Harper Collins, 2006, 431 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-087298-4
It’s fitting that Michael Crichton’s last novel before his death in 2008 would encapsulate so many of the most distinguishing characteristics of his fiction. An alarmist techno-thriller with enough hypocrisy to choke two talking monkeys and a sentient parrot, Next is a polemic more than a novel, and it’s best appreciated with tons of contextual information.
Intentionally structured in a scattershot fashion, Next reads like a free-form exploration of issues surrounding genetic research. For the first half of the book, readers will struggle to identify a plot thread as unrelated scenes pile up, starring dozens of characters that appear out of nowhere and seem to return to obscurity just as quickly. In interviews about Next, Crichton likens the novel’s various plotlines to DNA, with its genetic material that may or may not be important. It’s as fancy an excuse as one can imagine for a free-form whirlwind of loosely connected vignettes. After all, Crichton is less interested in telling a story than he is at baiting readers.
For a man whose nonfiction writing career has been spent shouting down new technological development (starting with information technology in 1971’s The Terminal Man), it’s a return to basics more than a late-career affectation. Crichton even makes references to his own Jurassic Park (a novel that has aged far less gracefully than you’d expect with its gratuitous references to then-hot chaos theory) and how the state of genetic research has evolved since then.
So it is that nearly all of Next‘s characters are either villains or victims: Rich businessmen trying to exploit genetic research for their own personal gain, or poor ordinary folks finding themselves in impossible situations —from a man whose DNA is patented by a commercial entity to another one who’s framed for proclivities blamed on genes. Not all victims are humans, this being a novel with an inordinate fondness for talking animals.
It all gets ridiculous after only a few pages. Crichton’s accumulation of manufactured outrage gets tiresome and transparent; it doesn’t help that after a dozen novels of contrarian shtick, his methods are more obvious than ever. Everyone with money is evil; anyone with power can be counted upon to do the wrong thing; there are no solutions. This knee-jerk cynicism gets as tiresome as idealist naiveté, but reaches exasperation much, much faster.
Hypocrisy has always been synonymous with Crichton’s fiction, and Next is no exception: Once the fiction is over, associated notes and interviews bundled with the book go on to reveal that Crichton basically feels optimistic about genetic research… provided that a few laws are passed. Not that you would know that from reading the main text: any optimistic viewpoints are carefully kept away from the plotting, and no solutions are portrayed during the course of the novel: It’s as violent a case of intellectual whiplash as you can get without reading an author’s note that says “I really didn’t mean what you just read.”
But, hey: Michael Crichton. Hypocrisy and self-contradictions have always served him well. Frankly, it’s not as if he never gets anything right: In the middle of the whole reactionary mess that is Next, one can find this unarguable passage:
Science is as corruptible a human activity as any other. Its practitioners aren’t saints, they’re human beings and they do what human beings do –lie, cheat, steal from one another, sue, hide data, fake data, overstate their own importance and denigrate opposing views unfairly. That’s human nature. It isn’t going to change. [P.62]
Replace “Science” with “writing a novel” and there aren’t many better epitaphs about Michael Crichton’s novels. I happen to believe that fiction should allow for the possibility of being better than our own natures, but you can chalk this up to a philosophical difference between Crichton and myself. At the very least, I’ll grant one thing —Next may or may not be very good, but it’s as entertaining in its own way as the rest of his fiction.