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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
Author Michael Crichton
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.