Michael Crichton


"Next"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky JAN 7, 2007)

"This wasn't about the common good. It was about getting rich."

Michael Crichton's Next is another screed along the lines of State of Fear, his diatribe against global warming. Be warned: this lengthy novel consists of short chapters in which the author constantly goes back and forth from one subplot to another. You will need a scorecard to keep track of who is doing what to whom and why. There are greedy venture capitalists; researchers who try untested therapies on humans; and hypocritical scientists who say that they care about humanity, when their real goal is to fatten their bank accounts and aggrandize their reputations.

The United States government provides billions of dollars in grants to academic institutions for biotech research. The universities, in turn, have developed close ties with wealthy corporations. Among the questionable practices in our brave new world are: patenting genes, experimenting with and selling human tissue without the consent of the donor, and using genetic testing to deny health insurance to subscribers who test positive for heart disease, breast cancer, or other life-threatening illnesses.

The convoluted story involves a host of bad guys doing their best to make a quick buck at humanity's expense. Jack Watson is a fabulously wealthy individual who pretends to be "a capitalist with a conscience." In reality, he is, a manipulative, ruthless, and ambitious monster, who commits heinous acts to get what he wants. Rich Diehl, the CEO of BioGen Research, is struggling to make a go of his startup. He is at the mercy of Watson, his chief investor, who pulls strings behind the scenes to oust Diehl and take over BioGen. Another villain is the slick Rob Bellarmino, head of the genetics section of the National Institutes of Health. Bellarmino is an evangelical Christian and media savvy scientist. His nickname is "Robbin' Rob," because of his practice of stealing other people's research and passing it off as his own. A touch of comic relief is provided by three quasi-animals: an orangutan who speaks French and Dutch; an African grey parrot who can imitate any sound, do math, and quote movies; and a "humanzee" (part chimp and part human) named Dave, who wreaks havoc when his human father brings him home to meet the wife and kids.

There are a few people to root for in Next, including Frank Burnet and his daughter, Alison, a thirty-two year old lawyer. Without obtaining permission, his doctor sells Burnet's valuable cancer fighting cells for three billion dollars to BioGen. A furious Frank sues UCLA, where the doctor works, claiming that "our bodies are our individual property." Burnet's lawyer argues that medical practitioners should not be allowed to use anyone's tissues for commercial purposes without first obtaining the patient's written consent. This case makes for an intriguing courtroom battle.

Michael Crichton has written a cautionary tale that is a combination of thriller, treatise, and expository essay. Although gene therapy has the potential to cure hundreds of diseases, there is a downside to having this new technology at our disposal. Next offers dozens of terrifying scenarios that are the stuff of nightmares, but it falls short as a work of fiction. There are too many dizzying plot elements, the characters are poorly developed, and there is too much heavy-handed editorializing. Next would have been a more compelling medical thriller had Crichton toned down his rhetoric, trusting the reader to get the message on his own.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 530 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Next at HarperCollins.com

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"State of Fear"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 16, 2005)

"The stakes are enormous, Peter. Global warming is the greatest crisis facing mankind. You know that. I know that. Most of the civilized world knows that. We must act to save the planet, before it is too late."

Michael Crichton's new thriller centers on a most radical plot: global warming as a conspiracy for environmental organizations to raise more money. Central to the book is the question regarding the factual evidence of global warming, and whether or not it can be proven in a court of law.

Common sense (unless you are Rush Limbaugh) says that, of course global warming exists. We all know this and we all want to fight the good fight. Right?

Think again.

In a carefully laid out (and footnoted) plot, Crighton takes three years worth of personal study of the scientific reports on the environment and stages an edge-of-the-seat thriller about an environmental group being infiltrated by a neo-con organization. Oops, that's where I thought the plot was heading. I was wrong and like lawyer Peter Evans in the novel, I had my head completely turned around on the topic of global warming. That is to say, with further reading, the story twists when we realize that the bad guys are the environmentalists and that this mysterious guy called Kenner, who keeps spewing facts and data that goes against common sense, is actually the good guy. Yes, you heard me correctly, the scientific facts just don't support the theory of an impending global warming crisis. The reality is, we don't have enough information to predict next week's weather never mind what it will be like in 2100. If this book doesn't get people talking and thinking, then I'd have to conclude that despite the news media's outpouring of stories, that people really don't care about the world around them.

