Michael Crichton

The Andromeda Evolution, Daniel H. Wilson

2019, Harper, C$24.99, 366 pages, ISBN 978-0-06-295666-8

Freakishly observant readers of this web site have probably noticed something fundamental: I’m no longer the book-reviewing powerhouse that I once was. For decades, I kept up an eight-book-review-a-month pace – but that number took a dive off a cliff once I was no longer a bachelor, stopped riding the bus for my commute and shifted my primary area of interest to movies rather than books.  This is likely going to be my only book review for 2019.  I’m not happy about it, but getting back to my previous stream of book reviews will have to wait a bit longer. if nothing else, this shift has informed me on the lifestyle of the smart people who don’t read: it turns out that you have to work at integrating literature in your life, and that takes both time and specific circumstances. So easy to spend hours obsessing about politics through social media when a far more productive use of time would be to read meaningless genre entertainment.

So, anyway: While I don’t read as much as I did, or buy as many books as I did, a recent Costco expedition had me contemplating a curious novel: The Andromeda Evolution, written by Daniel H. Wilson — a sequel to the well-regarded Michael Crichton novel The Andromeda Strain.

I did think twice about picking it up.  On the one hand: a trade paperback techno-thriller, available for cheap at Costco?  I do have a fondness for The Andromeda Strain, which I re-read not too long ago after watching the movie adaptation.  On the other hand: this kind of literary necrophilia must stop.  I don’t really want to encourage the kind of publishing behavior in which a dead author is propped up as a marketing term so that another writer can write sequels rather than come up with something more original. Yes, I know, even techno-thriller writers must pay the bills.  On the other, other hand: If I’m already thinking that hard about a novel before even reading it, chances are good that it’s going to make great material for a review.  Of course, I bought it.

The existence of The Andromeda Evolution is not an accident – not when it’s released on the fiftieth anniversary of The Andromeda Strain, not when it depends on the agreement of the Crichton Sun literary trust (the novel is copyrighted to Crichton Sun, suggesting straight-up work-for-hire), not when there’s a Hollywood Reporter article talking about how Crichton Sun looked for a writer for the project.  Not when the last acknowledgements in the book are not from Wilson, but Crichton’s widow.  Considering how deep we’re into posthumous exploitation, the question becomes: How skilled would Wilson have to be to deliver a novel that would be worth a read as more than a commercial object?

It turns out that there’s something really interesting, at least in concept, in the idea of turning in a fifty-year-removed sequel to a techno-thriller.  As The Andromeda Evolution gets underway, it goes have the luxury of blending the events of its predecessor into actual ever-more-distant history. From the opening moments of the book, as automated systems pick up traces of something of high interest to the US government, the incidents of The Andromeda Strain become deep history informing some modern actions.  (There’s even quite a bit of irony in how some character don’t quite know, or remember, why the automated detection systems were put in place.)

The meta-fictional games don’t quite stop there, albeit with mixed result – it’s somewhat off-putting to see weak Crichton quotes being used as epigraphs for the novel’s sections.  What’s more interesting for anyone with fresh memories of the original novel is seeing how much Wilson has tried to ape Crichton’s supremely authoritative style: The novel is written as an official “meticulous reconstruction of a five-day scientific crisis that culminated in the near extinction of our species.” [P.xi] and wrapped in ominous warnings, formatted pseudo-documents, plans, even an evidence “photo” and a hilariously misleading list of end references that includes the original novel, its movie adaptation, reviews and articles about Crichton alongside scientific articles and papers.

Alas, Wilson isn’t as skilled a bullshitter techno-fabulist as Crichton – moments such as the original’s utterly convincing digression about the fictional Kalocin drug, or the “odd-man hypothesis” are never matched here.  But Wilson does give it a good attempt and mostly manages the necessary suspension of disbelief required to get readers invested in the early pages of the novel. As the US government resurrects old contingency plans to deal with a fatal extraterrestrial threat, we shift from historical fact blended with Crichton mythology to more traditional genre thriller tropes. The prologue ends with the delicious and frankly irresistible “Conservative estimates from the DC-based Nova America think tank conclude that Stern’s hunch likely saved three to four billion lives” [P.33].

