Seal, 1995, 446 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7704-2740-5
Michael Crichton has made quite a name for himself with a series of science-fiction novels masquerading as thrillers. Despite simplistic characters, a cookie-cutter approach to plotting, clunky expository passages and a constant lack of subtlety in cheap techno-alarmism, he regularly sits atop bestseller lists. The reasons for this success boil down to his professionalism. While straightforward, his books are cleverly written for maximum readability and a veneer of sophistication. Even jaded readers who see through his intellectual hypocrisy (decrying technology while embracing it to a pornographic degree, for instance) have to admire his technical skill at building a solid structure and his flair for telling details and sympathetic characters.
Well, Philip Kerr is no Michael Crichton.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: In Los Angeles, a new high-tech skyscraper is days away from inauguration. But suddenly, a man dies-
—what? Yes, this is indeed a killer building story. Gee, we have seen this story before. Many times. No points for originality. Indeed, we even seem to recall a Crichton story or two… is it Jurassic Park or Westworld…? Or maybe RUNAWAY…? Hmm…
In any case, it’s obvious from the start that Kerr has a lot to learn in order to challenge Crichton. Believe it or not, his characters are actually less interesting and less sympathetic. In thriller terms, this means that you’ll even struggle to remember their names from one page to another. You may bitch and moan about the B-movie approach to characterisation that limits itself to clearly defined demographic groups, but in The Grid, everyone is pretty much a middle-aged white man. Who all speak alike. Worse; you’re given no reason to care for them. Aside from a policeman (I think) the three other protagonists include a tyrannical architect who callously fires people on a whim and an executive who cheats around with a Feng-Shui consultant.
Oh yeah; Feng-Shui. As with the Crichton novels, there’s heaps of semi-fascinating trivia more or less dumped in this novel’s 446 pages. A lot of it sticks out, such as Kerr’s typically melodramatic notions about Artificial Intelligence. In The Grid, our typically all-powerful computer is corrupted by… wait for it… a teenager’s video game. Naturally, the computer comes to see itself as a player whose goal is to kill all human enemies. Or something like that, because for dramatic purposes, all the victims have to be picked off one by one, which doesn’t appear to be a particularly efficient strategy.
The only semi-compelling reason to read The Grid is in this parade of gruesome death, handled about as imaginatively as in the fourth or fifth instalment of your typical slasher film series. We get elevator squishy, flickering lights causing a brain to burn itself out through epileptic seizures (that one was new to me, though no less ridiculous), drowning in water-filled bathrooms (!), boring electrocutions, pool-cleaning chemical warfare and a monotonous series of falls from great heights. Most of the time, you’ll end up cheering for the building given that it’s getting rid of one useless character after another. Still, it’s disturbing to see Kerr languorously describe naked dead women.
In short, there aren’t very many reasons to read The Grid. Except if you’re stuck in a building who wants to kill you for bonus points; it may make your final demise seem sweeter. I mean, look at what it’s made me do: write nice things about Michael Crichton!