Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Decline and Fall of Michael Crichton

For those of you who've known me for a while, you know that I have long named Michael Crichton as my favorite fiction writer. Indeed, he (along with George Orwell) was the author who got me interested in reading as a leisure activity as opposed to being primarily something I just had to do for school. Crichton's catalogue of novels was the first complete author catalogue that I ever completed (qualifying statement: I have not read any of the obscure medical thrillers he published in the 60's under a series of psuedonyms while in medical school, nor have I read any of his non-fiction books).

For years I have named Crichton's Sphere as my single favorite thriller novel, and I have read it two or three times. It also inspired one of my own early books, The Antarctic Incident. Other favorites include Jurassic Park, Timeline, and Congo.

In recent years, I've been disappointed with some of his novels, feeling that he is becoming increasingly interested in pushing certain socio-political agendas, and less interested in writing good thrillers. He's always tended to work cutting edge technology into his books...Andromeda Strain (published in the era of the Apollo missions to the moon), discussed concerns about satellites and spacecraft bringing extraterrestrial bacteria and viruses back to earth. Congo dealt with the gorillas who spoke sign language. And Jurassic Park, of course, dealt with DNA and genetic technology as it relates to paleontology. In the 1990's, his books have dealt with everything from Japanese corporate philosophy to reverse sexual harrassment to airline safety. Recently, he has written several books dealing with cutting edge genetic engineering issues.

Since Jurassic Park (published in 1989...I think I first read it in about 1994), I have felt that his books have been steadily declining in thriller quality, and increasing in preachiness.

Rising Sun was a good murder mystery, but also had a flavor of anti-Japanese sentiment, painting the Japanese as cutthroat corporate monsters intent on controlling American interests.

Disclosure was hardly a thriller at all, and was more a treatise on how the women's liberation movement has demonized men and allowed women rise into positions of power that they aren't necessarily worthy of holding.

The Lost World was entertaining, but it was basically a watered-down rehash of Jurassic Park, complete with another scene where a vehicle goes over an embankment and gets caught in a tree.

Airframe, like Disclosure, was hardly a thriller at all, and dealt with the wiles of the airline industry. This has always been the only Crichton book that I said I flat out didn't particularly like. I thought it was boring, and the resolution of the plot was very predictable and unexciting. Basically, the main characters were trying to figure out what had caused an in-flight incident in which an airline experienced severe turbulence, causing the deaths of several passengers. At the very beginning of the book, the investigators suggest it was due to a certain action or inaction on the part of the pilot. They then spend the entire book trying to figure it out and, sure enough, in the end, it was exactly what they had predicted from the outset. It was just a silly ending, with no sense of drama, and it was sort of a boring subject.

Another odd and perplexing aspect of this book was that the background story was basically a carbon copy of the background story in Disclosure. In Disclosure, you have a story about a woman who sexually harrasses a man in a business setting. The background is that they work for a small company who has just developed a break-through technology which promises to push them into the mainstream and make them a viable competitor against the larger corporations. As a result of this new product, the larger corporations are trying to undermine it and prove that it somehow doesn't work the way the it is advertised to work.

In Airframe, the exact same background story exists. Small company with a cutting edge product that promises to push them into the big markets. Big companies trying to undermine their new technology and prove that it doesn't work like they say. In Disclosure, it's a couple of computer companies and the new technology is some sort of hard drive. In Airframe it's two airframe companies and a new type of aircraft. But otherwise, it's the exact same scenario.

At time of its publication (1996), I felt that Crichton had been more interested in cashing in on the public interest in airline safety issues (that was during the time when there were two or three major airline disasters in the U.S. within a period of just a few months), than he was in writing a good thriller novel. This was exacerbated by the fact that he damn near plagiarizes his own work by setting up a background scenario that is more or less identical to Disclosure. It's like he just wanted to get the book written and on the market, in order to cash in on the public conern about airline safety. I felt like he had "sold out" big time.

Timeline was a refreshing change after a series of what I felt had been subpar Crichton books, and especially after the debacle of Airframe. I enjoyed Timeline, and thought that Crichton did a good job of mixing cutting edge technology with a good story, much as he had done with Jurassic Park. I felt that "Crichton was back," so to speak.

Unfortunately, it only lasted for one book. Prey was another subpar performance, and although I didn't feel like he was necessarily trying to push any socio-political agenda in that book, as he had in Rising Sun and Disclosure, I felt that Prey simply failed as an attempt to write another cutting edge technology thriller in the vein of Jurassic Park and Timeline. I thought it was a little too "out there" to be believable. At the time, I remember thinking that the only reason it had been an entertaining read at all is simply because Crichton is a great writer, and writes with such a readable style.

