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January 31, 2005

A Short, Possibly Unfair, Story About Michael Crichton

I love Michael Crichton's writing. I've read almost all of his books. In particularly, I reread Travels (a collection of autobiographical essays) all the time. He is one genuine malcontent freakazoid, and these are my favorite kind of people.

But I'm not going to read State of Fear. Not if this Slate review, this one at Real Climate and this one by Chris Mooney are anything to go by. And I bet they are.

Crichton is obviously an extremely talented novelist and all-around brainiac. God knows he can do all kinds of things most people (including me) never could. That said, he likes to dress up his exciting tales in scientific mumbo-jumbo that has little to do with scientific reality.

I don't think this because I'm Mr. Scientist. I'm not. I know barely anything about science. But... I can tell this even by the little bit I do know.

For instance, I love The Andromeda Strain. I read it a billion times when I was a kid. But the climax of the story depends on something that couldn't happen, at least not in this branch of reality.

If you haven't read it, The Andromeda Strain is about a tiny organism that a satellite picks up in outer space. The satellite malfunctions and crashes back to earth. And it turns out the organism kills people within seconds. A whole small town in Arizona dies.

As the books nears the finish, the organism seems poised to kill all humanity. But it suddenly mutates into something benign. Phew! The End.

Fine. But outside of novels, organisms don't mutate like that. For instance, today there are cats with fur, and creepy weirdo cats with no fur. At one point they shared a common ancestor that had fur. One day, the genes of one of the ancestor's offspring mutated so that the offspring had no fur. (Apparently this happened very recently, in 1966.) Both the offspring with fur and the mutated offspring with no fur have reproduced and passed along their genes. So now we have both kinds of cats, the creepy and non-creepy.

But when the no-fur mutation happened, it didn't simultaneously happen to ALL CATS EVERYWHERE. It just happened to one kitten. If mutations happened like in The Andromeda Strain, then every cat alive in 1966 would suddenly have lost all their fur. And every cat alive today would be fur-less. (Yikes.) Conversely, if The Andromeda Strain were like the real world, just one of the tiny alien organisms would have mutated into something benign. The other seven billion would have remained deadly and wiped out the human race.

I don't think it's a crime that Crichton messed with reality this way. It's just part of telling a story. But it does show he's willing to misrepresent science, even while giving his stories a heavy veneer of science to make readers feel "this could really happen!"

Furthermore, the science-veneer—even when not glaringly wrong—is much more shallow than it appears. When my father read Jurassic Park, he said, "It's sounds like his knowledge of chaos theory comes from reading the Science section of the New York Times every week for two months."

I think this is exactly right, and that Crichton realizes this himself. That's the subject of my very short story about him:

I once met someone who worked on the movie version of Jurassic Park. I mentioned my father's "Science section of the New York Times" comment.

The person I met was the son of one of the prominent people involved in making Jurassic Park. So when Crichton was on the set, he had the opportunity to talk to him. And so in response to my father's comment, the prominent-person's-son said: "Yeah... I talked to Crichton about how much he really understood about all the stuff in the book. And he told me, 'I usually just do enough research to make it sound like I know what I'm talking about.'"

And really, that's fine. Crichton has written books having to do with biology, fancy math, genetics, airplane design, computer science, paleontology, nanotechnology, global warming and more. People can spend their whole lives learning about just one of these subjects, and still not know all there is to know. There's no way Crichton could write the books he does and deeply understand the science involved in each one.

I don't even mind him giving the impression he knows more than he does. It's part of his genius as a storyteller. And by making science seem exciting and compelling, he's probably inspired many youngsters to be scientists, and many others to be more generally interested in science. That's a very good thing.

But it's also why I'm not going to read State of Fear. When Crichton's books are great, it's not because the science is great. It's because he's using his amazing storytelling ability to its fullest. (In fact, as with The Andromeda Strain, good science could get in the way of the story.)

Unfortunately, it sounds like with State of Fear he's given up entirely on telling a story. It's just a creaky vehicle for a strange ideological jeremiad. And while I'm all for strange ideological jeremiads, the correct vehicle for them is not expensive hardback novels. Strange ideological jeremiads should stay where they belong, which is on small websites named after things said by George Orwell.

And when you launch your jeremiads, you have an obligation you don't have when telling a story: being accurate. It's fine to be inaccurate if your story is good. But without a story, you need to make sure you know what you're talking about. No story and no accuracy is a bad combination.

Posted at January 31, 2005 11:53 AM | TrackBack

I also read The Andromeda Strain a few times when I was a kid. I remember it pretty well. And as I remember it, it seems it would be extremely boring to read now. All that stuff (levels, costumes and so on) described with excruciating detail. Arggg.

Posted by: abb1 at January 31, 2005 12:57 PM

I think Crichton started to tick me off after I read _Rising Sun_. It wasn't that I found the story overly racist, as many others did, it was just the laziness of it. Not that there's anything wrong with laziness per se, but when you are basically claiming in your marketing material and choice of reviewer quotes that this is the book that tells everyone everything they need to know about Japan and Japan's economic boom, well, laziness is just kind of... lazy.

On the other hand, I did read the book on a plane and it kept me distracted for five hours, which I suppose is really all Crichton intended anyway.

Posted by: Ted at January 31, 2005 01:07 PM

Being a devout reader of Heinlein, I always found Crichton to be the kind of fiction appropriate for young people. The sort of pie-in-the-sky science fiction that no educated person (ie., someone who had achieved the level of undergraduate) could take seriously. Nothing personal against you, Jon, but there is better science writing in the world...a fact I'm sure you're aware of.

So on the subject of science, I'm inclined to agree with you about Crichton.

However, I would like to point out, just to soothe my own conscience, that organized environmentalism has become a demogogue-like entity, with no more understanding of science than Crichton has. In a bizarre way, Crichton, a self-confessed fake, is in a perfect position to criticize other fakes. He does, after all, have a handle on how to turn pseudo-science into big bucks, the raison d'etre of the present environmental movement.

Posted by: Alexis at February 1, 2005 08:51 AM

I can't agree that knowing enough science to only sound like you know what you are talking about is Just Fine. Science, too, raises some important public policy questions, and incorrect stories just confuse people (didn't someone say something about the necessity of an informed electorate). And being a great story teller doesn't excuse what Crichton does. In fact, because he is so widely read and is thus an opinion maker, he has an even greater responsibility to get it right.

Posted by: Charlie Schwarz at February 1, 2005 09:50 AM


I mostly agree with you about Crichton. But I loved his novels when I was a kid, and have some residual loyalty to them. Some of them still stand up well.

Plus, his non-fiction book Travels is weirdly compelling no matter how old you are. He's done a lot of peculiar stuff in his life.


My head says you're right. But my heart says: there aren't so many good storytellers that we can jetison one even when they get stuff wrong.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at February 1, 2005 10:36 AM