Friday, December 09, 2011

The Last Crichton Novel (Sigh)

The last novel by Michael Crichton was released in late November. Shortly after he passed away a few days after Obama was elected president, Crichton's publisher announced that there were two unpublished Crichton novels that would be published. The first was Pirate Latitudes (which I read a few months ago and loved). The second and final one was actually a novel that Crichton was in the process of writing when he died. I was skeptical about this one, since he did not complete it. However, the publisher claims that Crichton had made extensive notes and it was at least halfway written. They hired a writer, Richard Preston (who wrote The Hot Zone, which was a hot bestseller in the 1990s and launched a spawn of killer viruses movies), to work from Crichton's notes to finish this novel. I know there are arguments pro and con about posthumous published works, but one could reasonably argue that Crichton would have wanted this novel to be published and had the misfortune of dying in the middle of writing it. How honourable it is for another writer to see that the work is done and published so fans of Crichton can have one last thrill.

That's certainly my view. Ever since I read Rising Sun in 1993, I was hooked on Michael Crichton. The reason is because before that time, I had a hard time finishing books. I would start them and then get bored (usually around page 100 or so) and set the book down, never to pick it up again. I was curious to read Rising Sun when that novel was mentioned in the 1992 primaries. At the time, anti-Japanese sentiment was running high in America due to our recession and the belief that the Japanese weren't being fair in their trading policies. In the zeitgeist of that time, Crichton's incendiary novel about Japanese business practices was published (Crichton has had the most enviable sense of great timing for his novels. They always seem to be published around the time the issues he explores is in the media spotlight). As I read Rising Sun, I was both hooked and infuriated. Some call this novel "racist" with a negative view of the Japanese, but I was surprised at how many characteristics that the Japanese have that I could understand or relate to. I've only read the novel once and saw the movie once, so I don't remember the details. Perhaps I should watch the movie again for a refresher.

Anyhow, from that novel, I was hooked on Crichton and couldn't wait to get my hands on some more of his books. By fortunate luck, I was sent to Naples, Italy (from Sardinia) to deal with a persistent eye problem and while there, I took advantage of being able to buy books from the American bookstore on the military base. I bought Crichton's Congo and Jurassic Park, which I also read in 1993. My dad mailed me most of Crichton's other novels: The Andromeda Strain and Sphere. I just devoured his books. In 1994, Disclosure was published an a shipmate who had gone back to the U.S. for military training brought back that novel for me to read. It also infuriated me, because its about a man who was sexually harassed by a woman, which many people think is a joke or not possible. As one who had seen the power of a sexually harassing woman in the Navy, I know that it exists.

From then on, each new Crichton novel became a special day for me. I'd rush out and buy it the day of release. This included The Lost World in 1995 and Airframe in 1996. The next few novels were Christmas gifts that my dad gave me: Timeline in 1999, Prey in the early 2000s (I forget which year), and State of Fear in 2004. I bought his Next in 2006. Upon buying or receiving his novel as a gift (Nathan's best man gift to me was a CD version of Timeline), I would immediately sit down to read it and lose myself in Crichton's world. I know that many people criticize his lack of character development. They are essentially there to push the story forward. Its an unfair criticism to make, though, as I learned in literature class that there is more than one kind of genre for writing. Crichton tends to be more action-oriented than character-oriented. If people want character-oriented stories, then buying literary fiction is the way to go. My favourite genre is literary fiction (and I aspire to be a literary novelist) but Crichton is among my favourite writers (he was my favourite, until I discovered Jack Kerouac in 2001). What I love about his books are the way his extensive bibliography gives credence to the idea that his ideas might be closer to reality than we think it might be.

Now with Micro, this is the last hurrah. I had no hesitation to buy it when I saw it in bookstores. I'll never experience the thrill of seeing a new Crichton novel, so I'll take this moment, regardless of how much of the novel was actually written by him. For a week, I could not put this book down. It inspired me and terrified me. And it sent my mind reeling in a hundred different directions. It was classic Crichton all the way!

What is the novel about? Well, it involves technology, of course (Crichton's speciality). An unethical high-tech company based in Hawaii has created the ability to shrink objects such as machines and even humans. The point is to gather information on the tiniest substances on our planet. The shrunken humans get to experience the majesty of our planet at the most dangerous level. This novel will have you looking at nature in an entirely different way!

In classic Crichton style, he has a group of scientists (in this case, science nerds at Harvard) brought out to Hawaii and then shrunken to half an inch. If I were making comparisons, I'd say that this novel is a cross between Jurassic Park, Timeline, and Prey. While most of his novels make it to the big screen, I'm not sure I would want to see this one in theaters. The reason is because as the shrunken humans learn, the insect world (in fact, the animal kingdom) is all about kill or be killed. The endless search for more protein. So, the shrunken university scientists get to be out of the lab with their thesis and experiments, and forced to cope in a harsh, Darwinian world where only the fittest survive. There are moments of sheer terror throughout: giant centipedes, ants, wasps, spiders, birds, raindrops, bats. Being unprotected in the dark is a dangerous prospect, as that's when most of the critters go hunting for food.

I was so enthralled by this novel and I have no idea where the dividing line might be between Crichton's words and Preston's words. It flowed smoothly and the story does represent an authentic Crichton. I bet he would be proud of his work and hopefully his soul is grateful that a fine writer was able to capture his voice and style, completing Crichton's novel for him.

When I finished the book, I was sad because this means no more Crichton. I've read all of his fiction (except for Eaters of the Dead, which I may read next year). Perhaps, the story isn't over. Perhaps, he left a secret cachet of unpublished novels that has not been discovered or disclosed. I really wish that he had written his autobiography, though. His Travels is about as close as we'll ever get to a personal memoir. Its a good one, but I'd love to read more. What led this Med Student towards a writing career that focused on science and technology running amuck?

I truly hope Crichton will reincarnate soon. We need his writing talent. The world just isn't the same without him. Thank you, Mr. Crichton for all the memories. Your novels are awesome!

Here's how I would rank his novels (in terms of personal favourites):

1) Congo
2) Jurassic Park
3) Timeline
4)Pirate Latitudes
5) Disclosure
6) Micro
7) Sphere
8) Andromeda Strain
9) State of Fear
10) Prey
11) Airframe
12) The Lost World
13) The Great Train Robbery
14) Next