After that, we’re off to the races, albeit more circuitously than you’d expect.  Much of the action doesn’t necessarily go back to the high-tech antiseptic atmosphere of the original book – rather than hunkering in a bunker, the crew of specialists off to save the world head to the Amazonian jungle, echoing more the feeling of Congo than The Andromeda Strain. But at the same time, we go in orbit to spend time with another character in the International Space Station.  The two plotlines eventually intersect in a somewhat convoluted fashion.  In dealing with the inheritance of the original novel, Wilson pushes Crichton’s concept even further, positing conscious design and goals for the Andromeda strain that take it up a notch in time for the last third of the novel…. While reaching deep into the details of the first book for an essential character of the second.

Despite some of my skepticism, it works more often than not: it’s a page-turner, and it uses the first novel in interesting way compared to vast majority of posthumous sequels – something very much helped by the acknowledged fifty-year gulf between both novels.  But if my admiration is substantial, I’m not quite as enthusiastic about the fictional nuts-and-bolts of the book.  The pacing has some severe issues, especially as the team of characters heads into the jungle and the novel feels as if it’s spinning its wheels until it gets to the good stuff.  Some of the story’s humanism seem laid on a bit too thickly (perhaps inevitable considering the balance required to make the novel’s techno-fetishism more palatable) and while such things usually pass me unnoticed, I couldn’t help but feel that one antagonist’s motivations curdle straight into uncomfortable ableism.  A more serious issue is that while the re-use of Crichton elements is interesting, it does prevent The Andromeda Evolution from truly coming into its own.  You can also certainly argue that Wilson demonstrates the perils of overreaching —while the original was a masterclass of hermetic claustrophobia, this sequel goes much wider, much wilder and doesn’t quite have a tight focus.

As a reviewer looking to flex critical muscles once again, I do have some lingering appreciation for the ways The Andromeda Evolution is interesting – and am somewhat more muted on its effectiveness as a novel. But I enjoyed reading it, and sometimes that’s all you need.

Especially if this is going to be the only book I’ll review this year.

Congo (1995)

Congo (1995)

(In French, on TV, February 2019) If Congo has any claim to fame, it’s this superb quote from co-star Bruce Campbell: “What if you were offered a chance to appear in a movie based on a Michael Crichton novel? It will be directed by veteran Frank Marshall. Stan Winston will handle the special effects and it will be a big budget Paramount production. Sounds good? Congratulations, you just made Congo.” (There are a few versions of that quote around, but they all end with the same punchline.) The point of the anecdote is to illustrate the vagaries of Hollywood projects between what sounds good on paper and what comes out in the end—and to slam the movie along the way. Of course, your take may not be as harsh: While I found the much-maligned movie quite disappointing indeed, it’s not nearly as bad as some of the critical pile-on would have you believe. I wasn’t a fan of the original novel (which crammed one incident inspired by African clichés per chapter, narrative coherency be damned), but its episodic nature translates quite naturally to the screen, where it becomes one thrill after another until we’ve stopped asking for any kind of believability. The ridiculous pileup of subplots all justifying an expedition in deep Africa makes for an entertaining premise, and that’s well before we end up with a climax in which volcanoes, diamonds, killer apes and laser weapons are all involved. Congo’s bombastic nature ensures that we never take it seriously. The ever-cute Laura Linney stars, along with a few notables such as Ernie Hudson, Tim Curry and the inimitable Bruce Campbell. As long as you keep your expectations in check, this is an old-fashioned adventure film that should satisfy roughly 51% of your cravings, even if there’s quite a lot missing to ensure that the film is fun, that it flows well and that it makes the most out of its elements. As it is, Congo does remain a disappointment: It’s inert more often than it should, can’t quite capitalize on everything at its disposal and none of the cast or crew can’t quite save it. But that’s the risk that you take on every Hollywood movie … no matter how good their pedigree.