Then came State of Fear in 2004, and this was the book that first started really opening my eyes to the general depravity of Michael Crichton's agendas. When I first read the dust cover of State of Fear, I was really excited, because I thought it sounded like it would be another great novel combining good thriller elements with cutting edge technology. Instead, it proved to be another Prey in terms of the quality of the thriller elements. In addition to not being a very good thriller, it was overrun with an obvious attempt to paint global warming advocates as hopeless, hypocritical "limosine liberals" (he even used that term in the book) who ignore established scientific studies in the effort to push their self-serving agendas.

In an Afterword to the novel, he tries to deflect criticism by saying that his characters don't necessarily reflect his own views, and he studied all sorts of reports and books and articles in preparing for this novel, etc., etc. He basically tries to make it sound like he is personally taking a neutral position, and it's up to you, the reader, to make an informed decision. Yet, the tone of the entire novel makes his own agenda quite clear. It is obvious what his position is on the global warming debate, just as it was obvious what his position was on the airline industry debate, the Japanese corporate takeover debate, and the reverse sexual harassment debate.

Prior to State of Fear, I had continued calling myself a Crichton fan, and I had even continued to generally say Crichton was my favoriate author, but I did so reluctantly, and more out of a sense of nostalgia or duty for how much I had enjoyed his earlier novels, rather than out of a sense that he was truly my favorite author. Fact is, Since Jurassic Park in 1989, Timeline is the only book he's written that I feel is really "top notch."

After State of Fear, I began to get really suspicious of Crichton's agendas, and I began, for the first time, to really contemplate some of the agendas he had pushed in earlier novels (such as Rising Sun and Disclosure). When I first read those books in college, I was too young and naive to read between the lines. Now, upon reflection, I can see the anti-feminine bias in Disclosure, and the anti-Japanese bias in Rising Sun.

Crichton's newest novel, Next, was just released on Tuesday. It apparently involves the issue of genetic testing, cloning, harvesting embryos, etc. The dust flap says, in part, "Next challenges our sense of reality and notions of morality...Next shatters our assumptions, and reveals shocking new choices where we least expect."

Judging from his record in his past novels, I'm not sure I'm interested in Michael Crichton's opinions on my notion of morality, nor on his opinion about cloning and it's ethical considerations. Reading the reader comments on Barnes & Noble's website, I see that several posters have stated that it is full of Crichton's political agendas. One reviewer says "I read the book for the book's sake. Leave the politics out of it. Grow up." It seems clear that Crichton is continuing to push his neo-con agendas in this book.

Additionally, as a result of reading some of the reader comments, I have discovered that Crichton has apparently consulted as a "science advisor" for George W. Bush on at least one occasion.

It's as if all the pieces of the puzzle are finally falling into place.

So I won't be reading Michael Crichton's books anymore. I will still feel nostaligic about his older books, and I will still occasionally re-read the older books that are free of political commentary and are just good techno-thrillers (I re-read Congo earlier this fall, for instance). But I'm not going to buy anymore of his new novels, and I'm not going to tell people he's among my favorite authors anymore (after State of Fear, I had finally stopped calling him my "favorite" author, but was still listing him among my favorites). I have removed his website link from my blog, and I have removed his name from my list of "favorite authors." I just simply can't bring myself to promote an author who is basically a neo-con. Particularly when his books aren't even that entertaining anymore, and haven't been for 17 years. I do still list Jurassic Park and Sphere as "Must Read" books on my blog, but that's because I can still respect those books for the great thrillers that they are.

I could live with Crichton being a neo-con if he was still writing books like Sphere and Jurassic Park. But if he's going to bring his neo-con views into his books, as a means of preaching and politicizing, he can forget about getting anymore money and support from me.


deine schwester :) said...

I know how you love coincidence, so how's this one? I was just watching part of Disclosure last weekend! And it was the first time I'd seen it since the '90s when it was first out on cable! I didn't even KNOW it was a Crichton book, but I I did when I first saw's another movie where Michael Douglas makes all successful, corporate women look like bitchy, cock-sucking, power mongers. The first example being, of course, Fatal Attraction. So you are spot on. And no worries on your earlier naivete, I was already in college or even out of college when I saw Disclosure and had many women's lit classes behind me where I was exposed for the first time to the ways the media sends these subtle messages.

Scott said...

Yeah, it's funny, because when I first read Disclosure, not only did I not pick up on the subtle anti-feminine bias, but I actually felt good that Crichton was standing up for men by writing a book about reverse discrimination. Now, of course, I see it for what it really was... Demonizing successful women as cock-sucking, power hungry bitches.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that you would be fine reading a novel if it were using a few 'liberal' or 'left-wing' agendas as plot points instead of neo-con. That said however, if the books aren't good, they aren't good regardless of what politics are being pushed. Maybe he just lost it after he started ER.