Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Review - The Science of Michael Crichton

I admit it, I enjoy books that have titles like, The Science of..., with the dots filled in with the name of an author or TV show. A book like this about the Star Trek series of TV shows and movies will discuss subjects like, "Can there be a transporter?" or "Could Vulcans and humans intermarry?"

Books of this type, especially those with several authors, generally discuss these topics in one of two ways: either the author does a detailed critique of the science in the story, or writes an overview of what is known with a brief nod to the source. While the former can have a certain snarky joy to it, I find the second kind more fulfilling, as an author with knowledge of the topic gives a current overview of it. Given the relatively low quality of science reporting in our major dailies and periodicals, this can be a good source (yes, I understand that having to use a TV show to get into the topic is somewhat sad, but these books, at their best, can give a 20 page summary of a scientific issue in fine form).

For the most part, The Science of Michael Crichton: An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science Behind the Fictional Worlds of Michael Crichton (TSMC), edited by Kevin R. Grazier, features essays of the latter type. The real scientists and science writers behind these articles generally use the Crichton subjects as springboards into describing state-of-the-art thinking.

My disclaimer: I loved Crichton's debut, The Andromeda Strain, a (for me) fascinating exploration of the implications of an alien life form and its effect on humans in a small town in Arizona. It had enough science to fascinate the young me, and I was willing to overlook the stereotypical characters and clunky writing. Unfortunately, I have found subsequent works in the Crichton oeuvre disappointing; as he has become more of a brand name, the flaws have taken on more importance. There are also other authors plumbing somewhat the same ground who write stories with more resonance, and manage to say something about human beings as well (see the best of Greg Bear, as one example).

TSMC contains essays that are all somewhat critical of the science used in the novels - some are more understanding of the needs of the fiction author than others. That scientists are of necessity the villains seems acceptable to some, other authors seem to have a problem with that. And that may get at the heart of my feeling (and the writer of the pertinent essay, Sergio Pistoi) that The Andromeda Strain is Crichton's best. It is the one that presents scientists in a generally positive light.

The brilliant Ray Kurzweil writes an essay that uses Crichton's The Terminal Man as a springboard to his controversial opinions about the eventual fusion of human and computer. You won't find out much about the book, but you will certainly have something to think about. Steven Gulie uses the same book (odd, because The Terminal Man was not one of Crichton's most prominent works) to write the most affecting essay, as he describes his own experience with brain implants to treat Parkinson's disease.

As we move on in time, it is clear that Crichton departs ever further from real science, as he misrepresents the fields of anthropology (in Eaters of the Dead), animal behavior (Congo), physics (Timeline), nanotechnology (Prey), climatology (State of Fear), and biotechnology (Next). What is most troubling is the increasing hostility of this Harvard Medical School graduate to science itself.

I can't personally speak to every essay's criticism, because I haven't read every one of the Crichton novels covered in this book. But, when such a best-selling and influential author decries global warming, and does so with apparently sketchy evidence (in one case, he draws exactly the wrong conclusion from a study), then he has gone from science fiction into political commentary of a most curious sort. It may be good to have a knowledgeable author writing cautionary tales about an over-reliance on unproven technology, but that gives that author a special responsibility to get the facts right. In particular, for someone who has written a book that uses chaos theory as a major plot point, then ignores the possible chaotic implications of global warning in another book, seems incongruous.

Anyway, TSMC is a good read, even if you are not familiar with every Crichton novel covered. You will get a gentle introduction to many current scientific issues, and that's positive.

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