The First Great Train Robbery aka The Great Train Robbery (1978)

The First Great Train Robbery aka The Great Train Robbery (1978)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) Sean Connery as an impossibly cool criminal masterminding a gold robbery from a moving train? All aboard! Adapted somewhat loosely from an early Michael Crichton novel, The First Great Train Robbery isn’t much more than a romp, but it’s a superbly executed romp taking us through the Victorian underworld and what was then cutting-edge technology. Not only is Connery terrific in the lead role, but he’s supported by actors such as Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down in a script from Crichton himself, who also directs and cleverly adapts his material to a far more entertaining tone with an upbeat finale. The pacing is uneven, with some lower-interest segments toward the middle of the film, but it picks up in time for a spirited final sequence that build and build until we’re running on top of a moving train, with stunt sequences that have palpable pre-CGI energy and danger. We’ve seen this kind of film before and since, but The First Great Train Robbery is executed well enough to be a fun film even today.

Coma (1978)

Coma (1978)

(On Cable TV, January 2018) Michael Crichton became a contrarian cuckoo in his last few years, but even that sad brain-eating epilogue shouldn’t distract from an amazing career in which he wrote best-sellers, created hit TV shows, coded computer games, won a Technical Achievement Academy Award (!) for budgeting and scheduling innovations (!!) and, oh, directed half a dozen big-budget movies. Movies like Coma, showing his knack for technical medical drama coupled with solid storytelling abilities. While it’s not required to praise Coma beyond its own goals as a straightforward thriller, Crichton’s film does manage to be effective. Based on nothing less than one of Robin Cook’s early novels, it’s a blend of medical drama, high-tech investigation, conspiracy thriller and woman-in-distress drama. Genevieve Bujold stars as a doctor who becomes suspicious of mysterious coma cases at her hospital, with some good supporting performances by Michael Douglas and Rip Torn. (Watch for Ed Harris in his first film role as a technician.) While the film can’t escape a certain seventies stodginess, it’s this very same atmosphere that makes the film more interesting than expected today—Coma has emerged from the last thirty years as a period piece rather than a dated one, and it’s seeing things like Douglas in a full beard that makes the film rather entertaining to watch. Even the high-tech gloss of the film, at times ridiculous, is now rather charming. Not an essential film, but not an uninteresting one either.

Westworld (1973)

Westworld (1973)

(On Cable TV, December 2017) It took the Westworld TV show and a convenient showing of the 1973 film on cable TV for me to finally take in writer/director Michael Crichton’s original Westworld, but I finally saw it, nearly twenty-five years after Jurassic Park stole its best ideas. It’s definitely a period piece—the science-fiction elements are laboriously explained, the technology is straight out of the early seventies, and the style is, well, definitely retro. The relatively low budget of the film doesn’t help either. On the flip-side, there’s a straight-ahead quality to the park’s deranged-android mayhem that’s barely explained (and even then in an ambiguous way that may point to a computer virus) and hold up better than a longer exposition. Otherwise, Westworld is a rather threadbare thing from a plot perspective: tourist visits a park where robots make everything possible, enjoys himself until the robots go crazy, survives to the end once he dispatches a particularly obsessed robot. That’s it. Fortunately, there are highlights in the way it’s presented. Yul Brynner is positively terrifying as the robot gunslinger, showing an early take on the Terminator trope and providing much of the film’s suspense. As for the rest, don’t be surprised to be far more interested in the film’s first few world-building minutes than the rather more conventional rest of the film. Westworld is still worth a look, but it has already been greatly exceeded by its TV show adaptation.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) If memory serves me right, I saw Jurassic Park on opening night, which happened to be my last day of high school classes. A fitting anecdote for a movie that pretty much redefined the modern blockbuster, with top-notch special effects, near-perfect direction by Steven Spielberg and iconic performances that are still references even today. Revisiting Jurassic Park nearly twenty-five years later is not unpleasant. The movie holds up far better than most of its contemporaries—the blend of practical and digital effects is still largely effective and the pacing of the movie remains exemplary. In-between Sam Neill, Laura Dern, peak-era Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough (not to mention Samuel L. Jackson in a minor role!), the movie benefits from an embarrassment of thespian riches. Still, the star here is Spielberg—Other than Jaws (which I’ll revisit soon) I’m not sure he’s directed a better suspense film than Jurassic Park—the T-Rex sequence is an anthology piece, but the Raptor climax is really good, and there’s something justifiably wondrous about the first glimpse at the dinosaurs (ba-ba-baaa, ba-ba). Ironically, the thing that dates the film most are the glimpses at the computer screens—the CGI itself, save from some imperfect compositing, is still pretty good. It helps a lot that the script is so slick at what it does—from the “Mr. DNA” exposition sequence to the great way in which the script improves upon Michael Crichton’s original novel (which was quite a bit more scattered and needlessly dark), David Koepp’s work on the script remains exemplary. Jurassic Park is the complete package: great lines, great actors, great direction, great scenes, and great special effects. It remains a landmark for a reason, and could be the best movie of 1993 if it wasn’t for that other Spielberg film Schindler’s List. Two near-perfect movie in a single year: peak-Spielberg time.

