State of Fear, Michael Crichton

Harper Collins, 2004, 603 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-621413-0

Few novels ever achieve the kind of over-the-top notoriety that Michael Crichton’s State of Fear immediately earned upon publication. Released during a crucial election year, it immediately became infamous for dismissing global climate change and environmentalism. Crichton got a warm reception from the Bush administration and associated right-wing groups, earned a critical trashing from most of the scientific community, and shot to the top of the best-selling lists.

That, right there, tells you all you need to know about Crichton’s marketing instincts. This isn’t the first of his novel to tackle an issue from a contrarian perspective: Rising Sun (1990) could be seen as xenophobic race-baiting about the influence of Japanese interest over American business, while Disclosure (1994) was recognizably a reaction to the then-heated discussions around workplace sexual harassment. Even as far back as 1975’s The Great Train Robbery (which began with a foreword warning against the idea that all criminals are stupid), Crichton has been an admirably canny writer with a good instinct for themes that would promote themselves by ruffling established sensibilities. State of Fear may have been the least subtle manifestation of those instincts, but it’s hardly an exception in his bibliography.

What is most unusual, though, is the extent at which it fails at being more than a controversy. Rising Sun may have raised the hackles of non-reactionary readers, but it remains a terrific mile-a-minute thriller. The same goes for most of Crichton’s fascinatingly uneven bibliography: his willingness to deliver thrills and chills could usually overcome and compensate for his hypocritical trolling. State of Fear, alas, lets the controversy take center-stage, with the sad result that even the narrative is undermined.

You don’t need to know much more about State of Fear‘s plot than the following: It’s basically a “young man learns better” plot in which likable lad Peter Evans learns that global warming is a sham, science is corrupted and environmentalism is a religion. The novel is a series of lectures, one-sided discussions, myth-busting and overdone action set-pieces during which Evans gradually comes to accept the truth.

In short, it’s more than six hundred pages of on-the-nose didactics, complete with in-text graphs, footnotes and no less than forty pages of appendices, sources and bibliographical references. All of it meticulously chosen, twisted and forced in service of Crichton’s rabble-rousing thesis. As with so many works in which the Holy Truth is gradually revealed to the innocent, the dramatic structure of the so-called fiction is thin. Here, every environmentalist is revealed to be a dupe or a mustache-twirling villain: Hollywood tree-huggers are unmasked not only as idiots, but female-molesting egomaniacs whose limousine lifestyles are dramatically at odds with their stated ideals. Other environmentalists are either bloodthirsty terrorists or greedy hustlers living large on donations to their movement. They gleefully kill people using esoteric means and plan global catastrophe for their own purposes. It’s as ridiculous as it’s unconvincing, and it’s a good thing that the polemic aspect of the novel is there to distract from the pulpish plotting.

Crichton has always been a complex personality, equally admirable for his polymath skills and frustrating for his hypocritical ramblings. He railed against information technology in The Terminal Man in 1972, yet created a computer game in 1984 and won a technical Academy Award in 1994 “for pioneering computerized motion picture budgeting and scheduling.” Few other science-savvy writers have so consciously written to blatantly reactionary purposes, their fiction running against everything else in their backgrounds.

State of Fear is not a bad example of his contradictions: It seems ruthlessly well-informed, and starts from ideas that any intelligent reader would consider to be reasonable: Science is corruptible, environmentalism has become a dogma, and it’s important to study the evidence before coming to an informed judgment. (The title of the novel refers to the somewhat accurate assessment that our society is being manipulated for material gain to go from one unthinking fear to another by the media, politicians and activist groups. Although what this has to do with Crichton’s own novels is a delicious irony best savored at length.) But from those self-obvious premises, Crichton hammers his way to an outlandish set of conclusions that ignore the vast wealth of information available on the issue of climate change and environmentalism. State of Fear is fascinating for Crichton-watchers, but it’s not convincing in the slightest when comes the moment to promote its agenda. It makes a great case of Crichton as an entertaining iconoclast, but not so much as a fact-finding truth-teller, or even a professional storyteller.

It also sets the stage for Next, a similarly alarmist novel about the “dangers” of genetic manipulation that went from obvious premises to ludicrous conclusions. But let’s hand it to Crichton: this is a guy who, from the early seventies to the late aughties, was able to remain almost continuously in the spotlight with a variety of button-pushing ideological positions and media incarnations. He designed computer games, directed movies, wrote novels and became a celebrity in his own right. While most novels of 2004 have already faded in obscurity five years later, State of Fear remains interesting even if it falls apart as a work of dramatic suspense. Frankly, I’m going to miss having Crichton around to plot his next coup d’éclat.

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