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The Manic Maniac: Crichton's Legacy

Science fiction for people who don’t like to think.

By Joe Crosby     November 07, 2008

 

Michael Crichton died on Tuesday. It's a tragic loss, as any human loss is. But for some reason--and despite all of the obituaries to the contrary--it seems strange to refer to Crichton as a great ... as in "a great one," "an icon." Isaac Asimov is a great. Philip K. Dick is a great. Frank Herbert is a great. But populist writers like Crichton, with their shiny book jackets strewn across grocery-store aisles, seem more akin to Danielle Steele than Arthur C. Clarke.
 
This, of course, isn't fair to Michael Crichton. Still, sad as his death may be, the reality is that Crichton is no Asimov. But he did do something great.
 
Science-fiction, generally speaking, is an extrapolation of current or supposed scientific innovation across time. It doesn't always exist in the future, but sometimes it does. Sometimes it's the present confronting the immediacy of the future. Sometimes it's neither. And sometimes, it's as much, if not more so, about humanity than it is about science. At least, when it's good it is.
 
To wit: Isaac Asimov strangely has no titles of his massive library attributed to the philosophy category in the Dewey Decimal System (which classifies 10 category sections, hence "decimal"), while he can be found in the other nine. But Asimov, a humanist and futurist, was as much a philosopher as he was science fiction writer. The lasting imprint of his I, Robotcollection, the Three Laws of Robotics, is at its core a logic formula, philosophy laid bare. In this context, the author is using the idea of science to examine the durability of humanity and morality--who are we, where have we been, where are we going. As such, science and technology simply become vehicles for philosophical discussion.
 
Clarke did it. Dick did it. Herbert did it. Crichton didn't.
 
The core of Crichton's sci-fi work (Rising Sun, Disclosure, et al, aside) has more to do with science itself--The Andromeda Strain's nanotechnology, Jurassic Park's Dinosaur DNA, Sphere's oceanic unknown. He does delve into broader themes occasionally, as it's difficult to write science-fiction without at least broad strokes of societal or philosophical overtones appearing. But by and large, he sticks to the mechanics of the science and technology to drive his novels. His research into, say, Timeline's quantum mechanics and time travel is so thorough and exhaustive that he creates the ability to connect otherwise dense material to the everyman reader. In short, his science-fiction becomes palatable to a wider audience. It's pop-science fiction.
 
Those aforementioned sci-fi icons, just a few of many, find themselves in a tricky, yet popular dilemma. The obvious themes of their works, covering the same arcane techno-scientific worlds as Crichton, find a more complicated wiring within them. The subtext, their cultural examination, requires not just reading, but thinking about the reading after. It is the very thing that makes them great, but it also limits them to a niche. That is, many people might know their names, but few have read their words.
 
Crichton managed to avoid that, and to his benefit. His obvious themes had little intentional subtext, and if they did, it often wasn't complicated. For instance, as Sphere morphs from science-fiction into a psychological thriller, he is explicit in his discourse of the human consciousness. We could talk about it later, sure, but he did a lot of the initial thinking for us, rather than prompting us to think. He made science-fiction easy. And as it became easy, it became fun.
 
We saw how this translated when looking at his career. His success in books allowed him to create one of the most popular television series ever, E.R., based off of his medical background (he attended medical school.) And film adaptations became the standard for his books. While 1971's The Andromeda Strain adaptation was decent, it was 1993's now-classic Jurassic Park that turned his books into a film factory. Its success was largely driven by the idea of Dinosaurs and humans coexisting. (Its realism, of course, was aided by revolutionary sound and special effects that made Land of the Lost look like a 12 year old's stop-motion home film project.)
 
It's easy to believe that the book and, subsequently, the movie, were simply about dinosaurs. But along the way, we were spoon-fed bits of science, about DNA extrapolation and hints of cloning, to make it easy for us to arrive at the notion that, through a little manipulation, we could create dinosaurs. That seems pretty awesome to almost everyone. But many of us probably didn't realize that Crichton was actually offering digestible science fact through his science fiction.
 