Back to the story. Millionnaire George Morton is one of the main contributors to NERF (National Environmental Research Fund), which is overseen by lawyer Nicholas Drake and PR man John Henley. The current NERF project that Morton has committed to fund is a lawsuit against the EPA on behalf of the island nation of Vanutu, which threatens to be overrun with a rising sea level caused by global warming. Morton has donated millions to fund the Vanutu litigation team. In fact, Morton has contributed so much money to NERF, Drake is planning an honorary banquet for him. But when a check for a quarter of a million dollars bearing Morton's name surfaces during an aquisition of a two-man research submarine and is connected to an environmental organization that neither he nor Evans has ever heard of, Morton becomes suspicious of how NERF is using his money. And this leads us to the first meeting with Mr. John Kenner who is on sabbatical from MIT and traveling with his graduate student Sanjong Thapa from Napal. After a private meeting between Kenner and Morton, Morton is suddenly acting strangely and is unavailable. He is reluctant to give the Vanutu litigation money and while totally drunk at the banquet, publicly withdraws his finanical support for the Vanutu case.

That night, Morton dies in drunken automobile accident. Even though Peter Evans is still mostly believing in NERF and Drake's cause, he's finding his belief system totally challenged by this mysterious man Kenner; he's in further conflict because Morton seemed to have trusted Kenner, and he admired Morton. When they find a list that Morton had hidden, Kenner commands them to join him on Morton's plane. Evans finds himself in Anartica along with Morton's athletic and beautiful secretary, Sarah, and he is eventually converted to Kenner's cause, especially when he and Sarah are nearly murdered. It seems that "global warming" is a poor means to raise money -- especially in the winter -- and that not too many people are hot on giving money to prevent events that are proposed to happen in the far future (hence the current emphasis in the possibility of a "sudden" changed in climate). In this fiction, the Eco-terrorists are planning to stage events that will help emphasize the climate crisis. Kenner is out to stop these life-threatening staged events.

Crichton fans will love the action/tech scenes as Kenner and his team try to stop the eco-terrorists. They are good; but it is the discourses on the environmental issues that has me giving the book an extra recommendation. First the book is full of graphs and footnotes to help back the question on whether global warming is a real enough threat. There are also many actual examples of events that have happened and their outcome and/or affect on other events. Essentially, Crichton is warning against politicized science and the inherit harm and misdirection that can come from this. Kenner is constantly challenging the others in the novel on their assumptions in conversations, "So," Kenner said, "global warming represents a threat to the world?" When Bradley says, "Absolutely," Kenner eggs him on until Bradley cites these issues:

"Crop failures, spreading deserts, new diseases, species extinction, all the glaciers melting, Kilimanjaro, sea-level rise, extreme weather, tornadoes, hurricanes, El Niño events..."

"That sounds exremely serious," Kenner said.

"It is," Bradley said. "It really is."

"Are you sure of your facts?

"Of course."

"You can back your claims with references to the scientific literature?"

"Well, I can't personally, but scientists can."

"Actually, scientific studies do not support your claims. For example, crop failure -- if anything, increased carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth. There is some evidence of this happening. An the more recent satellite studies show the Sahara has shrunk since 1980. As for new diseases--not true. The rate of emergence of new diseases has not changed since 1960."

Kenner continues point by point disproving everything Bradley cites as a serious problem. Of course, as the reader we have seen Kenner do this kind of debunking over and over. In the beginning we are skeptical but by the time he gets ahold of Bradley, a well-known, egotistical actor who is always giving a voice to envrionmental issues, we know what's going to happen to Bradley and his beliefs. We've been there and even if we don't have the facts, we know Kenner does.

Besides Kenner, there is one other character, who has an important role in getting across the notion of exactly why global warming is an important political issue. Professor Hoffman studies the ecology of the "man-made world of mental abstractions," just as there is an ecology of the natural world, there is one on ideas and thoughts. Out of this study he has found certain fads, one such is the state of fear that is perpetuated by the politico-legal-media (PLM) complex, that is, promoting fear under the guise of promoting safety. "Politicians need fears to control the population. Lawyers need dangers to litigate, and make money. The media need scare stories to capture an audience. Together, these three estates are so compelling that they can go about their business even if the scare is totally groundless." Essentially after the cold war, we needed a new fear to keep us under control and global warming serves this purpose well. Evans' meeting with Hoffman is brief, but key to Crichton's notion of what is wrong with our current environmental thinking.

