Michael Crichton Novel Reviews

A collection of my blog posts

There are three Crichton novels I read that did not get any formal reviews here. I read Jurassic Park many years ago, and it is mentioned several times here, mostly in reference to the quality of science. "Did this really happen?" No, the computer science is wrong.

I read Sphere maybe ten years ago, when a friend loaned it to me, probably after I mentioned my reaction to Jurassic Park.Sphere is not about science at all, but is an excursion into eastern religious "reality is what you imagine it to be" thinking.

Congo makes itself out to be non-fiction (specific dates and names), without the usual disclaimer on or near the title page about being "fiction, any resemblance to actual..." However, it gets included in the list of other Crichton novels behind the title page of the rest of his novels. It was an early novel, maybe he was experimenting with a style that he used extensively in later novels. I read it fairly late in the sequence, and it offered no new insights not already mentioned in connection with others already here.

After seeing the movies, I did not bother to read the Jurassic sequels. There were numerous scenes in the original Jurassic Park movie that did not make any sense apart from the longer book explanation -- like when the botanist plunged her hands into the huge pile of dino turd (strictly teen-age gross-out in the movie, but an important part of understanding what was going on in the book). I guessed the sequels might have some of the same confusion, which I did not relish seeing in reverse.

A couple years after I gave up reading Crichton novels, I was walking up and down the library aisles looking for sci-fi stickers on the spine. Arthur C Clarke was disappointing. Crichton was next, and I noticed a title I didn't recognize. After I took it home and read the dust jacket blurb, I saw that Disclosure is about sexual harassment and the consequent "cynical and manipulative abuse of truth." Not quite like the novel's protagonist, I got fired over that, leaving me with unpleasant memories. I guess that's why I don't recall reading it before, and didn't blog it at the time. After some 50 pages I started to recognize some scenes, and the book went back to the library.

2008 August 18 -- Next

Michael Crichton is losing it.

The farther he ranges from his core competence (science), the lousier his "novel" is.

Next is his most recent novel, published in 2006. It's a loose collection of barely connected mini-plots organized around a paranoid and completely ignorant misunderstanding of the law and a political agenda for changing it. Crichton is a scientist (actually a medical doctor), not a lawyer, and his ignorance shows. Even the Amazon reviews were largely negative.

Crichton's other novels are far more readable. If you want to understand Next, don't bother reading the 95-chapter story, just skip to the "Author's Note" at the end and read that.

Here follows a summary of the five points in his Note, and why they are bogus:

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2008 August 2 -- Timeline

The science in Timeline is probably no better than Prey, but at least it doesn't have the religious underpinnings of Darwinism. Quantum physics is indeed very hard to understand, but explaining single-photon interference patterns by multiple parallel universes has some testability problems. However, precisely because it is so hard to understand, it's therefore much harder to find somebody -- like me in the case of Prey and Jurassic Park -- who knows the science well enough to prove that it's bogus.

In Timeline the inconsistencies prove the science is bogus. Crichton is at pains to tell us that tunnelling through quantum foam jumps to a parallel universe; it is not true time travel -- and then his whole story hinges on the fact that it really is time travel (jumping to an earlier time in this same universe and leaving artifacts for the modern people to find) that he is telling about. If it were merely a parallel universe, then leaving artifacts there would affect that universe's many parallel futures, but it could never merge back into our own present.

So Crichton wrote a time-travel novel, then added some arcane quantum pseudo-science to make it plausible. It's still a great novel. Crichton did his historical homework more thoroughly than his science. Or maybe he was able to do his history homework.

There are some good historical insights unbecoming a good evolutionist. In the stream of consciousness of one of his principle characters, he rejects the "unconscious assumption that men of the past were weaker or slower or less imaginative than he was, as a modern man." This is fully consistent with the real world predicted by a creationist perspective. The rejected assumption is Darwinistic and popular. The real-world perspective makes his novel much more compelling.

Crichton also tackles the classic time-travel conundrum, going back and killing your own grandfather. He says it's not possible. "You remain what you always were, a spectator. A single person can do little to alter events in any meaningful way. Of course great masses of people can 'change the course of history.' But one person? No." The same conclusion I came to a month ago in "The Worse Villain".

For all the effort Crichton put into studying medieval languages for this story, he failed rule #1 in polylinguistic stories: Puns don't translate. Our hero has travelled back to 1357AD and is already a master of the culture and knows the local language, which with a little sci-fi tech help he can now speak fluently. A few pages ago he has been introduced to the beginnings of tennis, and now the Abbot complains that "So many soldiers ruin the game." The reader is expected to follow our hero in wondering "What game is that?" Tennis? How could large numbers of soldiers ruin tennis? But this is a pun on the modern English word "game" which can refer either to rule-based sports, or to animals you hunt to eat. In other languages those are two completely different words, so there would be no confusion. Earlier in the book Crichton goes to great lengths to show the differences between the Occitan (olde Englishe) of the period and modern English. Now he simply ignores it where it would be most significant. The story wins over the facts.

But a jolly good story it is, anyway.

