Skip to comments.Chronicler of the NEXT... Mark Steyn on Michael Crichton
Posted on 11/07/2008 6:32:35 AM PST by Rummyfan
Michael Crichton, 1942-2008
Michael Crichton was a man of formidable intelligence and boundless curiosity. The two don't go together quite as often as they should. For years, when I picked up his latest novel, I'd find myself sighing, "Of course." The books had the inevitability of all the truly great ideas - as if they had not been cooked up in his study but had always been lying there, like truffles out in the woods, and he'd just been the first hound to get to them and snuffle them out. But, of course, he got to them again and again, for over 30 years. To be sure, the characters and the prose didn't always rise to life, but the concept, the premise, the hit title usually saw him through. The critics were snippy about Crichton, but then he had the measure of the media far more than they had it of him.
I had a small amount of personal contact with him. A few years back I wrote a piece for The Australian about "climate change" and made a reference to his latest book:
Michael Crichton's environmental novel State Of Fear has many enjoyable moments, not least the deliciously apt fate he devises for a Martin Sheenesque Hollywood eco-poseur. But, along the way, his protagonist makes a quietly sensible point - that activist lobby groups ought to close down the office after 10 years. By that stage, regardless of the impact they've had on whatever cause they're hot for, they're chiefly invested in perpetuating their own indispensability.
That's what happened to the environmental movement.
A day or so later I got an e-mail from him, thanking me not just for the endorsement but for the broader argument, and making a couple of very sharp, technical points about the "global warming" scare. As soon as the eco-hooey got his attention, he accumulated a ton of information and marshaled it more effectively than most folks on either side of the debate. That was the way he worked. Once a subject grabbed him, he soaked up far more factoids and graphs and pie charts than he could ever use in a novel. But they were part of the solid foundation from which his most inspired flights of fancy took off. There will be a final posthumous work out early next year, but here's what I wrote for Maclean's in 2007 about his penultimate and perfectly titled novel:
The title of Michael Crichtons new novel, Next, would be a grand title for his collected works. He has a remarkable instinct not just for novelizing the hot topic du jour but for pushing it on to the next stage, across the thin line that separates todays headlines from tomorrows brave new world. Hes especially good at the convergence of the mighty currents of the time the intersection of the technological, legal, political and cultural forces in society and the way wily opportunists can hop and skip from one lily pad to another until something that would once have sounded insane is now routine. In Next, for example, a celebrity divorce attorney slumbering through a yawnsville meeting with some schlub cuckold of a genetic research exec suddenly spots the possibilities:
'What did you just say?'
'I said, "I want my wife tested "'
'For everything,' he said.
'Ah,' Barry said, nodding wisely. What the hell was the guy talking about? Genetic testing? In a custody case ?
'For example,' Diehl said. 'Ill bet my wife has a genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder. She certainly acts erratic. She might have the Alzheimers gene '
'Good, very good.' Barry Sindler was nodding vigorously now. This was making him happy. Fresh, new disputed areas. Sindler loved disputed areas Whatever the test results, they would be disputed. More days in court, more expert witnesses to interview, battles of the doctorates, dragging on for days. Days in court were especially lucrative.
And best of all, Barry realized that this genetic testing could become standard procedure for all custody cases.
Doesnt that sound not just plausible but inevitable? And thats before theyve even identified half the genes worth litigating over. The best Crichton novels are like the DNA double-helix strands of science and media, genius and huckstering that twist in and out of each other.
To be sure, he is an airport novelist, in the sense that airport bookstores are piled high with his books. By far the most conventional part of Next is the prologue, in which a couple of private detectives pursue a guy and a Ukrainian hooker through a landmark Vegas hotel its all payphones and confused chases through restaurant kitchens and frantic pushing of elevator buttons. And it ends in death. Its like reading a great description of some movie. But where Crichton goes after that is all his own invented Google search results, mock newspaper reports (very mocking in the case of The New York Times correction-prone style), and wodges of peculiarly convincing techno-jargon. Take this passage. In a way, its nothing special a meeting between a lawyer and a genetic researcher. But to be able to pull off the detail at this level is impressive:
The attorney consulted a notepad. 'Your best candidate is a patent application from 1998 for aminocarboxymuconate methaldehyde dehydrogenase, or ACMMD. The patent claims effects on neurotransmitter potentials in the cingulate gyrus.
Thats the mode of action, Josh said, for our maturity gene.
The maturity gene is an example of what one might call the geneticization of life. Crichton also unveils a sociability gene formerly a conventional gene (ie, it predisposes one to boringly conventional behavior) but that name didnt focus-group well. There is also a Neanderthal gene, to which environmentalists are prone: Why, then, did Neanderthals die out? The answer, according to Professor Sheldon Harmon of the University of Wisconsin, was that the Neanderthals carried a gene that led them to resist change. Neanderthals were the first environmentalists. They created a lifestyle in harmony with nature. They limited game hunting, and they controlled tool use. But this same ethos also made them intensely conservative and resistant to change.
