Alien Dreams and Atomic Bombs

Abrams is a Times staff writer.

Extraterrestrials of the universe, beware!

Michael Crichton is trashing your reputations.

The 44-year-old novelist, movie director, medical doctor and anthropologist thinks you are extremely weird.

Sorry, but that’s the truth.

In fact, you’re probably so biologically strange and intellectually obtuse that you’d stand out even at the Iran- contra hearings.

Worst of all, he believes you’re, gulp, unimportant.

In terms of your impact on human behavior you probably would rate a big fat zero--even if you actually did show up on the White House lawn one day in a flying Winnebago. (If this is making you mad enough to launch a hyperspace sneak attack on this planet, you might start at Crichton’s office, a bungalow somewhere in greater Santa Monica. Sorry, no more hints. You’re supposed to be smart, right?)

All this is assuming that you exist, of course. Make no mistake, there are some mighty good arguments that you don’t, Crichton says.


But let’s assume your existence is possible, for what it’s worth. Otherwise this story is going nowhere. Also, Crichton’s latest novel, “Sphere” (Alfred A. Knopf), wouldn’t be cruising along in those upper reaches of bookdom, the best-seller lists. Buyers are snapping up the 100,000-copy first printing at the rate of 5,000 a week, the publisher reports. You aliens, however, will probably gloat over the fact that it’s gotten mixed reviews.

In case you haven’t heard of Crichton, he’s the fellow who majored in anthropology at Harvard, then attended Harvard Medical School and paid tuition by cranking out potboilers under pen names. He did receive a medical degree but has never practiced medicine.

In his last year of medical school he wrote a best seller under his own name, “The Andromeda Strain,” and followed up with a string of other best sellers, including “The Terminal Man,” “The Great Train Robbery” and “Congo.” Five of his novels have been made into movies. He has also directed films, including “West world” and “The Great Train Robbery.”

He claims to never have met an alien.

His latest book, a “thriller about consciousness,” is Crichton’s retort to everybody who thinks the aliens portrayed in movies, books and television shows are serious depictions of what life really might be like out there .

“Sphere” is about the discovery of a spacecraft on the floor of the South Pacific Ocean, a spacecraft that apparently crashed 300 years ago.

After a team is established in a deep-sea habitat and begins exploring the craft, things get spooky--and weird, of course--very quickly. Obviously, the team encounters an alien presence but the nature of the alien is never more than mysterious at best.

And that’s the point.

In an interview, Crichton--who first encountered fame in 1969 as the author of “The Andromeda Strain,” a novel about germs from outer space--explained why he wrote “Sphere” and expanded on his dim view of sentient life forms from far, far away.


“For a long time I wanted to deal with contact with a superior intelligence,” Crichton said, after easing his 6-foot-9 frame into a low-slung chair. “For people who are writing in a science-based way, it’s almost a requirement, the way every Renaissance painter had to do an Annunciation. In ‘The Andromeda Strain’ I solved the problem by making the life form a bacteria. That immediately eliminated a whole area of interest; you can’t talk to a bacteria.

“The other thing that was pushing me was the sense that the treatments of this theme that I had seen struck me invariably as unlikely imaginings. In films the extraterrestrial life form is demonstrably human. It looks human whether it’s something large with spiky teeth and slime and trying to eat you, or whether it’s something small and cuddly trying to hug you. It’s basically a creature that stands erect, that has a head on top of its torso, that has two arms and legs. It’s all frosting on an anthropoid cake.”

Take that, Steven Spielberg.

But that’s only half of it, according to Crichton. These aliens of the box office not only resemble us human bipeds physically, they act like us, too.

This strikes Crichton as simple-mindedness of the worst sort.

“In the behavior of those creatures you can immediately understand what they’re about and what’s going on in a way that I don’t think real contact with extraterrestrial life forms would be. I think it would be much more mysterious and much less explicable.”

Think about it, George Lucas.

In fact, Crichton leaves the impression that alien hordes could drop out of the sky tomorrow and he wouldn’t bat an eye.

“One of the things in the book is that it’s hard to imagine that contact with such life would have greater impact than the impact the discovery of the New World had on Western European society. . . . That discovery didn’t make any difference at all,” he said. “It didn’t stop warfare, it didn’t make people better human beings--it just provided a new arena for people to act the way they had always acted.”


Leaving aliens aside for a moment, Crichton said he devoted most of his novel to the story’s humans because “in the absence of (real) contact with aliens, we’re turned back on this very interesting life form that’s here now and not well understood. That’s us.”

He added, “The universe appears to be in some ways easier to understand than we are. We know a great deal more about the sun, the planets and the galaxy and the universe beyond that than we know about how we know.”

So, Crichton said, the novel also deals with the mind, specifically the power of imagination.

“I was trying to pick an aspect of human functioning which appears to be safe or have no consequences in ordinary life. We think that daydreaming is free, but in the context of this story it matters.”

You bet it matters. In “Sphere,” when a character thinks of, say, a giant squid, a giant squid is likely to come along and have him or her for breakfast.

The point, Crichton says, is “that what we imagine individually and in groups matters. There was a time in this society when we were imagining with some specificity nuclear wars. There were several movies about nuclear war on television just a few years ago. I was very alarmed because I thought it was really wrong to be doing this, wrong to be thinking forward and seeing those outcomes. To me it’s a kind of preparation or setting up of something I don’t want to see happen. It seems to me kind of loony that the fact that a technology hasn’t been used in 40 years is taken as evidence that it’s going to be used.”


And that, dear aliens, is the word from Earth. Have a nice light-year.


“Good,” Barnes said. “So there’s only one. Ask him where he’s from.” WHERE ARE YOU FROM? I AM FROM A LOCATION. “Ask him the name,” Barnes said. “The name of the location.” “Hal, names are confusing.” “We have to pin this guy down!” WHERE IS THE LOCATION YOU ARE FROM? I AM HERE. “We know that. Ask again.” WHERE IS THE LOCATION FROM WHERE YOU BEGAN?

Ted said, “That isn’t even good English, ‘from where you began.’ It’s going to look foolish when we publish this exchange.”

“We’ll clean it up for publication,” Barnes said.

“But you can’t do that,” Ted said, horrified. “You can’t alter this priceless scientific interaction.”

“Happens all the time. What do you guys call it? ‘Massaging the data.”’

Harry was typing again. WHERE IS THE LOCATION FROM WHERE YOU BEGAN? I BEGAN AT AWARENESS. “Awareness? Is that a planet or what?”

--From “Sphere” by Michael Crichton (Knopf).