Scion of Frankenstein

Michael Crichton, novelist and policy provocateur

Michael Crichton supplied Hollywood with a series of hits, and he created the hospital drama E.R., one of the most successful TV shows of the last two decades. But the pop novelist, medical doctor, and sometime public-policy provocateur, who died of cancer in November at age 66, was best known for a prolific stream of techno-thriller novels that incited public policy debates while selling more than 150 million copies worldwide.

Most of Crichton’s books exploited the well-worn formula pioneered by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein: Scientific hubris leads to disaster. 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. The Frankenstein/reanimation theme is even more explicit in Jurassic Park (1990), in which a paleontologist uses biotechnology to bring dinosaurs back to life, with disastrous results. In Crichton’s 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. His anti-Japanese mystery Rising Sun (1992) stoked xenophobic fears of a new Yellow Peril buying up all of America. Such nativist anxieties melted away shortly afterward, 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, in effect, a novelization of a speech he delivered at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club in 2003. The lecture argued 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 think-tank circles. Crichton was now invited to make speeches around the country on science policy. In 2005 he even testified in front of a U.S. Senate committee about the politicization of climate change science.

In his follow-up, the biogenetic tale Next (2006), Crichton presented a wicked corporation engaging, as usual, in all manner of skullduggery. But he turned his customary Frankenstein formula on its head by ending the novel with a vision of a happy trans-species blended family, including a multi-lingual African gray parrot and a 4-year-old humanzee. He presented them as pretty normal for the 21st century, and didn’t seem disturbed by what he was describing.

Despite Crichton’s repeated success with scientific scare stories, Next’s upbeat, though decidedly offbeat, ending was actually in keeping with the author’s own temperament. Notwithstanding his worries about human technological hubris, he confessed in a 1993 interview that he was “optimistic by nature,” adding: “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 life span 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 kindly mentioned my 2005 book Liberation Biology, 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 Crichton 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 alternate 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 the bioluddite activist 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 this 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.

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, to be published by HarperCollins in the coming year. It will close out his published oeuvre but certainly not his presence, either in the world of letters or public policy.

Ronald Bailey is reason’s science correspondent.

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  • Mike M.||

    Whatever his flaws may be, he'll always have a place in my heart for calling out the recent global warming hysteria for the fraud that it is.

  • Steve B||

    Funny how the insistence that a fiction author's work is just silly fluff that has no influence on public opinion is always in direct correlation with their sales figures. Obscure scribes are convinced they're changing the world with their stories, and the big guns deny that anyone could possibly be motivated by tales they read.

  • ||

    Mike,
    Whatever his flaws may be, he'll always have a place in my heart for calling out the recent global warming hysteria for the fraud that it is.

    Same sentiment here. I feel alone, now that he's gone.

  • ||

    Jurassic Park seems a little silly in hindsight. Does anyone really think we wouldn't be able to control dinosaurs if we really put our minds to it? They're big scary animals, but they're still just animals.

    Anyway, Crichton does what he accuses environmentalists of doing, invents his own science to fit his preferred reality. Not that a fictional novel has anything to do with science, but State of Fear is very selective in its lecturing, and Crichton displays an amateurish understanding of climate change. (Just because it's called global warming doesn't mean every part of the planet will be hotter, Michael.)

    Of course you could go on trusting a mediocre novelist with no ecology credentials over the scientific consensus, which is that there is no other explanation for recent warming except human produced greenhouse gases.

  • Kolohe||

    Jurassic Park seems a little silly in hindsight. Does anyone really think we wouldn't be able to control dinosaurs if we really put our minds to it? They're big scary animals, but they're still just animals.

    Controlling the big scary animals wasn't a problem. The issue was that they couldn't control Neuman.

  • mark||

    (Just because it's called global warming doesn't mean every part of the planet will be hotter, Michael.)

    Care to elaborate on where he went wrong?

  • DannyK||

    Have you ever actually read his famous essay? He calls global warming a religion, but he also calls SETI a religion. He didn't really understand science worth a damn, but he was very good at making you think he did, and entertaining you at the same time.

    He stopped talking about this stuff towards the end of his life; perhaps he realized that if you're deeply impressing George Bush and James Inhofe, you're doing something wrong.

  • SIV||

    He calls global warming a religion, but he also calls SETI a religion.

    Well, they are.

  • Sam Grove||

    SETI - extraterrestrial machina

    The motivating thought behind the search for ET is that such a discovery would induce profound change for the better in human civilization.

    Fortunately, we already have the necessary information to produce such a change, but few want to hear it.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Of course you could go on trusting a mediocre novelist with no ecology credentials over the scientific consensus, which is that there is no other explanation for recent warming except human produced greenhouse gases.

