Reading Michael Crichton is like getting a preview of the next generation’s clichés
Much more than an airport novelist
Reading Michael Crichton is like getting a preview of the next generation’s clichés
The title of Michael Crichton’s new novel, Next, would be a grand title for his collected works. He has a remarkable instinct not just for novelizing the hot topic du jour but for pushing it on to the next stage, across the thin line that separates today’s headlines from tomorrow’s brave new world. He’s especially good at the convergence of the mighty currents of the time—the intersection of the technological, legal, political and cultural forces in society and the way wily opportunists can hop and skip from one lily pad to another until something that would once have sounded insane is now routine. In Ato, for example, a celebrity divorce attorney slumbering through a yawnsville meeting with some schlub cuckold of a genetic research exec suddenly spots the possibilities:
“What did you just say?”
“I said, ‘I want my wife tested...’ ”
“For everything,” he said.
“Ah,” Barry said, nodding wisely. What the hell was the guy talking about? Genetic testing? In a custody case...?
“For example,” Diehl said. “I’ll bet my wife has a genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder. She certainly acts erratic. She might have the Alzheimer’s gene...”
“Good, very good.” Barry Sindlerwas nodding vigorously now. This was making him happy. Fresh, new disputed areas. Sindler loved disputed areas... Whatever the test results, they would be disputed. More days in court, more expert witnesses to interview, battles of the doctorates, dragging on for days. Days in court were especially lucrative.
And best of all, Barry realized that this genetic
testing could become standard procedure for all custody cases.
Doesn’t that sound not just plausible but inevitable? And that’s before they’ve even identified half the genes worth litigating over. The best Crichton novels are like the DNA double helix—strands of science and media, genius and huckstering that twist in and out of each other.
To be sure, he is an airport novelist, in the sense that airport bookstores are piled high with his books. By far the most conventional
part of Ato is the prologue, in which a couple of private detectives pursue a guy and a Ukrainian hooker through a landmark Vegas hotel— it’s all payphones and confused chases through restaurant kitchens and frantic pushing of elevator buttons. And it ends in death. It’s like reading a great description of some movie. But where Crichton goes after that is all his own—invented Google search results, mock newspaper reports (very mocking in the case of the New York Times’ correction-prone style), and wodges of peculiarly convincing techno-jargon: Take this passage. In a way, it’s nothing special—a meet-
THIS IS ALL A BIT OF HARMLESSLY LOW PAYBACK FOR THOSE ECO-BORES WHO ATTACKED HIM FOR HIS LAST NOVEL
ing between a lawyer and a genetic researcher. But to be able to pull off the detail at this level is impressive:
The attorney consulted a notepad. “Your best candidate is a patent application from 1998 for aminocarboxymuconate methaldehyde dehydrogenase, orACMMD. The patent claims effects on neurotransmitter potentials in the cingulate gyrus.”
“That’s the mode of action,” Josh said, “for our maturity gene. ”
The “maturity gene” is an example of what one might call the geneticization of life. Crichton also unveils a “sociability gene”—formerly a “conventional gene” (i.e.
it predisposes one to boringly conventional behaviour), but that name didn’t focus-group well. There is also a “Neanderthal gene,” to which environmentalists are prone:
Why, then, did Neanderthals die out? The answer, according to Professor Sheldon Harmon of the University ofWisconsin, was that the Neanderthals carried a gene that led them to resist change. “Neanderthals were the first environmentalists. They created a lifestyle in harmony with nature. They limited game hunting, and they controlled tool use. But this same ethos also made them intensely conservative and resistant to change.”
This is a bit of harmlessly low payback for those eco-bores who attacked Crichton for his last novel, State of Fear, a gleeful assault on
the enviro-hucksters that’s full of facts and hugely enjoyable to those not in thrall to the climate-change cultists. There’s one scene in which Crichton devises a very apt demise for a blowhard Hollywood activist. They’re easy targets, of course, but Crichton’s prose achieves a rare poetry in its account of a man unaware of how profoundly unaware he is.
Next is a different kind of novel. It’s a book set on the brink of a trans-human if not posthuman future, in which tourists in Sumatra can stumble across an orangutan who speaks fluent Dutch and the state of California can use eminent domain to seize your cells and, on balance, the orangutan seems to enjoy more legal protection than you do. It’s fitting that in a novel in which humanity is a commodity, every character is a minor character.
Next is a mosaic, in which scientists and researchers plus assorted wives, husbands, moms, brothers and pets move in and out of focus, sliding inch by inch down the slippery slope to ethically dark territory. They’re little people caught up in something big, and as Crichton moves through the usual scenarios—infidelity, drug abuse, underage sex— he tosses in some fresh new high-tech angle that takes you by surprise and yet seems utterly logical: the effect is a bit like getting an advance preview of the next generation’s clichés. Consider, for example, this interlude between chapters—a press release from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
MIT scientists have grown a human ear in tissue culture for the first time...The extra ear could he considered “a partial life form— partly constructed and partly grown. ” The ear fits comfortably in the palm of the hand...
CRICHTON IS ALWAYS TOSSING IN SOME FRESH NEW HIGH-TECH ANGLE THAT TAKES YOU BY SURPRISE AND YET SEEMS UTTERLY LOGICAL
Several hearing-aid companies have opened talks with MIT about licensing their ear-making technology. According to geneticist Zack
Rabi, “As the American population ages, many senior citizens may prefer to grow slightly enlarged, genetically modified ears, rather than rely on hearing-aid technology.” A spokesman for Audion, the hearing-aid company, noted, “We’re not talking about Dumbo ears. Just a small increase of 20 per cent in pinna size would double auditory efficiency. We think the market for enhanced ears is huge. When lots of people have them, no one will notice anymore. We believe big ears will become the new standard, like silicon breast implants.” Which, of course, is all too likely. Picture Florida circa 2015, a gated community full of big-eared nonagenarians. I like the way Crichton’s thriller brings us the usual low characters with the usual low motives—sleazy men with the hots for unfeasibly breasted babes. But, in doing so, he reminds you how easily we accept what would once have seemed downright creepy: cities full of women with concrete embonpoints that bear no relation to the rest of their bodies. As one character says, he knows they’re fake and they don’t feel right but it turns him on anyway. If you can accept, in effect, a technological transformation of something as central as sexual arousal, why would you have any scruples about what technology can do for the human body in far more peripheral areas? By the time an accused pederast is advised by his lawyers to claim his need for transgressive sexual encounters is due to his having the “novelty gene,” you begin to appreciate the horrors that lie ahead: for tactical advantage here and there, we’re likely to wind up surrendering strategically the essence of humanity. It is, in Crichton’s telling, both a thriller and a Comedy of errors, a big grabbag of ideas wrapped up in one kaleidoscopic whole. I wish more novelists meandering through fey limpid literary inconsequentialities would try books like this, but who knows? Maybe they lack the blockbuster gene. M
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