Be Afraid

Michael Crichton is very, very afraid of technological progress-again.


Over the weekend, I read Prey, Michael Crichton's latest screenplay—sorry, novel.

The techno-thriller effectively fictionalizes Bill Joy's notorious Wired article, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." Joy, a chief scientist for Sun Microsystems, warned, "Our most powerful 21st-century technologies—robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech—are threatening to make humans an endangered species." Crichton doesn't leave the didacticism to the novel itself; he provides a self-important introductory essay on the dangers of new technologies that makes it clear he wholeheartedly agrees with Joy.

Crichton has turned out another fast-paced, compulsively readable story of technological disaster and human hubris. The villains in Prey are swarms of nanoparticles, molecular machines measuring only billionths of a meter. They are manufactured by—heavens to murgatroid!—a greedy and careless corporation.

The novel stars computer genius Jack Forman, now immersed in such stay-at-home-dad concerns as shopping at Crate and Barrel. Forman had made a name for himself by devising computer programs that modeled predator/prey relations to solve problems. But he was fired for nobly threatening to reveal some corporate hanky panky to the stockholders, which is why he's at home taking care of the kids. The family's sole support is now Jack's wife, the lovely and ambitious Julia, who has been keeping late hours at the Xymos Corporation, helping develop a mysterious new product. Tension in the Forman household rises as Julia becomes more distant and distracted.

Then the baby comes down with a mysterious rash. Jack rushes her to the hospital where the rash disappears instantly after the infant undergoes an MRI scan. Shortly afterward, Julia gets into a serious car wreck and is hospitalized. With Julia out of commission, the Xymos Corporation asks Jack to go to their remote Nevada facility to deal with some urgent programming problems. There, Jack discovers the horror. Fast-evolving swarms of escaped self-replicating nanoparticles running on his predator/prey program! And the swarms have learned to live on animal and human flesh! Crichton takes it from there with the usual tension and thrills, winding up to a whiz-bang, nail-baiting ending.

Crichton's books tend to read like fleshed-out scripts, designed from the beginning to appeal to Hollywood. One can already see the director setting up the shots for the sequence where Jack accidentally knocks over a family photo, causing him to brood over better, happier days—cut to dinner with the children. So Crichton's technophobic message will once again be reaching tens of millions—with the help of 20th Century Fox, which has already bought the film rights.

And that's unfortunate. Crichton's self-righteous opposition to technological innovation (which, to be fair, is offset by a passion for the gadgets that make life easier for best-selling novelists) isn't even necessary for his fictional purposes. For example, he could have gotten the same satisfying amount of terror in Jurassic Park if, instead of blaming geneticists for bringing back dinosaurs, he had focused the action on an evil cabal of anti-biotech radicals bent on killing cloned dinosaurs. The book (and the movie) would have had the same chaos, mayhem, random death, and satisfying explosions, but with a happy ending as the hero paleontologist saves the dinosaurs for the enjoyment of the world's children.

Prey's stance is predictable for Crichton. It joins his ever-expanding oeuvre of technophobic thrillers including The Terminal Man, in which the epileptic protagonist goes on a murderous rampage under the influence of computerized mind control; The Andromeda Strain, in which Army scientists in search of biological warfare agents heedlessly endanger humanity by bringing back a space virus to infect a town; the forgotten motion picture Runaway (written and directed by Crichton), in which Tom Selleck battles evil robots under the command of Kiss Army Field Marshall Gene Simmons; and many other works. Not content to malign technological innovation, Crichton nurses a lifelong grudge against theme parks—evident in the aforementioned Jurassic Park and the more recent Timeline, as well as his camp-classic film Westworld.

Are Crichton's horrific fantasies based in reality? What evidence is there that humanity rushes headlong into misusing powerful new technologies? Practically none. Instead of using computerized probes for mind control, physicians implant them to control Parkinson's disease. Instead of carelessly bringing space viruses to Earth, NASA set up elaborate containment and decontamination systems for astronauts returning from the moon and any future remote explorers bringing back samples from other planets. In fact, NASA's astrobiology program is now very concerned about infecting other planets with Earth life. And instead of re-creating dangerous dinosaurs, researchers hope to use cloning to bring back to life animals driven to extinction by humanity, like the Tasmanian tiger and the woolly mammoth.

Similarly, scientists are not just going to be throwing nanotechnology willy-nilly into the environment. Researchers like Eric Drexler and the Foresight Institute have been tirelessly researching ways to ensure that nanotech can be deployed safely. And given human foresight and our built-in due regard for our own safety, the benefits of nanotechnology, like the benefits of computers and biotechnology, will likely far outweigh any potential harm.

Crichton's new novel further solidifies his position as our generation's bush-league Mary Shelley, constantly hectoring readers about the dangers of humanity's technological hubris. By all means enjoy the book and the movie. But please keep in mind that the beasties in Prey are more Stephen King horror than Jules Verne prediction.