Timeline (2003)

Timeline (2003)

(On TV, September 2016) I’m mildly surprised that it took me thirteen years to get to Timeline. After all, it’s a science-fiction film, it’s based on a Michael Crichton novel … and it’s not as if I’ve gone out of my way to avoid either watch SF or reading Crichton. But the reviews at the time were bad, and I must have been focusing on something else (yeah, I now see it came out in November 2003—I was obsessively writing a novel that month) because here we are, watching it for the first time in 2016. Much to my surprise, Timeline isn’t as bad as the reviews then suggested. It is, in science-fiction terms, irremediably basic: the time-travelling mechanics are arbitrary, the treatment of temporal paradoxes is entry-level (with an air of astonishment betraying the author’s deliberate lack of SF sophistication) and the plot lines can be seen converging long in advance. And yet, it does offer a mildly satisfying package, a bit of a window into history (as inaccurate as Hollywood history can be) and a conclusion that ties everything together. Gerard Butler takes centre stage as a romantic scholar more at ease in the Middle Ages than in modern times, with notable performances by Paul Walker, Billy Connolly (as a scientist!) and Anna Friel. Veteran director Richard Donner isn’t particularly daring in his choices, but he keeps things running until the end. As far as the relationship between the film and the Crichton adaptation goes, the Hollywood version simplifies things remarkably, gets rid of troublesome ambiguities and notably loses the power of the opening chapter despite re-creating it almost verbatim. For seasoned science-fiction fans, Timeline’s use of time-travelling plot devices may be less interesting than seeing modern characters rediscovering medieval times, and witnessing an assault on a castle. While Timeline isn’t a great film (already, it feels half-forgotten), it’s decent enough to be worth a look through the end.

The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton

The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton

Ballantine, 1993 reprint of 1969 original, 270 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-099-42765-0

I hadn’t read The Andromeda Strain in more than a decade and a half when a chance viewing of the classic 1971 film adaptation rekindled my interest in Michael Crichton’s breakout novel.  At an admirably concise 270 pages, the novel wasn’t going to crimp my limited reading time, and my accumulated shelves of already-read books aren’t just for showing off, right?

