BETWEEN THE COVERS Exploring Michael Crichton’s literary oeuvre. PRADEEP SEBASTIAN
It’s funny to think now that there was actually a time when Michael Crichton wasn’t widely known. This was pre- Jurassic time — the 1980s. I remember trying to persuade friends to try the books of Michael Crichton. What’s he written? They would ask. And I would reel off some titles and they would frown, obviously uninterested. If he had passed away then, it wouldn’t have been news, and only buffs would really have noticed and felt the loss. Somewhere in a newspaper corner there would have been an obit. Jurassic Park may have been the best thing that happened to this author (money and fame-wise) but it’s possibly the worst thing that happened to his pre-Jurassic fans. After Spielberg and bestsellerdom happened, he wrote with an eye to please, he wrote for the movies (the post-Jurassic books are really fleshed out screenplays) and he was hoping to be sensational all the time. The science and the fun had gone out of his writing.
If you’ve mostly been reading MC post-Jurassic, I’d urge you to consider his early books, which are really his best. The book that made Crichton’s reputation is, of course, The Andromeda Strain. Reading it for the first time, I remember being completely in thrall to its documentary approach to suspense. He was narrating an intricate scientific drama in a prose that was precise, matter of fact, and dense with technical jargon – uncommon in thrillers then. Most bestsellers glossed over scientific details and hurried on with the plot. In The Andromeda Strain, the science was the plot. I was impressed by all the footnotes in the book, which made the science even denser and more fascinating.
I’m pretty sure most of you must know the background to what Crichton was doing when he wrote this book, but I’ll still mention it here briefly. He was a medical student at Harvard, and so bored with the course that he spent his time plotting and writing The Andromeda Strain. He had no idea it would become a bestseller (and be made into a movie — twice, more recently as a mini-series) and he published it under his own name. (Until then he had been shooting off thrillers under different names, most memorably as John Lange). The Terminal Man, which followed, was less satisfying. He surprised his readers and critics with Eaters of the Dead — a book that had no scientific theme, and which must also count as one of the strangest thrillers ever written by a bestselling author. Congo is perhaps his best book after Andromeda.
If you’ve seen the movie and left it at that, I’d strongly recommend the book. It’s a marvelous adventure full of all kinds of lore, not just scientific. The Great Train Robbery is a lot of fun, too. In this case, the movie is fairly good, if not as good. His early non-fiction book, Travels, is also fascinating and reveals many personal things about the author that will surprise you. One aspect to Crichton and his books that has disturbed me are the traces of racism one sees in, say, Congo and Rising Sun. The Africans are portrayed stereotypically, and the book is certainly guilty of being orientalist. Rising Sun is not flattering to the Japanese. Disclosure, of course, is some kind of anti-feminist thriller. More recently, his State of Fear critiques global warming as something made up by environmentalists, and apparently distorts facts. He was a kind of neo-conservative writer using his thrillers to present his pet theories and provoke reactions. Luckily, his early books are mostly devoid of his prejudices and politics and still hold up as unusual entertainment.
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