"There is an idea of informing people about some emerging things," he once told NPR. "And part of that is just a reflection of my own interests, following different areas, and saying, 'look at what they're doing now, I mean, this is really interesting, there's this guy in australia getting DNA fragments out of fossils. Hey, all right.'"
 
That is interesting, but when that concept becomes mired in the technical vernacular, the common man is many times lost. It's his ability to make his interests our interests that provided success. (For the record, it's been revealed since that full dinosaur DNA extraction is unlikely, but the fact that people have tried is important here.)
 
His scholastic background and science-fiction-as-fact plot devices (and vice versa) made him sort of a popular pop-cultural reference for the world of science and technology. He was so to the extent that his controversial State of Fear--which among other things, tried to discredit global warming--can somehow actually be called controversial. An author was criticized, not just in the halls of research facilities, but in the public sphere, for positing that maybe global warming isn't a big deal.
 
Had Asimov or Clarke made that claim, climatologists would certainly have been irked and niche audiences would've have debated their intellectual dishonesty, but very few of us would've heard more than a peep of it. Crichton does it, and it's news. He made his science fiction, once again, relevant.
 
There are sci-fi novels that are classics in any genre, and there is science fiction tripe (a lot of it) that's little more than brain candy. But Michael Crichton managed to bridge the gap between the two. He brought to light an often obscure and esoteric world of science so that everyone could read it without getting bored and without having to think too much. Sometimes, that's the stuff of grocery-store novelists. But sometimes, that's the stuff of greats.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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greendragon 11/7/2008 5:22:35 AM

Who the hell are you to determine whether someone is great or not.  Is seems to me you're one of those "knock someone down a peg to earn recognition for myself" type of people.  The man just died and you have nothing better to write than he isn't a great one?  Are you his unapproving or demoralizing step father or something?

DarthDuck 11/7/2008 6:02:33 AM
<P itxtvisited="1">Crichton, I'll agree, may have never been the 'great author of his generation'.  But aren't there other things for a writer to be measured upon?  His books sold millions upon millions of copies, and inspired so many movies and television shows.  And while that meant that sometimes we were subjected to movies like "Sphere" and "Congo", I'm sure that impact can be judged more by how many people then went to their local book store.</P><BR itxtvisited="1" /><BR itxtvisited="1" /> <P itxtvisited="1">When Jurassic Park started building buzz as a movie when I was in fifth grade my dad challenged me to read it before the release of the movie.  I loved it and began reading more and more books both of Crichton and other authors.  He became a gate-way author into a world of more grown-up books and novels.</P><BR itxtvisited="1" /><BR itxtvisited="1" /> <P itxtvisited="1">So maybe he had faults as a writer, not everyone likes everything.  But I believe he went beyond whatever faults there might have been to entertain and inspire many, many people.</P><BR itxtvisited="1" /><BR itxtvisited="1" /> <P itxtvisited="1">It's a shame that it comes to an end.</P>
hungrysamurai_home 11/7/2008 6:44:49 AM

Anybody can take something that is incomprehensible and make it difficult.  It takes true talent to begin with subjects as potentially mind-numbing as the ethics of cloning (Jurassic Park), the exportation of American jobs (Airframe), evolution (Congo), racism in the business and political scenes (Rising Sun), and abortion rights (A Case of Need) and make them palatable to the general public without dumbing them down.  By the time you are done reading Jurassic Park, you nearly feel qualified to initiate or rail against a cloning operation.

Carl Sagan endured much of the same criticism.  I am not comparing Crichton's scientific mind to Sagan's, but I would say that they both possessed a gift for bringing scientific theory down from the ivory towers to the masses.

As for this:  "As Sphere morphs from science-fiction into a psychological thriller, he is explicit in his discourse of the human consciousness. We could talk about it later, sure, but he did a lot of the initial thinking for us, rather than prompting us to think. He made science-fiction easy. And as it became easy, it became fun." Can you say that Philip K. Dick does things differently with VALIS?  In the final chapters, he explicitly states that the name of the protagonist, Horselover Fat, is another name for "Philip Dick." Where is the further discussion or prompted thought about the role of the author's voice?

The elitism of much of science and sci-fi is what reduces its appeal and stature, not such writers as Michael Crichton.

Stephen King has sold 350 million copies of his books.  Some have won awards, but few, if any, are known for their thought-provoking subtext.  Would anybody deny that King is one of the great ones?


vinylcharmer 11/7/2008 7:47:00 AM

What is great is inability of people to read entire articles. If you finish reading the article Joe appears to say that while Crichton may not be considered great by many he did the world a solid by making science easy. I have read most of his work and while I really enjoy it and I would always recommend him others I would never put him the same ranks as "Great" writers of this or any generation. Yes all of this is still objective as is all art but to criticize a man for his opinion just because you don't always agree is not "Great" either.

The true measure of greatness will be measured not us but by future generations who may or may not read Crichton's books. Making millions and selling millions doesn't make you "Great" it makes you popular.

LittleNell1824 11/7/2008 8:30:02 AM

Yes, I agree Vinyl. The main question is, will the books still be great when the current events they're based on are outdated? I don't know about all of his books, but I do think that some of them will.

I can't believe that I don't have a new Michael Crichton book to look forward to. His main philosphy did come through again and again which was "just because we can, doesn't mean we should." He always talked about the consequences and the ways that our ability to organize and achieve can make us great but can also make us short-sighted. And, he was just a really fun read. I should go back and re-read some of his earlier books.

vinylcharmer 11/7/2008 8:53:09 AM

Very true Nell. I too thought about that dilema of no new novels which is sad. However I do have one saving grace for myself. I have read all his titles up to Timline except the Lost World. Every title since then I have not had a chance to read yet so I feel lucky that I will still get to discover his later novels which will still be brand new to me.

BTW Eaters of the Dead is a great read, if you haven't had a chance to read it.

Hobbs 11/8/2008 9:14:18 AM

Actually Nell, you have one more Crichton book to read yet.  It was due out in December but they pushed it back to May of next year...not sure if that was because of sickness or not.  Don't know the title, Harper Collins hasn't released that info but regardless you'll have one more book to read.

Trying to name the greatest writers of all time is like trying to name the top 5 NFL QB's of all time.  Depending on who you are a fan of everyones list is going to be different.  I find it funny that you mention Herbert as one of the greats yet I would be willing to bet that you and 90% of you out there can't name another one of his books other than Dune.  Herbert's Dune belongs on the top 5 in my opinion but not top writers.

In Crichtons defense I don't think the man ever set off to be another Asimov, Clarke, or Dick.  I think he wrote for the times he lived in and did what any good writer does, he tried to provoke us to ACTUALLY THINK!  Something that is becoming a lost art in this country.  I think you would agree he did that quite successfully.

Crichton was a very successful writer and producer. One of the biggest in our time and I don't think his fans care what he will be thought of 30 years from now.   Very few writers actually can write about multiple subjects and be successful.  From sci-fi to courtrooms to global warming, etc, etc.  Crichton had a vast imagination that he shared with us and he will be missed. 

ddiaz28 11/8/2008 4:47:38 PM

Crichton is my favorite author and I will definitely miss reading new books from him.  It's too bad his most recent novel was probably one of his worst in my opinion.  Hopefully they release the book he was working on when he got sick. 

I completely agree with you DarthDuck.  I too read Jurassic Park in 5th grade and have been a voracious reader ever since.   I really hope we at least get some new QUALITY movie adaptations from some of the books that haven't been made films in the future.

mbeckham1 1/26/2009 4:25:40 PM

Sure, I can Childreen of Dune, Dune Messiah, God Emeror of  Dune, Herectics of Dune, Chapeterhouse of...uh  never mind. 

mbeckham1 1/26/2009 4:25:40 PM

Sure, I can Childreen of Dune, Dune Messiah, God Emeror of  Dune, Herectics of Dune, Chapeterhouse of...uh  never mind. 

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