You probably remember the premise, either from the novel’s best-selling reputation, the 1971 film or the 2008 miniseries: a satellite falls back on Earth, bringing back something that kills nearly everyone in a small Arizona town.  Four scientists are asked to investigate: Locked in a secret underground laboratory, they race against time to solve the mystery of the so-called Andromeda Strain before the inevitable “containment measures” escalate.  Briskly told at the cutting-edge of late-sixties technology, Crichton’s first best-seller is an unusual page-turner, enthralling readers through reams of well-written exposition, while codifying the conventions of the techno-thriller genre.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of re-reading a 1969 techno-thriller is how gracefully it has aged.  There is no going around the fact that the book was written a long time ago: Any narrative that spends a few paragraph explaining how “time-sharing computers” work seems almost irremediably quaint in the age of ubiquitous smart-phones.  (If you want to feel old, consider that 1969 is now 43 years distant as of this writing.)  But despite the novel’s carefully-circumscribed focus on contemporary techno-scientific matters (if there are references to Vietnam or hippies in the book, a speed-read hasn’t revealed them), it’s animated by a decidedly contemporary intention to try to explain the world to the reader.  As a techno-thriller, it revels in the telling (sometimes made-up) detail that bridges the gap between fiction and reality.  For readers with finely-attuned genre-protocol antennas, it’s this willingness to engage the cutting-edge of the Known that, ironically, enough, makes the novel feel fresh.  If you accept that the general perception of reality lags behind the time, you can also argue that most people never bother to adjust their perception of reality beyond the model they learned as teenagers (which was often based on pop-culture, and so a few years behind the times).  Techno-thrillers and science-fiction are two genre that sometimes attempt to describe the scary implications of progress, and this attitude show no sign of growing old.  Compare The Andromeda Strain to something like Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (which applied the same didactic perspective to history) and it’s not hard to imagine that if a 2012 writer wanted to write a circa-1969 techno-thriller, he’d end up with something very similar to The Andromeda Strain.  Older books that age gracefully become period pieces.  In this light, having the author explain time-sharing computers takes on a new and not unpleasant flavour.

The other substantial asset of the novel is Crichton’s uncanny ability to Make Stuff Up.  From 2012, it’s easier to tell fact from fiction: Kalocin (a drug that kills “every known virus, bacterium, fungus, and parasite”, with hideous consequences) doesn’t exist, obviously.  But you’d swear otherwise from The Andromeda Strain’s narrative, as seamlessly as the device is inserted in-between convincing technical details, documentary framing devices (“this is a reconstruction based on interviews…”) and frequent blurring between reality and fiction.  Crichton had a great ear for plausible-sounding nonsense, something that the careful explanation of the “Scoop” program (which is almost meaningless in the movie adaptation) makes amply clear.  Elsewhere in the narrative, the Odd Man Hypothesis (which “proves” that you want a single unmarried man to have a finger on the trigger of a nuclear device, although even the characters acknowledge that it’s an elaborate rationalization for a more sinister purpose) is bunk, but you could almost swear that it was the subject of a Malcolm Gladwell essay not too long ago.  This aptitude for believable lies may be worth recalling in studying Crichton’s entire bibliography, and most notably his romans provocateurs phase in-between Rising Sun and Next.

All of these elements accumulate into a nice tight thriller in which, ironically enough, the characters don’t actually do all that much.  They poke and prod at the mystery, but ultimately can’t do much to fix the problem.  The protagonist’s big act of heroism consists in avoiding death, which may be laudable, but tends to obscure the War-of-the-Worldsian irony of the novel’s plot.  It’s either lazy plotting or a brilliant counter-weight to the novel’s detailed paean to the power of human ingenuity.  Latter techno-thrillers wouldn’t be as willing to acknowledge humanity’s lack of agency over doomsday threats.

There’s little need to add that all of these factors, and a few more I don’t have the patience to list, make up for a 1969 book that is well worth a re-read even today.  It still exerts an undeniable fascination, and its place in history as a seminal thriller is practically assured.  You can find echoes of its impact today, but the original is still resonant.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

