I don’t know how many people mourned the passing of Michael Crichton at the beginning of November. For most of this century, Crichton was known for two things. One was his importance as a climate change denier (his fiction destroyed the argument for global warming, leading to protests from environmentalists who said that he had misrepresented facts). And the other was his role as the creator of Jurassic Park, the novel that Steven Spielberg turned into a massively profitable Hollywood franchise.
Ahead of his times: Crichton (right) and Spielberg first met during the filming of The Andromeda Strain; (left) Spielberg turned Jurassic Park into a blockbuster. Jeff Christensen / Reuters
Both are not inconsiderable achievements. It requires guts to take issue with the climate change lobby, even if your fiction is more interesting than Al Gore’s movie-making. And the creation of a successful Hollywood franchise is not to be laughed at: Hundreds of writers try and fail to do this each year.
But neither of these achievements either impressed or particularly surprised me. Crichton always had the ability to take on the conventional wisdom and to fight politically correct lobbies. His novel Disclosure (later made into a so-so film with Demi Moore and Michael Douglas) was greeted with outrage by feminists because it attacked the prevailing politically correct notions of sexual harassment. But over a decade later, many of us would agree that nothing Crichton said was terribly shocking—or untrue.
Nor did his cinematic achievements surprise me. Right from the time in the early 1970s when Universal turned his novel The Andromeda Strain into a movie, I knew that he had a gift for telling stories cinematically; a view that was confirmed when he directed the excellent West World and the underrated The Great Train Robbery (with Sean Connery).
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But even as he achieved his biggest sales ever and earned many millions, I was a little turned off by Crichton’s work. Many of his later novels seemed to me to be trite. The best-selling Airframe about an investigation into a mysterious plane crash had a foolish denouement: A child was at the controls of the plane. Next, the last Crichton book I read featured a talking bird and veered dangerously close into Dr Dolittle territory. There was a clear sense that Crichton was now writing solely to please his publishers who expected big fat best-sellers.
The Crichton I liked was at his best in the 1970s and the 1980s. I discovered him in the early 1970s as a thriller writer whose The Andromeda Strain was a real page-turner but as I read more of his work, I found that a single theme ran through many of his books. Unlike many other best-selling authors, Crichton understood and was fascinated by science and technology.
But his fascination always led to the same point: What happens when we depend on technology and it fails us? The Terminal Man was a modern reworking of Frankenstein and it told the same story of an experiment gone wrong. In Congo, we were first dazzled by the satellite and video technology (still new in the 1980s) that accompanied the explorers into the African jungle. Then, just as we believed that technology was the future, it failed and the novel turned into a Rider Haggard-style jungle adventure.
In the movies, the same themes reappeared. Westworld was about a theme park where action figures entertained visitors—till of course, the figures went rogue and tried to kill the same visitors. And though Jurassic Park is now seen as an adventure story, the book was actually a morality tale about the dangers of tampering with nature through science. In Crichton’s novel, scientists believe that by cloning dinosaurs from DNA preserved in bits of amber they can create the ultimate theme park. But of course, the dinosaurs have no intention of playing Mickey and Minnie Mouse for the visitors and go berserk. (Westworld with dinosaurs…)
I enjoyed these books because Crichton was always on the cutting edge of science and technology. He wrote about discoveries and inventions well before they entered the public domain and he explained how they worked with a felicity that most science writers lack. Sometimes the plots did not live up to the early promise: Sphere collapsed, for example, because the story had no logical ending. But they were always page turners and when you finished them you had a sense that you were wiser than before. Plus, he was an early believer in chaos theory (which has a prominent place in Jurassic Park) and understood the very randomness of everyday life.
Unusually for a writer whose background was science (he was a doctor when his first books were published), Crichton was fascinated by history. His Eaters of The Dead isn’t much of a novel but the historical details are painstakingly researched. The Great Train Robbery, one of his better books, has a terrific sense of period. Even Rising Sun, his controversial best-seller about a Japanese corporation in LA, displayed his flair for research: The book offered an interesting insight into the Japanese psyche (it also gave Sean Connery his best role in years; Crichton wrote the character in the novel with Connery in mind so naturally he was the obvious choice for the movie).
My favourite among his books though is a non-fiction collection of essays called Travels. Often, non-fiction offers a deeper insight into a writer’s mind than fiction and Travels gives us a glimpse of Crichton’s world. He writes about going to a psychic in London who put him in touch with his dead father; of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro; of fighting the prejudices of a British film crew; and most revealingly, of his view of women (he was a much married man who had clearly been around.)
As far as I know, all the Crichton books are in print and almost all have been made into movies though few (apart from the first Jurassic Park) are very good. If you missed reading him while he was alive, you can make up for it now because I’m sure the books will all be re-released and repackaged to cash in on the publicity that has attended his passing.
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