Invisible ink no 260: Michael Crichton

His books sit in the vanishing category of the quasi-scientific pulp thriller

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He was one of the few thriller writers whose name could sell a book, whatever the subject. He’s still very healthily in print, so why feature him here?

Because regular readers will sense that the likeable, intelligent Michael Crichton, who died in 2008, exhibits all the markers of a future forgotten author. His irresistibly populist thrillers reflected the kind of attitudes to society and technology which quickly become passé, and his books sit in the vanishing category of the quasi-scientific pulp thriller, the kind of thrill-ride that internet critics love to tear apart.

Crichton felt isolated as a teenager because of his extreme height and intellect. Always curious about the modern world, he was a workaholic who could finish a first draft in six weeks. He became a physician but also started writing under three pseudonyms, living a double life that saw him rush from Hollywood meetings to hospital wards. Tellingly, his first novel was Odds On, about a robbery designed on a computer which goes wrong when unforeseen factors subvert the plan. This was an idea to which he repeatedly returned. In The Andromeda Strain, a massive government military base is almost destroyed by a confluence of overlooked factors, each too small to register but collectively disastrous.

The idea of a human factor upsetting a scientific certainty occurs in his most famous novel, Jurassic Park, the science behind which was obsessively debunked. While Crichton extended tropes used by H G Wells and Edgar Wallace, he also created scientific verisimilitude by adding fictionalised documents and computations, using experts to deliver cautionary lectures. But this logical, mechanical technique, adding frissons of fear and doubt about the future, also worked against him in the new internet age, as hometaught experts decried the science behind his plots. This is like arguing that Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth shouldn’t be read because our world isn’t hollow. Crichton’s one real mis-step was to write Rising Sun, which felt like xenophobic sermonising about US-Japanese relations. Even then, it accurately reflected American concerns about Japan.

To many, it felt as if Crichton was heading down the wrong path, gaining a reputation as a climate-change denier increasingly fascinated by nanotechnology and genetics rather than say, artificial intelligence and the web. Speculative writers must choose directions that the future doesn’t always take, but ultimately it can make them look less prescient than fearful for the future. Crichton is too good an author to forget.