A lost world
November 9, 2008, 1:12 pm
Filed under: Books, Published stuff
Michael Crichton, 1942-2008  Jon Chase photo/Harvard News Office

Michael Crichton, 1942-2008 || Jon Chase photo/Harvard News Office

Michael Crichton has died of cancer at the age of 66. To create a number one book, film or TV show is quite something; to sit in those three slots simultaneously, as his friend James Fallows recalls him doing in the early 1990s, must be unparalleled. Nice anecdote from Maxim; apposite insights as offered to The Onion.

“But if we can somehow extract his DNA, then we can replicate him, and all the other dead authors, and put them on display for the world to behold. We don’t need to consider the consequences, let’s just go ahead and do it.”

Climate-and-science-policy-blogger Chris Mooney is debating his legacy over at The Intersection. In the context of climate change it was pretty poor, as plenty of people have already argued. People who focus on the climate side of State of Fear, though, miss the linked issue of how poor a book it is by Crichton’s own standards — flabby and silly and drab and lax. The views-on-issues embedded in Crichton novels were often unconvincing or wrong, but in Rising Sun and Disclosure, to take two examples, the books work as books regardless. Rising Sun works particularly well, in fact; I think it ws the first thriller really to understand what mobile phones mean for such stories, and to incorporate them into both the storytelling and the structure.

I read him from childhood and I think I must have read almost all the novels other than the pseudonymous Lange ones (though for some reason, it now strikes me, I never read Eaters of the Dead). All I can remember ever writing about him was a review of Prey, for The New Yorker, of which I remain fond in that it pretty much nailed what I wanted to say.

Crichton explains more things, with more conviction, than any other thriller writer around. The philosophical ruminations and product specifications are so deftly interspersed in the run, hide, blow-things-up stream of his narrative that, rather than interrupt the tension, they actually heighten it. The effect is like tight crosscutting in a film, although, perversely for such a frequently filmed author, it is impossible for a filmmaker to capture. A director can cut from scene to scene but not from scene to idea. Steven Spielberg nods toward Crichton’s technique when he has one of the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park” stalk through an orientation film explaining its own creation, with projections of the creature’s DNA sequences sliding over its grainy skin. But that’s a joke, not a functional equivalent. What does make Crichton filmable is a happy knack for transforming big ideas into antagonists roughly the size and shape of a man. Velociraptors, killer gorillas, chip-headed cyborgs, gunslinging robots, cannibal Neanderthals, Demi Moore—these are the sort of things Hollywood knows how to make frightening.

(According to the New Yorker’s book blog, these are pretty much the only nice things writers there ever had to say about him; it also fits, I see in retrospect, with my sense of how well he used mobile phones as interruptions-that-aren’t.)

That intercutting and mixing in of real and pseudo-real references and instruction books and print outs and the like, especially in that first great breakthrough The Andromeda Strain, was very much a thing of the sixties, flashed around in science fiction like Stand on Zanzibar and with roots in Dos Passos and the collage-y, found-art aspects of Burroughs and related beats; I remember as a kid being completely baffled by the inclusion of technical specifications from ad copy for a rocket launcher or something similar in a Jerry Cornelius story, and also entirely but somewhat thrillingly unclear about which things in the Andromeda Strain were made up. It makes me wonder if Michael Crichton read New Worlds; seems entirely plausible, not least because of the year in Cambridge in the mid 1960s. If so he found a far more lucrative way to cash in on some of the same experimental techniques and catastrophic concerns. (Parts of Mike Harrison’s New Worlds critique of Stand on Zanzibar in 1969 could well be applied to Crichton: Mike found the Brunner  “…marred by a lack of metaphor. Brunner is an inventive writer; his ability to theorise and document a feasible future is undeniable. But his success in evoking that future through images is limited…”)

Crichton, though, foreswore the future, except to the degree that it was already perceivable in the present (maybe his interest in collages/intercutting bore a trace of Burroughs’s belief that “when you cut into the present the future leaks out.”) This was one of the reasons that I think calling him a sort-of science fiction writer, as Mark Lawson does in a nice appreciation, is as far as one can go in that direction (the fact that Lawson seems quite to have approved of Crichton is another reason to doubt that he was really SF, a genre for which Mark gives every indication of having no sympathy at all). Crichton’s not-quite-SF-ness  was part of the argument of that New Yorker piece (quote contains spoilers)

Crichton is forever describing things that could change the world—but don’t. The Andromeda strain of space germs mutates into harmlessness and goes away; the lost city of the Congo is wiped from the map by lava; in “Sphere,” the discoverers of the extraterrestrial artifact of untold power use that power to wish it into retroactive nonexistence. The fact that Crichton has no interest in showing what might have happened is what makes him a writer of suspense fiction, rather than of science fiction. A science-fiction writer would naturally want to see what would happen if the technologies stayed out of control (as most do), and might even want to ask whether the consequences would be all bad (as they often aren’t). Might not free-range dinosaurs make Costa Rica an even more interesting place than it is today? What if nanoswarms offered promise as well as peril? “Prey,” with its kill-them-all-and-get-out approach, is neither as frightening nor as fascinating as Greg Bear’s novelette of twenty years ago, “Blood Music,” in which the characters, transformed by the nanotechnology within them, become both far more and much less than human.

The fact that Crichton read and brooded over his critics is pretty well attested, and so it wasn’t just an immensely exaggerated sense of self importance that led me to wonder idly whether Next, his last pre-posthumous novel, was in some way a reply to this critique. Like State of Fear it is rambly, but in this case more happily so, and its broad sweep means that its various genies can’t be bottled back up at the end — it has an openness to the future that I hadn’t seen in his work before. It will be interesting to see what the posthumous book is like — and sad there will be no more.

Picture of Crichton by Jon Chase; will be taken down if he objects


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[…] never read any Michael Crichton. I doubt I ever will. But I liked Oliver Morton’s appreciation. At least I liked what I could read of it. Morton has those cool Snap Preview thingies on his blog, […]

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