It’s a small world after all

Michael A. Hiltzik is a Times staff writer.


A Novel

Michael Crichton

HarperCollins: 384 pp., $26.95


One can always predict what new peril to Life As We Know It will make its way to the TV news shows or the cover of Time magazine by checking out the premise of Michael Crichton’s latest bestseller. “Jurassic Park” landed just in time for the recombinant-DNA scare, and there was “Rising Sun” for the Japan-will-own-us panic of the early ‘90s. Crichton has dipped into such topics as aircraft design, quantum mechanics and sexual harassment in the workplace. Now comes “Prey,” featuring swarms of sinister microscopic software-programmed beasties running amok. Already I can see the headline: “Nanotechnology: Miracle or Menace?”

“Prey” is narrated by Jack Forman, an unemployed Silicon Valley software engineer working as Mr. Mom to three kids while his wife, Julia, maintains workaholic hours at a high-tech firm. As the novel opens, Forman is ruminating over his wife’s increasingly strange behavior, which includes unexplained absences from home, sudden outbursts of rage and resentment and subtle changes in appearance. He concludes she’s having an affair, but the real explanation has something to do with the mysterious corporate project she supervises: a defense contract to manufacture, via nanotechnology -- that is, on a molecular scale -- microscopic devices that can cruise above the battlefield in large numbers and transmit a photographic image, all without being detected or disrupted by the enemy.

As it happens, Julia’s secret project has gone awry at a remote outpost, due to some unwise software tinkering by the staff. A swarm of the nanodevices has escaped into the environment, where they have learned to reproduce themselves and taken to exhibiting the behavior of predator colonies like ants, assaulting the local fauna and trying to infiltrate the plant. In time, Jack lands the assignment to set things right. Leaving the children behind, he heads for the desert, and after an explosive confrontation between man and enemy, the latter is vanquished.


Prefacing the novel with a dour essay (“the obstinate egotism that is a hallmark of human interaction with the environment”) featuring footnotes referencing works by creditable scientists such as Richard Feynman, and closing with a bibliography of sources on artificial life from an international selection of university presses, Crichton obviously takes this story seriously. But it’s hard to be convinced. Crichton’s admonitions about the imprudence of tampering with nature, echoed by Jack, seem dropped in largely to darken the atmosphere, like the Bernard Herrmann score of a Hitchcock film, rather than to serve as a central theme. But Crichton should know that novels with cautionary concern at their core spend more time on the threat to society at large; that is, of course, the real work of cautionary writers, the best of whom include H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick and Rachel Carson (whose nonfiction expose “Silent Spring” is perhaps the scariest techno-thriller of all time).

Crichton is an action writer, however, not an author of speculative fiction. His novels come alive in ghost towns and distant jungles, not among regular folks in the real world. In fact, Crichton’s Silicon Valley, where “Prey” opens, is oddly dated. In the aftermath of the dot-com crash, there hangs over the region something like, well, a dark cloud of nanoparticles, and if Crichton alludes to this chill even once in “Prey,” I must have missed it. (Jack’s unemployment has nothing to do with the lousy tech economy but rather to his having unearthed some wrongdoing by the CEO of his last company.)

Yet this shouldn’t surprise. With settings rendered so dimly, prose merely serviceable and characters, with few exceptions, indistinguishable from one another, Crichton’s books often get their charge from the nature of the threat. In this case, it must be said, however, the threat lacks a certain panache.

Crichton’s most inspired effort to meld scientific alarmism with genre convention was obviously “Jurassic Park.” There the thrill came prepackaged, awe and terror of dinosaurs being hard-wired into the human brain from eons ago. Not so with the homicidal nanomachines in “Prey.” It’s one thing to imagine a rampaging Tyrannosaurus rex on one’s tail, quite another to panic at the approach of a distant whir. Being animals, the dinosaurs seemed endowed with malevolent intention. Not so the nanomachines, whose behavior seems as sinister as a cloud drifting on the horizon.

The scientific underpinning of “Prey,” meanwhile, is too unwieldy to keep the book hurtling along. Nanotechnology, genetic algorithms and distributed computing are difficult concepts to slice into explanatory morsels. In nearly every chapter of “Prey” there is a point where the story stops dead so the narrator can drop in a pedagogical aside.

None of this is to denigrate Crichton’s mysterious talent for exploiting hot-button issues. But “Prey,” lean as it is of drama, tension or memorable peril, is decidedly lesser Crichton. It remains to be seen what the Hollywood digital-effects houses can make of its buzzing swarms.