2008 July 28 -- No Case of Need

It was an ugly novel. The author himself, by using a pseudonym, acknowledged that it was ugly. Published a year before the best-seller Andromeda Strain convinced Michael Crichton to give up medicine and become a full-time writer, he obviously was unwilling to let his chauvinistic beliefs about abortion destroy a future medical practice.

Abortion is ugly. The only people who believe in it are the "male chauvinist pigs" who want to exercise their misogynist libido without fear of consequences -- and some of their victims, usually before the fact. Men want abortions, women do not. That was just as true in 1968 as it is today. The male-dominated media does not report the facts, not in 1968 when Crichton published Case of Need, and not today. Case of Need was written by a man, and most of the characters in it who favor abortion are men. That part is accurate. Most of the people I know who vocally favor abortion (or oppose pro-life activism) are men, and most of the people I know who vocally favor life are women.

"The trouble with this country," he said, "is that the women have no guts.They'd rather slink off ... than change the laws. The legislators are all men, and men don't bear babies; they can afford to be moralistic." [p.126]
That's still true today. Women have a God-given desire to protect their children. Men are different.

In 1968, five years before the all-male King SCOTUS legislated a right that more than three quarters of the USA population never wanted, most of the Christians had fallen asleep on the job. Crichton correctly associated the vocal pro-life attitude in his novel with Roman Catholics. I am ashamed I and my protestant colleagues were not among those voices at that time. Francis Schaeffer did not serve us a wake-up call for more than a decade.

We did wake up. There are more pro-life people in the USA today than when the dastardly deed was done. Young people are reportedly 53% pro-life. Only a tiny minority ever wanted what SCOTUS gave us, but a growing majority now want what they took away.

Barack Obama, are you listening? We care.

It is not enough to make abortions "safe, legal, and rare." Hillary's team gave us that -- well, one out of three ain't so bad, is it? Hillary is out of the game now, but it seems to be Obama's agenda too. We want to see some change. Start by fixing the racist genocide started in 1973.

2008 July 16 -- Artificial Life (Prey)

One of the things that keeps me coming back for more Michael Crichton novels is that they tend to have good science. Prey is not one of those. There are two kinds of science described in this 2002 novel, and Crichton bungled both.

First, this is about computers -- very tiny computers, but Crichton is at pains to show us some of their programming. The code he shows is not in any common industrial programming language like Lisp (which might be appropriate for the artificial intelligence of this story) or C++; perhaps his computer consultant invented it, or maybe it's a conflation of several older languages.

I know something about computers. My degree is in computer science. Recall also that the weakest link in Jurassic Park was his description of the computer operations; if it had not been for less than credible descriptions of computer bugs, I would have had trouble believing the dinosaurs never happened. Prey has serious computational flaws from the beginning. My guess is that few people understand the technology well enough to notice the flaws, so that they have no personal basis for rejecting it. And those who do understand it, they are so enthusiastic in their agreement with Crichton on the other scientific flaw as to give this one a pass.

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2008 July 9 -- Confirmation (Rising Sun)

It doesn't necessarily prove me right, but it's always encouraging when I think up some idea and post it here in my blog or in an essay, and then subsequently see other people more influential than I say the same thing.

Michael Crichton is a best-seller novelist. He has a scientific education (actually MD, all but residency), and he thinks through the implications of his science. Global warming was one of those encounters where his novel supported a position I previously took. Actually he wrote the novel before I got onto it, but I didn't know about his book at the time.

The library has several of his novels. Now that I've seen all the movies I can download from Archive.org, I'm back to reading fiction for relaxation after a long day of programming. Of one of the more dislikable characters in Rising Sun, which I just finished, he says (p.170) "Like most dishonest people, the Weasel believed the worst about everybody." Almost the spitting image of my remarks four years ago.

2008 June 30 -- What Would Jesus Drive? (State of Fear)

They had forgotten that what Jesus would drive is the false prophets and fearmongers out of the temple.
State of Fear, p.457

I borrowed Jurassic Park from my father back when it was fresh, read two pages, and realized that I was not going to set this down. So I closed it and waited until the weekend. I picked it up after lunch, and finally turned the last page at 2am. My first thought as I set it down was, "Did this really happen?" Michael Crichton is that good. His science is good. Over the next couple weeks I began to recognize flaws in his computer technology, which proved to me it was fiction. Computer programmers don't make those kinds of bugs. As the joke goes, "I are one," so I know.

Crichton is still good.

State of Fear was in the library. Four years old, it had passed its prime and was just sitting on the shelf. I did not find the consensus line I was looking for in it, but there were a couple other memorable items.

On page 200 Crichton ridiculed published Science articles, where "even though the authors gave lip service to the threat of global warming, their data seemed to suggest the opposite of what they were saying in the text." Throughout the book -- especially after page 200, the novel is filled with footnotes to actual journal articles demolishing any supposed threat of global warming (GW). In his appendix, Crichton mentions another pseudo-science which suffered from the same group-think foolishness for a half-century as present-day GW: eugenics. Vast sums of money and prestigious scientists and leaders threw their support into it. Eventually the center of research moved from the USA to Germany and became the death camps we are so horrified over now. All without any serious scientific support.

