Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Admirable Mr. Crichton

For me, a highlight of this last week was reading Michael Crichton’s Next (HarperCollins). So what do I think of the novel?

First, let me warn you that Next is no Jurassic Park, nor is it another Andromeda Strain. Perhaps most importantly, neither is it a State of Fear (thank goodness). But Next is certainly an interesting tale about the perils and the benefits of genetic manipulation. The novel is structured rather like a Robert Altman film, with several intersecting characters in this case trying to understand the impact of manipulating human and animal genes, with the strands all impacting each other toward a rather bleak conclusion. Replete with explanations of cutting-edge science, Next also offers doses of pathos, as characters compete to harness genetic technology to advance the human genome toward the next level. In this propulsive yarn, we find multilingual primates, such as the speaking chimp, Dave, who is only 400 genes short of being a male homo sapien; a talking parrot named Gerard, who possesses the IQ of a human; and California scientists rushing to patent fragments of human genomes with which they hope to cure diseases and advance human evolution. Crichton’s characters weave in and out of his plot, emphasizing that caution must be exercised when embracing this technology. One of the scientists, for instance, thinks he may have discovered a genetic cure for drug addiction--only to realize that his genetic spray has a serious dark side.

Unexpectedly, Crichton is funniest and most playful in these pages when he’s dealing with genetic manipulation, the players coming off like overgrown children throwing open Pandora’s box. So, while Next is an important addition to the techno-thriller subgenre, it is also great fun at times.

The London Observer last week referred to Crichton as the “king of the techno-thriller,” and there’s no arguing that label. But such a reputation hasn’t come easily. As the Observer points out,
[Crichton] works a seven-day week, rising at 6 a.m. and staying increasingly late at the office as each book progresses. One of his editors says: ‘Whatever the word is that’s the opposite of lazy is what Michael is.’ He claims to have 30 potential ideas for books buzzing in his brain at any one time. Shortly before they divorced, his fourth wife, Anne-Marie, publicly complained that his workaholism left her feeling abandoned: ‘It’s like living with a body and Michael is somewhere else.’

Writing is in the DNA. The
son of a journalist, Crichton grew up to the clatter of a typewriter, ‘so it seemed like a normal occupation, to sit down and type something as your job.’ As a child he wrote scripts for his friends and became the school swot. He recalls: ‘I was the weird kid who wrote extra assignments the teacher didn’t ask for. I just did it because I liked writing so much. I was tall and gangly and awkward and I needed to escape, I guess.’
Nowadays, others are escaping through Crichton’s fiction. Many others. Some 3 million copies of Next have been printed and dispatched to bookstores worldwide.

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