Pop novelist, television producer, movie director, medical doctor, creator of the long-running hospital drama E.R., and sometime public-policy provocateur Michael Crichton has died of cancer at age 66 in Los Angeles.
Crichton's books have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide. His reputation rests chiefly on a prolific stream of techno-thriller novels exploiting the well-worn formula pioneered by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein: Scientific hubris leads to disaster. For example, in The Andromeda Strain (1969), Army scientists in search of biological-warfare agents endanger humanity by bringing back a space virus that infects a town. In The Terminal Man (1972), the epileptic protagonist goes on a murderous rampage under the influence of computerized mind control. Crichton makes the Frankenstein-reanimation theme even more explicit in Jurassic Park (1990), in which a paleontologist uses biotechnology to bring dinosaurs back to life. In his anti-nanotech tale Prey (2002), a greedy corporation inadvertently releases swarms of flesh-eating nanoparticles.
Crichton's villains were often corporations whose minions killed for profit. Crichton's anti-Japanese mystery/thriller Rising Sun (1992) stoked xenophobic fears of a new Yellow Peril buying up all of America. These nativist anxieties shortly afterwards melted away with the bursting of the Japanese-asset price bubble.
In recent years, Crichton turned his attention more explicitly toward public policy. In particular, he became highly skeptical of archly ideological environmentalism. His 2005 book State of Fear was actually the novelization of a speech he delivered at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club in 2003, arguing that environmentalism is essentially a religion, a belief system based on faith, not fact. State of Fear not only became a bestseller, but propelled its author into public-policy circles. Crichton was invited to make speeches around the country on science policy; in 2005 he even testified in front of a Senate committee about the politicization of climate-change science.
In his biogenetic tale, Next (2006), Crichton has a wicked corporation engaging, as usual, in all manner of skullduggery. However, he turns his customary Frankenstein formula on its head by ending with a vision of a happy trans-species blended family, including a multi-lingual African grey parrot and four-year old humanzee, as being pretty normal for the 21st century.
Despite his repeated success with scientific scare stories, that upbeat, though decidedly offbeat, ending was actually in keeping with Crichton's own temperament. Despite his worries about human technological hubris, he did confess in an interview back in 1993, "I am optimistic by nature. My prejudice is that we are sufficiently resourceful to see the road ahead, and that we have the capacity to change our behavior. I envision a long lifespan for the species. We've got a few million years ahead of us."
Over the years Crichton and I had a number of friendly interactions as our paths crossed at various conferences. In Next, Crichton even kindly mentioned my book Liberation Biology (2005), praising it as "the clearest and most complete response to religious objections to biotechnology." Nevertheless, I have long been annoyed by the Luddite and Frankensteinian themes of his novels. I was particularly exasperated by Jurassic Park's misguided portrayal of biotechnology as being inherently dangerous.
Eventually, over drinks at a conference at Cold Spring Harbor a couple years ago, I got to tell him how I thought he could have gotten the same narrative bang for his buck if he had instead celebrated the achievement of bringing dinosaurs back to life. In my alternative plot, a kindly old paleontologist, using the miracle of biotechnology, conjures dinosaurs back into existence to delight the world's children. Things go wrong only when a cadre of evil anti-biotechnologists led by Jeremy Rifkin break into the peaceful island zoo to kill the dinosaurs. This revised scenario would provide Crichton with all of the gunfire, gore, chase scenes, and satisfying explosions without the Luddite baggage of the original.
Crichton, slightly miffed at my presumption, asked why I preferred my alternative plot. I answered that I worried that his novels were helping to promote a technophobic attitude among the public that could unnecessarily slow the development of new technologies. He responded that I must be kidding. He doubted that anyone paid any attention to his novels other than to be momentarily entertained by them. I still think he was wrong. After all, two centuries later we're still reading Mary Shelley's thinly plotted potboiler and worrying about mad scientists.
Crichton fans (of which I am definitely one) can look forward to one more novel from HarperCollins. It will close out his published oeuvre but certainly not his presence, either in the world of letters or in public policy debates.
Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent.