Remembering Wordsmith Michael Crichton

Author Michael Crichton died at age 66 on November 4th, 2008.

Eclipsed by the excitement of the past presidential election was the unexpected death of Michael Crichton: best-selling author, filmmaker and science fiction visionary.

(12/08) There are two books I can still remember buying at my grade school book fair: The first, The Mad Scientists Club, I wrote about almost a year ago as part of a review of the life of Bertrand R. Brinley. At the time I couldn't have foreseen I'd soon be writing about the author of the second book, Michael Crichton. Unfortunately, he died November 4th at the age of 66, a victim of cancer.

The novel I saw at that fair was The Andromeda Strain. This was the first book by Crichton under his own name. I often wonder how this rather mature book came to be sitting on the table at a grade school book fair, but no matter, as it quickly found its way into my twelve-year-old hands. I'd never read a book like it before. In this tale of a virulent, alien virus released on earth, Crichton so skillfully wove science fact and science fiction together that it was hard to know where one ended and the other began. The book was not only an action-packed adventure story but a painless course in biology. I didn't know it at the time - and perhaps neither did Crichton - but he had written the first techno-thriller.

The story starts when a military satellite designed to collect organisms from near space comes down in a small western town. A plague erupts there, killing the entire population except an alcoholic old man and a crying baby. A small group of scientists working in a secret underground lab must then race against time to find out what these two survivors have in common. This might be the information they need to enable them to stop the virus before it wipes out the entire human race.

Crichton as an Author

The book follows what turned out to be a favorite Crichton formula: a small group of people trapped in a closed location race against a deadline to avoid disaster. Almost every Crichton science-fiction piece follows this framework, each one acting as a cautionary tale about some technological development. In each story Crichton envisions the worst-case scenario should the technology be misused. Along the way you get a lot of thrills and an engaging education about that particular discipline of science.

 

My original, almost 40-year-old dog-eared copy of The Andromeda Strain from the elementary school book fair.

Consider what probably is his most well-known work: Jurassic Park. A rich eccentric has scientists clone dinosaurs from preserved DNA to populate a theme park on an isolated island off South America. When three scientists visit the park to investigate its safety, they find themselves scrambling for survival, trapped on the island when the park's security systems fail and the dinosaurs start dining on the guests. The novel not only gives you some basics on dinosaurs, cloning and DNA, but an explanation of Chaos Theory.

Jurassic Park, of course, wasn't just a blockbuster book, but a blockbuster movie as well. Not even just a single movie but a franchise that so far has birthed three films and a "land" at the Universal Islands of Adventure Theme Park. Crichton was one of the few novelists I can think of who has had almost all of his books turned into movies. The list of films include The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Rising Sun, Jurassic Park, Disclosure, Congo, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Sphere, The Great Train Robbery, The Thirteenth Warrior (from the book Eaters of the Dead), Timeline, Pursuit (from the novel Binary) and The Carey Treatment (from the book A Case of Need). Of the fifteen fiction books written under his name, only four have not been adapted for the screen. This may change as his last published book, Next, has been optioned by Hollywood.

Crichton as a Filmmaker

Of course, Crichton did not always need a book in order to get something into a movie theater. His first attempt at going directly to the silver screen was Westworld. Crichton, working as a director, also wrote the script. His companion book, which tells about his experience in making the film, is a wonderful insight into the Hollywood movie machine from an outsider's point of view. The movie itself is classic Crichton with a couple of guys visiting an adult-only theme park based on the Old West. The guests engage the residents of the town, human-looking robots, in such Old West traditions as the bordello, the bar fight and the shoot-out. The guests, of course, always win and the maimed robots are taken underground each night for repair. The robots, however, get so smart that they start to resent losing all the time and stage a rebellion. The movie reaches its climax as one guest (played by Richard Benjamin) is chased by robot gunslinger (Yul Brynner) only escaping with his life after he manages to outsmart the malevolent machine.

The film was successful enough to spawn a sequel and a short-lived TV series, though Crichton had little to do with either. Crichton went on to be involved in a number of other films as either a writer, director or producer (or sometimes combinations of any of the above). He co-wrote the script for 1996's tale of storm-chasing scientists, Twister, wrote the screenplay and directed the medical murder mystery Coma in 1978 and wrote and directed Runaway, the tale of robots programmed for murder in 1984.

Dinosaurs brought back to life by cloning get out of control in Jurassic Park. Crichton wrote the book and contributed to the screenplay.