    A. Since when was there "consensus" that there no other explanation other than human produced greenhouse gasses? There's quite a bit of debate on that topic actually... but ok.

    B. Since when has "consensus" had anything at all to do with proper science anyway?

  • ||

    i never met michael crichton, for which i am grateful, because he seemed like a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

    michael crowley, an editor at "the new republic" wrote a review critical of crichton's "state of fear", so crichton retaliated by including a character "mick crowley" in "next" who was a child molester with a small penis.

    i confess to being one of those people who believes that anthropogenic global warming is indeed happening.

    my reaction while reading "rising sun" was that it was an incredibly racist screed.

  • ||

    Dear Ronald. Please visit an average factory farm in the US (it is always interesting to know where our food comes from) and tell us why these animals cannot stand properly anymore. Really - have a look a pigs and chickens today, not in the future, and...

    I salute the BBC for dropping the Crufts dog show for the first time in 44 years. Only because we can mess with nature does not mean we should, e.g. dogs should be able to breath etc.

    This one makes another interesting point: New Technological Breakthrough To Fix Problems Of Previous Breakthrough

  • ||

    Sean W. Malone,

    There's always a debate in science. But no one has offered a valid explanation for global warming that doesn't involve human greenhouse gas emissions. A consensus is just a consensus. Meaning most knowledgeable scientists believe this explanation because it fits the evidence better than any other.

    What I don't understand is what motive GW deniers are assuming environmentalists have. Do you think I like that the planet is warming? Do you actually believe, as apparently Crichton did, that there is such a thing as eco-terrorists who are just looking to cause trouble while pretending to care about our environment? Or perhaps green startups are engaging in a global conspiracy to create a market for their products (the biggest corporations in the history of the world, those ones that rely on fossil fuel burning, must be completely pure and honest in their motives for denying GW for so long, though).

    Citing evidence selectively to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion is not scientific. Crichton falls victim to the same fallacy that evolution deniers do: "We don't know everything, therefore we know nothing."

  • Hibiscus||

    The best point Crichton ever made about global warming made was that any response to it should be totally untouched by the ideology of environmentalism. He argued effectively that it is only a matter of projected cost and projected benefit.

  • Nick||

    Tony,

    Ever read any Bjorn Lomberg? His thesis is that the environmental movement needs to make things seem like they are getting worse and warn of calamities on the horizon in order to increase funding and publicity for their organizations. Same with researchers, media, etc. Once a problem has been solved or shown drastic improvement (or disproven) there becomes less motivation for governments and individuals to fund and promote that cause. Also, note failed environmental doomsday scenarios based upon bad science, like the Club of Rome and the acid rain panic - a path that GW may be headed down as well.

    Therefore, we should assume that the negativity of the environmentalist movement is overhyped and distorts the real state of the world by ignoring measurable advancements that have been made. That doesn't mean that they are always wrong and that there aren't significant environmental problems, but that unless we see the state of the world for what it actually is instead of what special interest groups want us to see, we won't be able to address or take seriously the problems that are most critical. For this reason, he likewise criticizes corporations and corporate-funded think tanks who distort or ignore the true problems that exist.

    I for one, like Lomberg and Ron Bailey, am not a GW denier. I think it exists, that humans are probably a factor, that it could lead to some problems in the long run and that addressing it in some way is probably a good idea. I'd agree that this is probably the "scientific consensus." However, the doomsday scenarios peddled by environmental groups are NOT the scientific consensus, and the massive flushing of resources into trying to "fix" a problem that may not be able to be fixed and may not even be a significant long-term problem after all. Lomberg, for one, argues that global warming should be addressed by preparing for the negative consequences instead of slowing human development and the economy by trying to stop it.

    To answer some of your other points, I think we're all for green startups, but not necessarily for enriching them with taxpayer dollars and subsidies.

    Also, yes - eco-terrorists do exist, not that I really like the depreciation by overuse of the word "terrorism," but some environmental groups have taken "The Monkeywrench Gang" a little too far. Note, radical PETA members physically attacking hunters, animal testing labs and fur-wearers. But of course, the radical fringe of any group could resort to violence - for example, anti-abortion advocates who bomb clinics.

  • ||

    "Of course you could go on trusting a mediocre novelist with no ecology credentials over the scientific consensus, which is that there is no other explanation for recent warming except human produced greenhouse gases."

    "The scientific consensus" Ha, good one. And "no other explanation". Hoo, haw! ROTFLMAO. Too funny.

  • ||

    he was wrong, people do pay attention. there are so many neo luddites out there, afraid of technology, the watch movies based on his books and think "yeah that's why we have to stop them" His protagonists were almost always anti science, except of course in State of Fear. No wonder so many people felt betrayed by him in that book, they thought he was one of them.

    Too bad you didn't have that talk with him earlier.

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