Science

Scion of Frankenstein

Michael Crichton, novelist and policy provocateur

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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.