Crichton closes the novel with a clarification of his own views expressed in the form of an author's message. There are no surprises here given the wealth of data interspersed throughout the novel but it is a welcome addition to the novel from a discussion point of view. On and off, for the past two days, Carl and I have been talking about the ideas in this novel. We worked out the statement we could live with when it comes to global warming and our belief system -- some things that Crichton says, we accept but we still believe it is important for the U.S. to sign the Kyoto agreement (as we don't see the harm in reducing CO2 emissions and we do think we should be a better global partner). We discussed the purpose of adding footnotes to fiction: structurally, I feel it aids our belief that Kenner is correct in his assumptions which is important for changing the attitude of Morten and Evans; Carl feels the danger is that we take the footnote as gospel and overlook that all footnotes are cherry-picked from their source and may not be fully accurate. How much does one believe footnotes in fiction? We discussed if it is right for an author to have an agenda and express it through fiction: why else would one write fiction, I said; Carl thinks if you have an agenda then why wouldn't it be written as nonfiction. We talked about the difference between classifying this book as Science Fiction or as a Thriller; Carl thinks if it includes science, then it is science fiction. I call it a thriller because it is based off of headline news and will make a really great movie (especially if James Spader plays the role of Kenner). Then there is the matter of Hoffman's PLM, which we both agreed is well expressed, but Carl thinks that we shouldn't take Crichton seriously since the book is "media" and thus part of the problem. To a point, I agree; look at Crichton's final point in the author's notes: "Everybody has an agenda. Except me." I'm positive that Crichton wrote that point with a broad grin on his face.

In the end, I think we were both entertained by the book, but, more so, we enjoyed our (sometimes heated) discussions. Have we learned anything new? Certainly. Do we buy Michael Crichton's ideas wholesale? Not exactly, except where he discusses the PLM. After all, it is not so different than what Walter Mosley expresses in Workin' on the Chain Gang when he advises that we turn off the TV and think for ourselves or Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country? in which he discusses in great detail the use of "fear" to control us.So, do we recommend that you read State of Fear? Most certainly. Will you have answers about whether or not global warming is real? No, as Michael Crichton points out, we don't know enough -- but he takes the question one step further and asks, so why do we throw money at a solution when we don't really know if there is a problem.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 1376 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from State of Fear at HarperCollins.com

1-6-2007 NOTE: If I had known that President Bush would treat Michael Crichton as an expert on Global Warming because of his FICTION, I certainly would have written this review in a different way. This is fiction. If you choose to read this novel, which I see no reason why you shouldn't since it is a thriller and it is fun, please also watch Mr. Al Gore's DVD An Inconvenient Truth for a quick antidote. And while you are at, do something for the envirnoment, nothing wrong with hedging your bets on the side of caution no matter how you come out on this issue. Please note that today is January 6, I live in Southern NH; today's temperature reached a high of 72 degrees. It snowed last Saturday and it may snow sometime next week. But never before have we hit this temperature this time of year, not to mention the spring-like temperatures that we've had all week since the brief snowstorm. I'm trying not to worry about drowning polar bears while enjoying a nice walk in the sun.

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"Prey"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 30, 2002)

"They didn't understand what they were doing."

If the you want the short review without all the extra words, then here it is: I give this one two thumbs up, go ahead and read it; especially if you like a good technological thriller; without exception if you happen to work in the high tech sector. Author InterviewThere's no doubt that Crichton has wrapped a story around a message, one which he feels strongly about, but nevertheless, the way he does it, you won't mind. If you are going to get lectured to, Crichton is certainly the writer to pull it off.

Read excerptThe beginning of PREY is fairly innocuous; it could almost be mistaken for a study on domestic role reversal. Fired from his last job, Jack Forman has adapted to the role of househusband. As such he's involved in the day to routine of running a household and taking care of the kids; he does the grocery shopping, drops off and picks up the kids, even finds himself in Crate & Barrel testing out how white plates will look on yellow placemats. Julia, his wife, is never home so he ends up eating alone with the kids, making sure their homework is done and bedtime schedules are met. Julia, often home after the kids are in bed, is disruptive, breaks promises, and routinely wakes Amanda their 9-month-old baby after she's down for the night. This woman who used to laugh a lot is now just generally defensive and cranky. But as househusband, his other job is to assuage her feelings, despite how he really feels.

Julia is Vice President for an aggressive company that is on the verge of winning the impossible race to manufacture nanotechnology molecules. The company is at a critical juncture in its effort to acquire venture capital funding, so Julia's working later and later hours. The two older kids, 12-year-old Nicole and 8-year-old Eric are tired of their mother's absence and act out their disrespect. Jack doesn't like his wife's attitude and behavior, but he tends to defend her whenever there is a confrontation. But Jack is having more and more misgivings about Julia, especially when he lights upon the one thing that seems to make sense --- Julia must be having an affair.