Crighton could have said the same thing about Darwinism -- except that he happens to believe that piece of baloney.

Which brings me to the next observation, on page 247, where the hero of the story, the guy whose facts are always right and whose technical and combat skills make Indiana Jones look like a punk on crack, is arguing that a certain prediction of temperature increase made in 1988 was wrong by 300% (actual data), and therefore the whole notion of temperature prediction is bogus.

That may actually be true -- long-term readers of my blog know I am no friend of the GW hysterics -- but I tend to look at any strongly-held opinions with skepticism. The counter argument raised there in the book is that the actual Mars Rover landing time was within 25 minutes of the prediction given eight months earlier, less than 0.01% percent error. As I often say, "figures don't lie, but liars figure." These are different kinds of predictions, different categories of error: the one a guess about effects we acknowledge we don't understand, the other the result of careful "rocket science" physics which need that kind of precision to even get it there. Crichton acknowledges the weakness of his claim on the next page, but the damage is done.

I'm not particularly fond of conspiracy theories (see my essay "After-the-Fact Conspiracy Theories Are Always Wrong"), so I found the central theme of this story rather less credible than Jurassic Park. Crichton wants us to suspend disbelief in a vast well-funded conspiracy to trigger catastrophic weather events (with large-scale human casualties) in order to make the GW theory more marketable. That part is fiction, of course. Crichton himself in his appendix admits to believing in the basic goodness of mankind (which belief I do not share), so this is even inconsistent with his own philosophy. But conspiracies sell books, and that is his income. He does it well.

The title of his novel, The State of Fear, refers to a substitute for the Cold War as a motivator for controlling the populace. When the Big Bad Commies were threatening nuclear holocaust, that was a perpetual cause for fear and alarm. That's now gone, so they need to fabricate other threats. GW is a crummy substitute, and Crichton does not develop that theme beyond the single chapter where he explained it.

If Christians really believed what they say, fear would be no motivator at all -- at least for us. It didn't stop me from doing the kind of thing no sane employee would do for fear of getting fired. When I watch crime movies, I often imagine myself in those violent situations, conditioning myself to react without fear. Of course like most Americans, I'm not in those situations, and maybe my conditioning would fail. But I still want to believe "perfect love casts out fear." I have nothing to fear in getting killed, it just gets me to heaven quicker.

Maybe that's why (as one friend told me), I'm "a tough negotiator." With nothing (except God) to fear, I cannot be intimidated. That's not a bad thing.

2006 July 4 -- The Science of Fiction (Andromeda Strain)

When I was in high school I read every science fiction book in the school library. When I finished them, I read through every sci-fi book in the public library. Science came easy to me.

After a while I figured out that sci-fi is not about science, and stopped reading them. Or maybe there just weren't any more to read. Or most likely, I had more important things to occupy my time.

Last year I was invited to cherry-pick my late father's extensive library. He was into science -- chemistry, I think -- and had a collection of sci-fi paperbacks. Along with valuable theological and linguistic resources, I brought a bunch of sci-fi home. I still have more important things to occupy my time, but a little respite makes tedious work go better.

Last week I read Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain. I understand it was his first sci-fi novel, written while he was still in medical school. Crichton knows his science. When I read Jurassic Park a few years ago, I set the book down wondering "Did this really happen?" After a while, I began to identify scientific flaws in his story, such as computer bugs that don't happen that way. There was no such doubt after reading Andromeda Strain, the scientific mistakes were too glaring. I guess he got better over the years.

This week I read a collection of novellas by Philip K.Dick. I don't recall reading any of his stuff before, but these were all already old when I was in high school. PKD did not have the science mind of Crichton. Or maybe the decade made a lot of difference. All of these stories were a thinly veiled rant against the Cold War.

Did I say, sci-fi is not about science? Sci-fi uses science and the future as an excuse to to explore social situations that do not -- indeed, scientifically cannot -- exist. Other types of fiction try to explore ideas that are plausible in today's (or historical, as the case may be) social culture. They are intended to be credible, so the reader is drawn into the story as if it really happened. That way the moral objective of the author can be transmitted to the credulous reader with a minimum of resistance. Sci-fi only works on science geeks like myself, as we pretend that the science could work that way. This makes up for the fact that sci-fi authors generally have no better comprehension of social interactions than their readers.

PKD set most of his stories 30 to 50 years into the future (in other words, the last couple decades up through today), and painted a bleak canvas of post-atomic-war "slag and ash." He seemed to think that the Cold War and the nuclear holocaust he considered its inevitable consequence were the product of psychotic government leaders programmed only to hate each other. He understood evil and described it vividly, but he had no comprehension of its cause nor cure. The stories simply did not ring true -- not even after allowing for his atomic war hypothesis. But he had a great reputation in the sci-fi community.

Somehow I don't think I missed much in 40 years of not reading sci-fi. Maybe the other books will be better...

Tom Pittman