(Second viewing, On Cable TV, April 2012) I hadn’t seen this film in about two decades, but seeing it today was almost like seeing it for the first time: Much of the film’s impact is to be found not in the basic plot (in which scientists investigate a new and lethal threat from space in a top-secret secure laboratory) but in the ways this plot is presented on-screen.  For viewers deeply steeped in the current storytelling aesthetics of the techno-thriller genre, The Andromeda Strain is a seminal film.  It laboriously presents devices that would be used as shorthand for more than a generation of latter filmmakers.  Much of the film’s first hour is spent laboriously describing details (mysterious deaths, characters being gathered, their gradual introduction to the intricately-protected facility) that would be condensed to the simplest shorthand by latter movies such as Resident Evil.  The pace may be considerably slower than modern films, but some of the techniques remain captivating: The split-screen cinematography, the thick jargon, the post-action framing device, the quasi-documentary appeal to authority, the unflinching dedication to procedural details… it’s a generally-faithful adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel that ended up influencing an entire sub-genre.  The film has certainly struck a nerve in popular culture: I gasped audibly when I recognized the original line of dialogue (“Let’s go back to the rock… and see it at four-forty”) sampled in Apollo 440’s “Ain’t Talking About Dub”.  Some of the changes from the Crichton novel are better than others: The character gender switch that brought Kate Reid in the film have also led to a memorable character, even though the film itself is a bit weaker in explaining the “Scoop” premise of the plot.  Douglas Trumbull’s special effects are impressive for the time, but sometimes fail to accurately represent what’s happening on-screen.  Plot-wise, the film is just as notable as the novel in presenting a non-event; The Andromeda Strain has characters struggling to understand and eventually try to stop a mistake, but (taking its cues from War of the Worlds) doesn’t give them a whole lot to do in stopping the threat that brings them together.  It’s still a fascinating piece of work, though, especially for what it doesn’t do well from a perspective forty years distant.

Pirate Latitudes, Michael Crichton

Pirate Latitudes, Michael Crichton

Harper Weekend, 2010 reprint of 2009 original, 419 pages, C$13.99 tp, ISBN 978-1-55468-811-1

A close look at Michael Crichton’s bibliography shows a sometimes-baffling mixture of commercial instincts and contrarian beliefs.  Crichton always wrote to market, and this eventually came to justify novels that challenged orthodoxy; his belief that he was smarter than everyone else meshed well with the commercial opportunities offered by controversy, and that’s how we ended up with carefully crafted alarmist screeds such as Jurassic Park, Prey and Next, or critic-baiting reactionary tracts such as Rising Sun, Disclosure or State of Fear.

Pirate Latitudes, published after Crichton’s death, is another, happier kind of commercially-driven project.  Seizing upon the perennial craze for pirate-related material, it’s a novel that delivers swashbuckling action and adventure in a strictly conventional fashion ripe for cinematic adaptation.  It’s a lot like Congo or Timeline in that it exhaustively explores the dramatic opportunities a place and time (17th century Caribbean), every chapter showcasing a new thrill.  Stripped of political controversy and free to exploit the new dangerous technologies of a bygone era, it’s a novel that lets readers enjoy the core strengths of Crichton’s writing without suffering from any of its assorted baggage.

The hero of Pirates Latitudes is a capable British privateer named Charles Hunter, hired by the Governor of Jamaica to take advantage of an unusually profitable opportunity: A Spanish galleon has been left behind by the main fleet, and is believed vulnerable to attack while it’s moored at a nearby island.  Gathering capable crewmembers, Hunter prepares his expedition and sets out for plunder.  As you may expect, the way to the treasure and back won’t be simple or easy: The 17th century Caribbean is a dangerous place, and readers are right to expect a steady rhythm of thrills and adventure on the high seas.

Whether it’s navigating shallow waters, taking on other ships in naval combat or fighting off a kraken, Pirate Latitudes delivers everything we’d expect from a pirate-themed novel.  It’s perfectly balanced between fiction and fact, with a sea monster and an uncommon series of adventures on one side, and careful descriptions of the era and nautical details on the other.  Crichton’s fiction has seldom been subtle, but it has usually been skilful and the way Pirate Latitudes can exploit the popular idea of the pirate (as depicted in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, most notably) to develop it half-realistically is one of the novel’s most charming aspects.  There’s a ton of trivia about navigating sail ships cleverly meshed in the narrative, and it’s surprisingly enjoyable.