Even though we know why Jack believes this at that point in time, logically we know more must be going on otherwise Jack would not be telling us this story, one that begins with "things never turn out the way you think they will." So throughout the domestic discourse, odd things are peppered in between the normal. But the odd is never so unreasonable that they can't be explained away. Besides for Jack to come up with the answer as "Julia is having an affair" underlines the whole premise of this novel; we don't have the imagination to think outside of our experience. But this beginning also serves another purpose; it provides the groundwork to help the layperson understand things that are about to happen. It also provides information about what Jack had been doing for a living and how this fits into what Julia is now working on, or at least how Jack suspects they fit together. Then just as it seems that Jack and Julia can't go on as they are, the novel takes a sharp (but acceptably logical) turn and Jack finally gets the chance to learn what his wife was doing uncharacteristically messing around with the Nevada manufacturing plant.

And from this point on, it's a heck of a ride. Whereas the first half of the novel gently nudges at our curiosity, with the second half it is nonstop action. It often reminded me of scenes in the book version of Stephen King's It like when the adults have to work together to save themselves and ultimately Derry, Maine. It's clear that Michael Crichton wants to scare some sense into humankind and might even succeed in converting a few into Luddites, not that that would be a cure for anything. Because it is not the technology that is scary, in fact, I found Crichton's blending of the diverse fields into one application absolutely wondrous. The scary element is human stupidity, greed, shortsightedness, whatever it is that makes us go for a short-term goal without once contemplating long-term effects. Whether we go in a whimper or bang isn't so much the point as that we are likely to cause our own demise. "But then, things never turn out the way you think they will."

And now for some comments on the technology of PREY. Crichton takes four separate fields, distributed processing for networked computing, nanotechnology or as Julie's company calls it, molecular manufacturing, biotechnology and the behavioral science of socially organized insect communities, such as bees and ants. By tying in the evolution process, he comes up with a very plausible scenario (more so than Jurassic Park) and some possible "Particle Swarm Oganization" applications. As he says in his forward, "Sometime in the twenty-first century, our self-deluded recklessness will collide with our growing technological power." But don't be afraid that you won't understand the technology. Crichton is crystal clear. For example, with evolution, he helps us by putting the big picture on a scale that anyone of us can grasp. Even with newer concepts he is helpful. This is not like reading a Greg Bear novel in which Bear explains for pages and pages what a phage is in relation to bacteria. Instead, Crichton cuts to the core in about one sentence to explain, "phage is a virus that attacks bacteria." Need more information? Check out his bibliography at the end of the novel.

As much as I enjoyed it, this novel is not perfect. I feel that there are a few loose ends not explained at the end of the novel, although there is an attempt to wrap things up. In a good move Crichton provides a glimpse into what is to come with a few paragraphs at the start of the novel, but when you get to the actual text where the words should have been taken from, they don't match. These things aren't so bothersome to shun the book, the plot is worth the few discrepancies. It's also easy to imagine a sequel, if not in book form, but after it's made into a movie, as this will no doubt be done (the film rights were purchased right off). I'm not sure why that bothers me, but I guess I feel a little manipulated, but hopefully I'm wrong and that this was unintentional. I also think the title is misleading or at least unimaginative. Or maybe I'm just colored by an incident that happened while I was in the Laundromat. After answering the question about what I was reading, the woman responded by exclaiming, "Oh, John Sanford has a Prey series too!" It was then that I wished that Crichton had named this book something less sensational and more sci-fi sounding, such as "NANOSWARM." I also wished the woman would go away and let me read; she had no idea what she was interrupting.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 860 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from PREY at MostlyFiction.com

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"Airframe"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAY 7, 2005)

I am reviewing Airframe at the urging of my father. This is likely to be the the last complete book that he will read in his life, though this is unspoken between us. Over the years he has passed many books to me that he later asks how I liked them. This time I don't want to say that I haven't gotten to it yet. "Later" isn't an option.

In this novel, Crichton takes us into the world of the large aircraft builders. Similar to Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, his fictional company, Norton, builds the airframes which are purchased around the world by the airlines. Norton is in the middle of a bid for a Chinese airline, which is essential to them. Right now they are building “white” N22 airframes, that is, building new airframes on spec (no customer yet) just to keep the assembly lines open. The China deal is close to being closed. But then, the N22 has a strange occurrence just outside the United States as it is coming in from the orient. A loud noise is heard, the plane falls, then goes into a steep climb and falls again. The pilot asks for an emergency landing in Los Angeles and forty ambulances.

