Airframe, Michael Crichton

Knopf, 1996, 351 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-679-44648-6

(Read in French translation as Turbulences, Robert Laffont, 1998)

Another year, another Michael Crichton techno-thriller. At least, this one is better than The Lost World… even if that’s not really saying much.

When future literary historians will dust up the shelves of turn-of-the-millenium popular fiction, they’ll have to take notice of the name Michael Crichton. After all, when you regularly top the best-selling lists like he does, year after year without any signs of slowing down, these things tend to stay in memory.

But when they’ll peer closer at Crichton, I get the feeling that they’ll run into a maddening puzzle. Was Crichton an author, or not?

Are there any creative endeavor that Crichton hasn’t tried? Besides being a best-selling novelist (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Rising Sun, Disclosure…), Crichton is/has been a fairly good movie director (THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, WESTWORLD… even one of my favorites: RUNAWAY), a computer game programmer (an obscure illustrated text adventure called, I believe, AMAZON), a TV scripter/producer (E.R.), a screenwriter… where does he find the time to write these books? (Notice that we haven’t mentioned his medical studies, or his family, or that he once won an Academy Award for improvements in movie accounting. No, really!)

Crichton, these days, is arguably more famous as Crichton himself than as the guy who’s slaving away behind the keyboard putting words one after the other. Part of this might be caused by his novels. Okay, so Crichton has made a living out of warning people about technology. But besides that, his books feel like prepackaged products: Formidably competent, usually utterly entertaining, but devoid of flavor, quirkiness or personality.

Airframe certainly fits into the cookie-cutter profile that Crichton fans have come to expect. Once again, it deal with a high-technology subject (in this case, passenger airplanes) from a dramatic angle (people are killed during a in-flight accident) using characters freshly recycled from the nineties’ stable of stereotypes. In this case, our heroine is an administrator at Norton Aircraft, the antagonist is a young and irresponsible media “journalist”, the evil overlord is a (grr! grr! kss! kss!) rich and greedy corporate guy, and so on and so forth.

Plotting is strictly by-the-numbers, with unexpected events happening here and there without any justification but that something must happen by this point. (The chase through the airplane hangar is particularly ludicrous.) At least Crichton does not do cliches. His characterization may be familiar, unsubtle and hastily pieced-up, but it stays within the borderlines of the reasonably adept.

It’s fun (?) to note that despite being sold by truckloads to a mass-market audience, Airframe contains considerably more scientific and engineering jargon than most science-fiction novels. In many ways, this is a prototypical techno-thriller. The hook, the process, the gimmicks, the resolution are all technological, and the ultimate cause of the crashes won’t exactly be guessed by the casual reader (as it is too often the tendency while writing this type of fiction.) Airframe at least has a veneer of authenticity, a probable result of considerable time spend researching the subject.

Predictably, Airframe is slick, fun entertainment. Easily readable in a single day (or a single airplane flight, heh-heh-heh) and perfect for beach reading, it again proves why Crichton is at the top of the charts, and deserves to stay there.

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