Narratively, the novel is almost a complete success, save for the initially curious ending.  Unlike what you’d expect from a pirate novel, it doesn’t actually end with a massive naval battle and an all-out boarding assault: those occur earlier in the novel, as do the sea monster attack, dangerous island expedition and triumphant assault on the gold-filled ship.  As the first section makes it clear in rounding up the members of the expedition, Pirate Latitudes is structured around a caper plot rather than a more conventional kind of pirate adventure.  The ending will seem underwhelming if you’re not familiar with the kind of vengeful double-cross that the form dictates.  The characters are all exceptionally accomplished in their own way, which creates a lot of opportunity for extraordinary acts and solid dialogue.

It all amount to a fun novel: not terribly deep nor as meaningful as Crichton’s other controversy-seeking contemporary thrillers, but a decent companion to some of Crichton’s more entertaining books.  It’s also, in its own way, a decent send-off for Crichton, who deserved better than the bitter aftertaste of State of Fear and Next as his final send-off.  One last novel by Crichton reportedly remains to be published, but it’s going to be assembled from notes and a partially-written manuscript: Pirate Latitudes is the last novel truly written by Crichton, and it’s a reminder that before he became the darling of contrarians, he had an impressive career as a fine popular entertainer.  Readers might as well enjoy the experience of a master craftsman deftly delivering one last crowd-pleasing work.

Even if you can’t read, don’t worry; it’ll be adapted as a movie sooner or later.

Next, Michael Crichton

Next, Michael Crichton

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.

State of Fear, Michael Crichton

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.

The Great Train Robbery, Michael Crichton

Ballantine, 1975, 281 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-39092-X

(A fair warning to readers: This Michael Crichton novel will be reviewed according to the Crichton Critical Paradigm #1 (encyclopedia novel), which should not be confused with the Crichton Critical Paradigm #2 (theme park novel, itself a sub-genre of CPP#1). Crichton novel written and read using CCP#1 are thinly fictionalized strings of anecdotes gleaned throughout a careful study of a given subject. Rather than write an encyclopedia entry about the subject, Crichton then turns his research into a novel, every potentially interesting nugget of information becoming a chapter of the novel. Other Crichton novels written using CCP#1 include Congo, Eaters of the Dead, Sphere, Airframe and Timeline. CCP#2 stories include Jurassic Park and Prey, as well as -obviously- WESTWORLD.)

Prisons, says Michael Crichton in his introduction to The Great Train Robbery, do not offer the ideal representation of the common criminal mind. For obvious reasons, prisons only bring together the criminals stupid enough to be caught, which is to say the least-competent criminals there are. True Criminality, he argues in a still-contentious essay, is not a matter of economic classes, innate evil or lack of intelligence. The Great Train Robbery of 1855 was in many ways an emblematic event, a watershed mark in our understanding of crime. It showed Victorian England that criminals could be smart, organized and rather likeable.

The novel that follows is a fictionalized version of the events surrounding the Robbery, assembled from historical records and court documents. But The Great Train Robbery is less of a story than a trip through time to Victorian England, with its peculiar mores and methods, to the very sources of today’s western society in the hopes that we may, through them, learn something about ourselves.

Certainly, 1855 London was a very different place, as Crichton takes pains to remind us at every chapter. The industrial age may have been running at full bore, but social attitudes were still adjusting to the new elements. From his high perch of 1974, Crichton feels free to comment on the Victorians (with what is often a strong authorial voice), and not-so-secretly delights in showing how little matters have evolved since then.

It all makes for truly interesting reading. At the exception of Eaters of the Dead, this is easily Crichton’s most stylish novel, and also one of his most enjoyable ones. The tone is a screaming delight, halfway between a Victorian pastiche and a modern well-informed pundit. It’s easy to be sucked into the world of the novel and let the crime story take a back-place to the description of the era. Through the Robbery, Crichton tries to capture a time and a place. It’s enough to make one wonder which of today’s event would best describe our world. Any takers for the challenge?

