Harper Collins, 2002, 367 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-00-200554-9
Experienced genre critics just looove to review Michael Crichton’s novels. Rather than spend any time finding interesting things to say about the book’s strengths and weaknesses, it all too easy to dust off the old list of Crichton’s failings (provided free of charge to anyone who subscribes to the shadowy Criticaluminati! organization) and simply riff on that.
But that would be lazy. And whereas laziness has always been a hallmark of the reviews on this site, I have already discussed Crichton’s motifs several times before. It’s not as if anyone cares, but I thought I’d do something different this time around.
It’s not as if I wasn’t tempted, though. Prey is just begging to receive the full Crichton Treatment. Once again, a promising new technology (nanotechnology, to be precise) is meticulously described in luscious detail, and then exploited for cheap thrills as everything goes wrong, protagonists are threatened and the survival of the world is at stake. Bibliography provided. Added bonus reactionary points are given since the the evil characters are from a corporation and the wife of the narrator is a baaad mother. Boo!, said the peanut gallery.
But let’s tackle something else. Crichton’s unfailingly clear writing style, for instance. (Hey, when so many of your novels have been adapted by Hollywood, it’s tempting to deliver something that can be transformed in a screenplay in a few hours) Told from a first-person viewpoint (which I believe to be a first in the Crichton oeuvre), Prey flows along with nary a slowdown. It’s only after reading the first hundred pages that we come to realize how much hasn’t happened by then. (If you’ve been paying attention, though, you’re already far ahead of the protagonist. Moody personality? Ah-hah! Weird dream? Ah-hah! Disintegrating electronics? Ah-hah! The clues accumulate… even though a few of them are ultimately revealed to be meaningless even at the end.) The novel quickly rushes to its second act, a little marvel of quirky suspense that, for a while, almost makes us feel as if this is the best thing Crichton has written since Jurassic Park. This impression passes as soon as we move in the third act, a silly possession thriller that can’t be bothered to be any more original than a catwalk fight. (Though it features a nifty sequence inside an MRI machine)
Through it all, Crichton’s sceptical attitude (once again) makes a perfect foil for the subject he tackles in Prey. The dangers offered by nanotechnology, once we put aside the unconvincing features of the “evil bugs” in the novel, are obvious. Crichton’s well-worn contention that unrestrained technological development can be devastating seems obvious in light of the craziness of the late-nineties “Internet Gold Rush”. At least there wasn’t any possibility of destroying the world through the Internet. Things may very well be different with nanotech.
Still, one wonders why it’s so hard for Crichton to adopt a more balanced approach. Why do all of his novels have to be cautionary tales? Why can’t he present a more balanced approach, once in a while? Granted, his shtick is well-worn and has proven to be rather effective as a tool to get on best-seller lists. But as a true novelist, however, Crichton doesn’t inspire a lot of faith in his range.
But that’s sliding a little bit too close to the standard rant about Crichton. Truth be told, Prey‘s subject matter is more immediate than Timeline, and if details of the execution are troubling (including some of the technical details for knowledgeable readers), the overall readability of the book does a lot to distract anyone from being too critical. Flaws and all, Crichton remains of of the most reliable suspense novelists around, and Prey merely confirms it.