyone inside. The only written account of the interior was penned 2000 years ago. A kilometer away stands the terracotta army --- an amazing collection of 8000 unique soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses, all arrayed in tight battle-formation. That area is open to the public and its museum complex is extensively visited. Interestingly, when the terracotta warriors were discovered in 1974, no one had any idea that they ever existed. Remember that practice of purging memories? The same thing happened here. The emperors who came after Qin Shi made sure that every detail of his existence was forgotten. Only in the past few decades has interest in the First Emperor been re-kindled.
Q: Can you confirm the existence of the Ba?
CM: The Ba is an ancient Chinese brotherhood, begun over 3000 years ago. It sprang out of the Legalist movement, a political philosophy which emphasizes a central government made strong through the use of force and fear. In other words, another one of those Chinese inventions was the concept of totalitarianism. The Ba encompassed followers of Legalism, headed by a single man known as the Hegemon. Confucianism is the counter to Legalism. That philosophy came along 2500 years ago and stressed the willing obedience of the people from a compassionate, fair, and benevolent government. Both philosophies stressed a strong central authority, they simply achieve that end through radically different means. This debate, Legalism versus Confucianism, lies at the heart of Chinese politics. Even now, with a communist --- which is to say, Legalist --- regime in control, Confucianism is on the rise. I found myself square in the center of a war between these two factions.
Q: Can you provide any insight into eunuchs? We’re told you encountered them.
CM: I learned a lot about eunuchs and the huge role they played in Chinese history. They began as mere palace attendants, and their mistreatment was common. For example, each time they encountered a member of the imperial family they had to debase themselves by serving as slaves. Early in life they realized that they could never be venerated as scholars or statesman. Their ability to survive, once their services were no longer needed, depended on how much wealth they could secretly amass. To acquire that, they needed to stay in close proximity to authority. So keeping themselves in good graces with their patrons, and keeping their patrons in power, became their primary focus. Many emperors became utterly dependent on their services, and the eunuchs became surrogate rulers. The vast majority were corrupt and inept, but some achieved great stature. One invented paper. Another became the father of Chinese history. Zheng He rose to be the greatest sailor China ever produced, building a 15th century fleet that explored the world. When the Ming Dynasty fell in the 17th century, 100,000 eunuchs were forced from the capital. They were supposedly eradicated in the early 20th century but I can confirm that is no longer the case.
Q: Is the abiotic/biotic theory of oil production viable?
CM: This was the most fascinating thing I encountered. I never realized that the concept of ‘fossil fuels’ is not a proven theory. The idea that oil originated from decayed organic material --- such as plants and animals, including dinosaurs --- was conceived in 1757 by a Russian scientist named Mikhail Lomonosov. There is no proof that oil is biotic in origin. In fact, the Russians firmly insist that oil is abiotic --- that it originates from deep within the earth, the result of natural geological processes. The implications from this are enormous. Biotic oil is finite, while abiotic oil is potentially limitless. The Russians have long believed in abiotic oil since they have discovered reserves far deeper in the earth than where any biotic oil could possibly lay. Thankfully, abiotic oil can be identified thanks to diamondoids which exist within it. These microscopic crystals can only be formed only deep in the earth, where great heat and pressure exist, far away from where any fossil fuels might be. Which one of these theories is correct? I’ll leave that to you folks to analyze.
Q: What are your future plans?
CM: To return to my bookshop and earn a living. But you never know what will happen next. I had a dream the other night that I was drawn back home, to the United States, for some reason. Odd I’d imagine that.
© Copyright 2010, Steve Berry. All rights reserved.
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