While critics (this one included) may have a lot of fun taking apart Crichton’s work for flaws real or imagined, this novel is a useful reminder that the man, from time to time, is capable of turning out excellent work. Granted, The Great Train Robbery is only slightly older than your reviewer, but it’s a slick piece of fiction, a recommended read even after a quarter of a century with the added dimension that Crichton’s then-commentary is itself becoming a curiously historical artefact in its own right…

Prey, Michael Crichton

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.

Timeline, Michael Crichton

Knopf, 1999, 450 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-679-44481-5

After a few years as an amateur book reviewer, I have come to approach any new Crichton book with something approaching masochistic glee. He’s a complex author with complex recurring faults. His novels have rich strengths, rich weaknesses and equally rich thematic characteristics. That makes him endearing to any critical reader usually stuck with bland material. Show me a book reviewer who doesn’t want to discuss Crichton’s hypocritical love/hate relationship with technology, and I’ll show you a book reviewer who’s lost all joy in his job.

His latest opus, Timeline, is somewhat of a slight departure for him. In some ways, it’s a return to more explicit science-fiction after his usual thriller / technothriller mode. After a lengthy hundred-page prologue, (in which far too many useless characters are introduced) our protagonists step in a time machine and go back to the fourteenth century in quest of their disappeared mentor. Things go badly with a ridiculous speed and soon, it looks as if our bunch of intrepid explorers is stuck in the late dark ages.

Anyone thinking “gee, that sounds like an excuse for a medieval thriller” is right. By throwing our wholesome American characters in a strange environment, Crichton is not only using one of SF’s standard devices, but also giving more meaning than an environment used without comparative markers. The protagonists stand in for the readers in pointing out the most remarkable differences between the two time periods. And it is a very dangerous time, with enough opportunities for senseless disembowelment to scare off even the most bloodthirsty among us.

It works, like most Crichton novels usually do. The writing style is clean and uncluttered, with enough meaningless techno-babble to convince the majority of readers. The narrative has occasional lengthy moments, but Crichton packs most of the book with armoured battles, nick-of-time escapes, hidden passageways, surprising betrayals and all that good stuff. It’s a good read. Crichton, as usual, loves to show us how smart he is: the book can easily stand-in as a primer on current medieval research.

The problem is that as soon as you start thinking about the scientific wrapper of the book, things stop making sense. Crichton spends a lot of time throwing up sand in the air explaining why it’s not possible to change the past, but most of his arguments essentially go back to wishful thinking. It makes even less sense, of course when the characters actually do end up changing history, even despite the “parallel universe” yadda-yadda.

Experienced SF fans will go nuts pointing out the areas where Crichton clearly means much more than he realizes. He will, for instance, “scan” everyone in a Really Big Computer, but fail to recognize that this way, a backup of the person is created. He will mumble something about relying on other universes to do tricks they can’t comprehend, but fail to recognize that there’s an every bigger story there. He doesn’t follow through his most interesting speculations, that’s simply frustrating. (Take the opening chapter, for instance; the way in which the scientist ends up in the desert is never explained.) That’s when he doesn’t simply set up blindingly obvious setups, during which any halfway attentive reader can feel ahead of the curve.

One thing he does do well is to create a certain atmosphere of dread. His techno-thriller background makes him unusually adept at considering technology like a big box of dangers. This attitude makes his setup all the more interesting, as it’s a virtual certainty that something awful will certainly go wrong. Compare and contrast with the usual happy-go-lucky scientific endeavours in hard-SF for an interesting subject of discussion.

It’s details like this that still compel me to read Crichton’s work. Notwithstanding the occasional stinker (The Lost World), most of his books are undeniably compelling page-turners. But when he screws up, he usually does so in an interesting fashion. He might be one of the most mechanical and hypocritical writer in the best-selling business today (witness his anti-technological, anti-corporate discourse, which feels more and more carefully calculated for popular success than in any way heartfelt), but he’s rarely dull. And that, let me tell you, has a quality of its own when you slog through a dozen novels a month.