Casey Singleton, a 40-something single Mom, is the Vice President of QA/IRT and recently appointed spokesperson for Norton, especially for the N22. Because her boss and the president of the company are due to go back to China in a week to close the deal, it is essential that she and her team find the root cause of the incident (in which 3 people died) within the week, which of course, is not near enough time. They are hoping this incident stays off the news; given that there is no film footage and it happened outside the states, it is likely not to hit the airwaves. But then another incident occurs in Miami. The engine on another N22 catches fire and though there is footage, it is not that exciting as to dominate the news. That incident is easy to explain away. The airline had put in a rebuilt engine, with bad blades. Norton recommended against it, but the airline did it anyway. As Casey explains to her new assistant, Richmond, it is “… like choosing tires for your car the manufacturer can make recommendations…” The first incident is still the big draw if the story leaks because it looks to be a familiar problem that they thought they had solved years ago, what they call an “uncommanded slats deployment.” It is Casey's job to keep this quiet.

Meanwhile, the union is unhappy about a rumor being circulated about the China deal; that the wings are being sent to China as part of the contract. This is unheard of. Whenever a foreign country buys airframes, part of the deal is to send some part of the manufacturing to that country. But never the wings. That is the whole proprietary secret behind an airframe. It is true that the test tools, manufacturing tools and wings are being packaged up to be shipped, but Casey believes that the wings are just going over to the New Orleans plant a normal activity. But the local newspaper hack and the union official say that official documents say otherwise. Casey can’t get to the bottom of it but she does know that the union guys intend to get rough with her. She is warned by several people to watch her back and be careful where she walks alone. They are right.

Given that the time frame is short, Crichton breaks up the chapters by each day of the week and the sub-chapters with the time of day and location. We follow Casey Singleton, mostly, but there is also insight into the hard copy news program, Newsline, and their young producer who has decided to get the scoop on the “unreliable… occurrences of the N22.” As Crichton is wont to do, he puts the media in a very bad light here as he shows how they put the story they want to tell ahead of the story that really is. He does this well here and lays the groundwork for what we later see in State of Fear.

As per usual, Crichton integrates the technical with the action so smoothly that as the reader we learn a lot about the whole manufacturing process and the interactions between the different organization within this type of company. The story zips along as we see each inconsistency and want to learn more as to what is the cause of the N22 incident. Is it a bad part, did the slats deploy and if so, was it uncommanded? If the slats were deployed on purpose, then why would a top rated pilot do such a thing? And who is this Richmond guy assigned to Casey? Is he really a family member being shown favoritism? Who are the thugs that keep trying to do harm to Casey? And, what is Casey going to say to the Newsline star reporter when asked in 10 hours what was the cause of the N22 incident, which of course is now all over CNN (a passenger did sneak some footage off the plane).

This is a really good book. It is smoother and less forced than either PREY or State of Fear. The best part is that it is a fast read and thus I am able to share my thoughts with my father in what may be one of our last conversations. So thank you, Dad, for lending me this book.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 557 reviews
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"Disclosure"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAY 30, 1998)

Whew!  Did this ever bring me back to my old job as a Product Manager in the computer industry. Carl and I read this after we quit or jobs and were living on the boat. It made us a little homesick for our old jobs (but not enough). I know it's hard to imagine that anyone could make the computer industry be an interesting backdrop for a thriller, but somehow Crichton has done just this.  If I didn't know better I'd swear he spent a year at Microsoft or some place similar, but it is about the only thing that is not in his biography.

The plot is a reversal on the standard sexual discrimination case.  This time it's a female boss using her position against our protagonist Tom Sanders. But there's far more going on than meets the eye...

  • Amazon reader rating: from 150 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Published as Jeffrey Hudson:

Non-fiction:

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About the Author:

Michael CrichtonMichael Crichton was born in Chicago in 1942 and graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University. At twenty-three, Crichton was a visiting lecturer in anthropologyat Cambridge University, England. Upon his return to the States, Crichton began training as a doctor, and graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1969. He paid his way through medical school by writing thrillers under pseudonyms (such as John Lange). A Case of Need written under the name Jeffrey Hudson won the 1969 Edgar Award. By the time he graduated, Crichton had already written a bestseller (The Andromeda Strain, 1969) and sold it to Hollywood. He then pursued postgraduate studies at the Salk Institute in California before taking up writing full time. Crichton is also the creator of the television series ER.

Michael Crichton died unexpectedly in Los Angeles Tuesday, November 4, 2008 after a courageous and private battle against cancer.

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