Prey by Michael Crichton

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The Independent Culture

Michael Crichton novels seem like a pupal stage that comes between a ton of research into a hot topic and an ultimate incarnation as a big-budget film. Strangely, Crichton turned away from a career as a film-maker (he hasn't directed since the minor Physical Evidence in 1989) to concentrate on novels. Despite cinema hits in the 1970s with his own material (Westworld) and adaptations (Coma), his 1980s efforts (Runaway, Looker) tended to get sidelined as mid-range science fiction.

In the 1990s, however, his books were turned over to A-list directors to become talking-point movies beyond genre walls. Witness Steven Spielberg's version of Jurassic Park, Barry Levinson's Disclosure and Philip Kaufman's Rising Sun. However, equally prominent directors were stuck with Crichtons that failed to soar: John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior, Levinson's Sphere and Frank Marshall's Congo. The last two novels (Airframe, Timeline) have been bruited as film projects and not actually made.

This explains why Prey takes so few risks. Crichton is back on the turf he explored in the early 1970s in The Andromeda Strain, and which became the stamping-ground of his biggest success, Jurassic Park. Frankensteinian science goes awry as cutting-edge research proceeds beyond the bounds of ethics. It turns out monsters that have to be bested by a young-middle-aged scientific guy of action. He has to be sufficiently characterless to be played by whichever star is biggest when the movie rolls off the lot.

The hot topic here is nanotechnology. A three-page bibliography attests to Crichton's willingness to get his brain grubby with theories, although they show up inelegantly as pop science. Crichton has always had an interestingly contradictory involvement with science: fascinated with and thrilled by the possibilities, he also shrinks in terror from the consequences.

Often, as here, the real villain is not scientific hubris but capitalist cupidity. It might be that this attitude plays better, allowing for science-geek heroism while snarling at stock-option greed – though it should be remembered that Crichton is very rich.

In Prey, programmer Jack Foley is called in to trouble-shoot a system in a desert nanotech plant. He finds the facility besieged by rogue swarms of artificially intelligent life using his predator-prey behaviour model. The solid horror stuff works on a page-turner level but will play much better on the screen, with monsters that seem tailored to the capabilities of computer generation rather than a credible development of real technology.

Stirred in are elements from Crichton's whiny-American-guy books (Disclosure). House-husband Jack first suspects that his wife is having an affair. Then he discovers that she is mainly responsible for the monsters.

Family crisis allows for distinctive moments, especially when Jack's kids call him on his mobile to complain about domestic rows as he is trying to defeat the monsters. But it also seems like a layer of soap poured over the suspense-horror business.