One of his less successful screen efforts was 1981's Looker. Crichton wrote and directed Looker, starring Susan Dey and Albert Finney, is the story of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who finds his supermodel clients are being murdered after their bodies have been scanned into a computer for use by an advertising firm. While the film didn't do that well at the box office, it is notable because it is one of the first venues to show how CGI (Computer Graphic Imagery) would eventually be used in the production of movies and television.

Crichton as a Doctor

One thing I've always liked about Crichton's books is that the main characters are almost always scientists, doctors or engineers. While some of these characters are shortsighted and stubborn, others are thoughtful and heroic. A paleontologist in Jurassic Park, a primatologist in Congo, a surgeon in The Andromeda Strain, and a software engineer in Prey, each save the day in their respective novels. Too many authors treat characters in the technical fields as weirdoes or mad scientists. While Crichton was never known for excessive character development, at least he didn't stereotype these people like so many other writers do.

Perhaps his sympathy for these characters was because Crichton himself was trained as a scientist/medical doctor. He was always interested in writing and entered Harvard as an English major, but when his professor (who I doubt has 150 million books in print, which Crichton did at the time of his death) criticized his writing style he switched his major to anthropology. He later attended medical school because he was skeptical of his ability to make a living as a wordsmith, though he paid his tuition bills by cranking out novels under an assumed name. By the time he was a full-fledged doctor, he had found that "the writing became more interesting to me than the medicine" and became a full-time author.

His medical experiences, however, did lead him to create the medical series ER. The show, which first aired in 1993 and will, when it ends in February 2009, have run 15 seasons, is TV's longest running prime-time medical drama. Initially, the show was to have been a movie filmed by Steven Spielberg, but during pre-production the director asked Crichton about what else he was working on and was told about something with "DNA and dinosaurs." When he heard this, Spielberg decided to drop the medical drama and make Jurassic Park instead.

A trailer from the first film Crichton wrote and directed: WestWorld.

Crichton as a Historian

Not all of Crichton's books are scientific, medical or technical tales, however. The Great Train Robbery takes the readers back into the 19th century and gives them a good view of what life was like in London at the time of the actual robbery of 12,000 in gold coin and ingots from a British passenger train in 1855. Eaters of the Dead (beyond having the coolest title of any of Crichton's novels) is the retelling of the classic tale of Beowulf. Using one of Crichton's favorite mechanisms, the false document, the book purports to be a record made by a 10th-century Muslim who travels with the Vikings to fight off an invasion of monsters. It is one of my favorite Crichton reads.

The occasional monster in his books, whether in the form of a renegade robot or a swarm of malevolent nano-particles, has caused some people to suggest that Crichton was anti-science, but nothing could be further from the truth. Crichton was only anti-bad science or frivolous science. He argued that using powerful technology - like cloning - to do something like reproducing one's diseased pet was a bad idea. I suspect his books (and movies he also contributed to) have actually inspired many would-be scientists to go into their respective fields.

Crichton as a Pariah

His stance on science sometimes got him into trouble as in the case of his 2004 novel State of Fear. State of Fear describes a plot by an out-of-control environmental organization to sway public opinion by creating a series of ecological disasters. The book is implicitly critical of people that treat environmentalism like a religion or use what Crichton called "consensus science," (basing conclusions on what a group of people think about a subject rather what the hard data actually says). Throughout the novel Crichton suggests that concerns about global warming are unnecessarily putting people into a panic and compares it to previous scares from the past that have proven false or exaggerated like the population explosion (1960's), a new ice age (1970's), and Y2K (1990's).

His novel, State of Fear, which questioned global warming, got Crichton a lot of flak from some environmentalists.

This position, as you might expect, drew a lot of flak from people concerned about melting ice packs and rising sea levels. To be fair to Crichton, he never said that global warming was not real or that human activity had not contributed to it. What he argued was that our level of response was too high given the actual data available (he was particularly cynical of predictions based on computer models). It should be interesting to revisit this subject in twenty years to see if global warming goes the way of those past concerns that Crichton cited or if it is a unique crisis in our history. Unfortunately, if Mr. Crichton is right, he will not be around to say to us "I told you so."

For the past ten years or so my wife has always asked me what book I would like for Christmas. Invariably my answer has been "whatever Crichton has just published." Even though I understand that there is one novel to be released posthumously, I feel sad that I will be unable to look forward to more of his work. In the 19th century, where Crichton's The Great Train Robbery was set, 66 years of age was probably well beyond the average life expectancy. These days, however, we might have expected Mr. Crichton to be with us another dozen years or more. I wonder how many books he could have created in that time. I wonder what adventures I, and millions of his fans, will miss because of his untimely demise. As an author, visionary, and a human being, he is irreplaceable and will be sorely missed.

Copyright 2008 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.

 

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