Tuesday, September 6, 2016

My Old, Long Love Affair with Michael Crichton

When I was in middle school and high school, Michael Crichton was among my favorite writers. The first taste I ever had was The Andromeda Strain, which appeared in a pile of presents one Christmas. That book was rather bloodless, a science-filled drama that was both sweeping and grim; at times it has more in common with a murder mystery than science fiction. But it appealed to me. The small desert town where everyone has died in bizarre ways? The secret military protocols that swing into action? The crack team of scientists assembled to root out the culprit? The added patina of SPACE? Sign me up, please. I devoured it down to the climax and went looking for the next.

Nowadays, when I find something I like--a book, a movie, a song or album--I tend to fix on the piece of art rather than the artist who created it. I don't go on months-long binges of every Metallica album or every Wheel of Time book the way I used to. But back when I found Crichton, that was still how I did it, and so I read everything he had to offer. Jurassic Park. The Lost World. Prey, Timeline, Rising Sun, Airframe, Eaters of the Dead, State of Fear, The Terminal Man, Congo, Disclosure. All grim thrillers, most rooted in science, some in the corporate world.

And Sphere, which I just picked up a few days ago for the first time in years and which prompted me to write this post. It's a classic Crichton premise. A psychologist is picked up without warning from his comfortable researcher's life and flown out to a desolate spot in the middle of the Pacific, there to investigate a crashed spacecraft (in total secret) that's been there for hundreds of years. It's long been one of my favorite novels of his, because of its setting; the crushing dark and mystery of the deep ocean is something I've devoured in movies like The Abyss, books such as Deep Wizardry, or innumerable photos and videos of giant squid and sperm whales. I picked up Sphere hoping, and expecting, to get this feeling again.

I made it about forty pages in and stopped. The writing just wasn't very good.

Every Crichton novel is, in a sense, the same. There is a male protagonist. Usually he is a scientist, or if not, he's part of the corporate world. At the beginning, a powerful entity--the government, an aircraft company, a scientific foundation--summons him from his ordinary life to become part of an elite team. Often, humanity has overreached and begun to monkey with powerful forces beyond its control; these can be genetics and biology (Jurassic Park, The Lost World), nanotechnology (Prey), or time travel (Timeline). These forces inevitably get out of hand and kill people before being subdued, but only barely. At other times, the protagonist is pitted against a vast conspiracy and must struggle to uncover the truth behind the lies or clear his own name, as in Airframe (the airline industry) Rising Sun (Japan), Disclosure (false rape accusations), or State of Fear (climate change conspiracies).

For a liberal like myself, it's kind of shocking to look back and realize how conservative Crichton was (he's dead). On the philosophical level, he's clearly warning about the dangers of technology and mucking about with forces beyond our control. On a more political level, when confronted with climate change--a subject that would seem to be tailor-made for him, humans mucking with nature to devastating effect, a real-life crisis that was really happening--he wrote an entire book denying it. And not just any book; State of Fear contains dozens of graphs of average temperature, average rainfall, the urban heat island effect, all designed to show that global warming is a scam made up by liberal scientists who just want more research money (it has a 20-page bibliography!!)*. This is helpfully explained by the older, wiser character who instructs our good-hearted but naively mistaken protagonist (another Crichton trademark, deployed in Rising Sun). For me at 14, it was immensely convincing. I remember having a massive fight with my father over it, who kept saying "We have to believe our scientists!" "Yes," I replied, "but just look at this! Some scientists apparently say something different!"

Eventually, I was exposed to a broader and, um, less biased version of climate science. But there are other conservative motifs in Crichton's work. The villains in Airframe feature organized labor. Disclosure is all about a woman attempting to seduce an innocent man, failing, and then falsely accusing him of rape; throughout the book, Crichton laments how women have the power to destroy a man's career in this way. Rising Sun was shockingly xenophobic even at the time, presenting the Japanese people as unknowably different from white Americans for reasons we could never understand. Even Prey, for years my favorite Crichton novel, has an early digression into divorces and parental rights that contains the line "Every father knew that the court system was hopelessly biased against men".

That line, that digression, is also classic Crichton. Throughout the book, throughout all his books, the protagonists frequently stop what they're doing and deliver an extended internal monologue on their backstory, or the science behind what they're doing, or the state of the world. It took a lot of other reading for me to realize how unusual this was, even among thriller writers. You don't really see Tom Clancy stopping what he's doing for a page and a half to write about the state of US-Russian relations or the history of the Stinger missile.** His writing tends to be focused on his characters and their experiences. But Crichton just steps away sometimes and lets his own voice take over. I think he gets bolder about injecting his own thoughts as his career goes on and the sales get higher; in Sphere (1987), the protagonist spends much of the first 40 pages monologuing or flashbacking about the history that got him on a military vessel in the middle of the ocean, but by State of Fear (2004), we completely stop the action for three whole pages while a character we've never met before and will never see again delivers an impassioned monologue on how the media scares people so that they'll do what the media wants.

In other words, there's a lot going on in a typical Crichton book that has nothing to do with the elements of a typical someone-else book. The plot is, if not set, then certainly standardized. Crichton's own beliefs make frequent appearances, often overrunning the plot for pages at a time. So what else is going on? What about character development? Description? Flow? Other elements of good writing?

It gets a lot better than Sphere. But in those first forty pages, there isn't much there. The protagonist comes across as shallow, whiny, and unmemorable. The dialogue is mostly expository, and often sounds like words that wouldn't ever actually come out of someone's mouth. The descriptions are stilted and overly scientific. The whole thing feels like a house with no paint or furnishings, just bare plywood beams. If you're not dazzled by the premise, if you're not there to hear Crichton's worldview as much as you're there for a good story well told... how much of a book is there for you to read?

It gets a lot better than Sphere. I remember Jurassic Park and The Lost World as brilliant, the peak of Crichton's art, perfect fusions of science and horror (and we haven't even talked about how good he is at horror!) and characterization, balanced between interesting digressions into paleontology or genetics or computers and literally visceral descriptions of raptors ripping people open. Timeline is a rush, perhaps my favorite historical fiction novel, a world of threats and bright colors where a man with a knife is as terrifying and heart-pumping as a T-Rex. And Prey, for all its faults***, is ripping and ruthless, a twisted-science body horror survival story in the best tradition of The Thing. 

Crichton just doesn't do it for me anymore. What he writes about, what he sells--his views, his style, his plots--are no longer what I'm looking for in a novel. That's not to say that his books are bad, as if I had some kind of ruler to measure them by; they're thrillers, not bildungsromans, and they usually deliver what they promise. It's just interesting and a little sad to think about books like Timeline that used to be among my very favorites, and to think Maybe I'd better not pick that up again. Maybe it's best to let that memory sit golden and undisturbed.


*Spoiler: the villains of the book are radical environmental terrorists who want to actually cause disasters that could be attributed to global warming, in order to galvanize the world into acting on the problem (which, for Crichton, doesn't really exist).

**I had a big Clancy phase, too; I started with The Hunt For Red October and read all the way to The Bear and the Dragon, which is about 100 novels (or so it seemed like). The thing that got me to stop was rather similar to why I quit Crichton; there's a monologue about 2/5 of the way into Dragon where a main character starts railing out of nowhere against "bloodsucking liberals" who slurp up people's hard-earned money. "Well," said I to myself, "that's enough of that".

***Part of the conflict between the protagonist and his wife stems from the fact that she's working and he isn't, that that represents a threat to his masculinity, not just in his eyes but in hers; that she's more likely to have an affair with another man (which she does) and lose herself in work (she does) if her husband isn't a strong manly center of the house (he is, but she doesn't know it).