Tall tech tales
Michael Crichton turns out to be as oddly compelling in person as his weird creatures are on paper. Crichton’s the father of the techno-thriller, the guy who dreamed up cloned dinos roaming “Jurassic Park” and more than a dozen other bestselling books of futuristic fiction loosely based on scientific facts. Now he’s come up with “Prey,” yet another tale of technology gone amok, featuring a monster you wouldn’t want to reckon with.
This one is actually a swarm of nano-particles -- each less than half the thickness of a human hair -- teensy machines with cameras built in. They have the ability to reproduce and evolve independent of the humans who created them. This means they are quite literally alive -- and they can become very, very evil.
There are scientists who say such a swarm might be created to act as an undetectable and indestructible military spying machine. In Crichton’s imagination, they can be programmed to search you out, inhabit your brain and turn your flesh into oozing white froth before they further alter your physical being to suit their needs. You should be very afraid.
As with all of Crichton’s tales, the technology he writes about is already available; he’s just taken it to a level that we can only hope will remain fictional.
Of course, writing isn’t enough these days. An author has to get out and pitch his product -- an obstacle even Crichton, 60, can’t wiggle around. He arrives for an interview at a hotel near his Santa Monica home looking glum. He is in the midst of a messy divorce from his fourth wife, the mother of his only child. He has just filed suit against her and her lawyer, for allegedly violating terms of the confidential divorce agreement when the attorney discussed it on a TV show. In September, Crichton and his 12-year-old daughter were at home when armed robbers bound and gagged them and ransacked the house. He understandably refuses to discuss any of the above or anything else of a personal nature.
In fact, he seems reluctant at first to discuss anything at all. Asked about the unsympathetic picture he draws of his new book’s female lead character -- an irritable workaholic scientist-mom who slaps her baby for kicking during a diaper-change -- Crichton simply replies, “You’re not meant to like her.”
Asked about the book’s hero -- a tender, nurturing house-husband who minds the kids, cooks the meals and shops at Crate & Barrel -- he responds: “Don’t you think in the real world that there are very high-powered women who have a demanding business life and tend to find nurturing men to couple with?”
Crichton is 6 feet, 9 inches tall and very slender, which gives him the pleasant appearance of an exotic, long-legged bird. And which also means he views the world a bit differently than most people: from an elevated position. Add to that his lofty intellect -- he graduated from Harvard and from Harvard Medical School and did post-doctoral study at the Salk Institute in La Jolla -- and you have someone who is worlds apart from the hordes who scarf down popcorn as they watch the films made from his books. (“Prey,” too, is slated to become a movie.)
He is also richer than most people, according to Forbes magazine, which named him the seventh-wealthiest man in the entertainment industry. Crichton has, at various times in his career, written and directed films, run software companies and created successful computer games. He has just signed a contract with Sega, which he also refuses to discuss. He has written four nonfiction books, including a definitive volume on the artist Jasper Johns. Oh, and he created the genre-bending TV show “ER,” which started the whole trend to quick-cut, fast-talk docudramas.
In a rare moment of what passes for candor, he says he likes to spend time with people who don’t do what he does. “I would rather be with people who are having their experiences rather than shaping them” for others to consume.
Crichton speaks slowly, with pauses, as if cautiously doling out words. Then, as fast as you can say nano-swarm -- and for no apparent reason -- he decides to open up. Suddenly, even the briefest question evokes an answer many minutes long. He offers up meandering, pedagogical monologues that at first seem to have no purpose but, on reflection, turn out to be prophesies every bit as riveting as his techno-tales. Entire histories of literature, feminism and other issues pour forth.
The human condition
Question: Would you ever write a book just about human relationships, without technology as a factor?
A small part of Crichton’s answer: “Probably not. I’m not sure I would have anything to add to what already exists. I mean, the enormous amount of fiction that I read is about all this interpersonal stuff, which seems to me to have been better done by George Eliot or Jane Austen. I view the arts, broadly speaking, in exactly the same way that I do science or technology. I view them as advancing and moving forward, in directions where they undergo transformations that have to do with the larger society around them.
“A simple example is that with the arrival of photography in the 1860s, there was a certain archival or recording quality of painting that vanished. You no longer needed to paint a picture of a battle to preserve the scene. And so artists were obliged to move to something else because that need was taken away.
“In the 19th century there’s a tremendous narrative focus on the experience of the individual caught in the larger forces of society. How people perceived the choices that they had or didn’t have as a result of the society. And 20th century serious fiction has largely explored a sort of inner psychological landscape, has moved increasingly in the direction of what was going on somehow inside your head. Those two things have been thoroughly done. So I don’t know what else there is to do. Possibly nothing. And I’m serious. There may be nothing left.”
Wait, he’s not through yet. He goes on to explain what he sees as the Freudian fraud that propelled most 20th century literature. “There is no id, ego, superego. It’s not there. There is no brain part. And no repressed memory. None of it. It was all a lie, a fabulous fantasy. But one so persuasive, so seductive, that it informed the intellectual life of much of the last hundred years.” As Freudian theory becomes obsolete, he continues, and Freud’s stature erodes, “then this style of writing seems outdated as well.”
He foresees an end to it. The coming-of-age novel, the relationship novel, the Woody Allen-esque tale of inner turmoil, all gone with Freud’s wind. What comes next? If he has a clue, he isn’t saying.
The relaxed, talkative version of Crichton is improbably charming, witty, even humble. He is not considered one of the world’s great writers. In fact, he’s been consistently chastened by critics for formulaic plots with little character definition. But he’s the prisoner of his muse, he says. “The projects arrive in my head, bang on the door and I have to answer. So if I write something similar to something else I wrote, I’m kind of helpless to do anything about it.”
Reviews are mixed for “Prey” (HarperCollins), seeming to depend upon the intellectual stretch of the reviewer. USA Today calls it “too technical, a big fat tech manual wrapped around a threadbare story.”
The New York Times reviewer says it is “irresistibly suspenseful”; he “turned the pages feverishly” and terms it “Crichton’s most ambitious techno-thriller yet.”
The divergent critics’ views confirm yet another of the author’s theories, that “we are not all living in the same world. We see that now because of what’s going on between the West and Middle East, in terms of cultural clashes. But even in L.A., people inhabit very different worlds -- and it can be very startling to get a glimpse of someone’s else’s.”
Crichton seems pretty much alone in the world he inhabits. To true scientists, his work is pure fluff and not cutting-edge enough. The nano-technology he writes about in “Prey,” for example, is old news to them. But nonscientists often see his work as too far out and scientific.
He refers to himself as being like a bat. “When a bat is with mammals, they all say, ‘Go away. You’re a bird. You have wings.’ When a bat is with birds they say, ‘Go away. You’re a mammal. You have fur.’ So the bat never fits in anywhere.”