This is a bit of harmlessly low payback for those eco-bores who attacked Crichton for his last novel, State Of Fear, a gleeful assault on the enviro-hucksters thats full of facts and hugely enjoyable to those not in thrall to the climate-change cultists. Theres one scene in which Crichton devises a very apt demise for a blowhard Hollywood activist. Theyre easy targets, of course, but Crichtons prose achieves a rare poetry in its account of a man unaware of how profoundly unaware he is.
Next is a different kind of novel. Its a book set on the brink of a trans-human if not post-human future in which tourists in Sumatra can stumble across an orangutang who speaks fluent Dutch and the state of California can use eminent domain to seize your cells and, on balance, the orangutang seems to enjoy more legal protection than you do. Its fitting that, in a novel in which humanity is a commodity, every character is a minor character. Next is a mosaic, in which scientists and researchers plus assorted wives, husbands, moms, brothers and pets move in and out of focus sliding inch by inch down the slippery slope to ethically dark territory. Theyre little people caught up in something big, and as Crichton moves through the usual scenarios infidelity, drug abuse, underage sex he tosses in some fresh new high-tech angle that takes you by surprise and yet seems utterly logical: the effect is a bit like getting an advance preview of the next generations clichés. Consider, for example, this interlude between chapters a press release from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
MIT scientists have grown a human ear in tissue culture for the first time The extra ear could be considered a partial life form partly constructed and partly grown. The ear fits comfortably in the palm of the hand
Several hearing-aid companies have opened talks with MIT about licensing their ear-making technology. According to geneticist Zack Rabi, As the American population ages, many senior citizens may prefer to grow slightly enlarged, genetically modified ears, rather than rely on hearing-aid technology. A spokesman for Audion, the hearing-aid company, noted, Were not talking about Dumbo ears. Just a small increase of 20 percent in pinna size would double auditory efficiency. We think the market for enhanced ears is huge. When lots of people have them, no one will notice anymore. We believe big ears will become the new standard, like silicon breast implants.
Which, of course, is all too likely. Picture Florida circa 2015, a gated community full of big-eared nonagenarians. I like the way Crichtons thriller brings us the usual low characters with the usual low motives sleazy men with the hots for unfeasibly breasted babes. But, in doing so, he reminds you how easily we accept what would once have seemed downright creepy: cities full of women with concrete embonpoints that bear no relation to the rest of their bodies. As one character says, he knows theyre fake and they dont feel right but it turns him on anyway. If you can accept, in effect, a technological transformation of something as central as sexual arousal, why would you have any scruples about what technology can do for the human body in far more peripheral areas? By the time an accused pederast is advised by his lawyers to claim his need for transgressive sexual encounters is due to his having the novelty gene, you begin to appreciate the horrors that lie ahead: for tactical advantage here and there, were likely to wind up surrendering strategically the essence of humanity. It is, in Crichtons telling, both a thriller and a comedy of errors, a big grab-bag of ideas wrapped up in one kaleidoscopic whole. I wish more novelists meandering through fey limpid literary inconsequentialities would try books like this, but who knows? Maybe they lack the blockbuster gene.
My initial reaction to his death was purely selfish - “Dang, and I was looking forward to his next book”.
Then I felt bad.
I loved State of Fear! One thing Steyn doesn’t mention is what Crichton pointed out, which was that a “state of fear” was an artificially induced condition meant to make people docile and easy to control.
I suggested to a talk show host that they look him up for an interview. I was thinking about sending Crichton an email, but kept putting it off.
I had no idea he was sick.
What a keen description of the usual Leftist elitist with the usual groupthink mindset!
"the usual low characters with the usual low motives"
What a keen description of Leftist opportunists profoundly unaware of how obvious they are to those not enthrall to the banal cult of the Left!
Read it. Loved it.
I have read most of his books, including “State of Fear” and “Next”. He was wonderful at taking current technology and events and making a story worthy of a movie. With all of his success in movies, he was essentially blacked out on “State of Fear” as it exposed the eco-terrorists and green-do-gooders for what they really were. His premise that we are constantly driven by media and entertainment to live in a state of fear and that the green movement was just another rung in the ladder was brilliant. Once you understand his premise, it makes all the craziness of the MSM/Hollywood and our lousy government obsessing about climate change make perfect sense.
He will be missed by all fans of his work.
He will be missed.
He was a bit larger than life, intellectually and physically. This is a loss.
Thankfully, we have Mark Steyn to memorialize him - and to continue to write for us.
I’ve never read any of Crichton’s books, but Steyn makes me want to, just like his Sinatra obit got me listening to Sinatra. Nobody does obituaries like Steyn. I highly recommend his book of them to anyone who appreciates his writing.
That was my reaction too.
His web site is still up at this moment. His essays and speech transcripts are certainly good reads.
Here’s the full speech of “aliens and global warming”:
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