The Michael Crichton Challenge

 
Authors can be judged in many ways.  The timelessness of one's book.  Its readability.  The deep, underlying truths contained therein.

But those aren't the only ways to judge an author.

What about ingenuity?  Originality?  The brilliance of an idea never thought of before?  A correlation; a conjunction of ideas that few others, if any, have made?

Some guy chases a big whale all over the place.  Moby-Dick.  A lawyer defends an innocent black man.  To Kill A Mockingbird.  A bunch of Okies migrate to California.  The Grapes of Wrath.  Architect makes it big.  The Fountainhead.

These are original ideas? They might read well, and there are certainly some deep, underlying truths running around the place but, by my definition?

Pretty boring, really.
 

Here I present the case that the late Michael Crichton was perhaps the greatest original author of all time.

I'll present the argument.  You answer the challenge.
 


 
The Andromeda Strain

The year is 1969.  There is no such thing as a home computer.  The word "digital" hasn't been invented.  Electronics are still in the dark ages of transistors.  Color TVs are a luxury.  Phones have rotary dials on them.  Got the picture?

A satellite falls to earth.  It has picked up a micro-fungus in space not of earthly origin.  The fungus reacts violently on the earth's surface, growing exponentially, threatening to eventually envelope the globe.  Pretty heady stuff for 1969.

Go ahead, tell me you thought of it first.
 

The Terminal Man

The year is 1972.  The brain is still mostly unknown.  Electronic monitoring is in its infancy.  The MRI is long from being invented.

Tiny holes are drilled into a subject's head and small electrodes are implanted at certain terminal points in his brain.  He learns to induce at will the secretion of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that produces pleasure.  The brain rebels, he goes mad.

Go ahead, tell me you thought of it first.
 

Eaters Of The Dead

'Beowulf' was written around 1100 AD about a Scandinavian warrior of the 6th century.  It is regarded as the first true biography.  But why did it get written?  What inspired someone to write about the life of another for the very first time?  As an 'academic exercise', Crichton attempts to answer this question.

It is the year 922 and Ahmad Ibn Fadlan has been sent north by the Caliph of Baghdad to act as emissary to a band of Scandinavian warriors, the predecessors of the Vikings.  The act of writing ("drawing pictures with words") is unknown to the Norsemen.  The Arab fights alongside his companions as they battle an evil foe.  In the final conflict, Buliwyf, the chief of the warriors, is mortally wounded.  Knowing the Arab can write, he says to him on his death bed, "A man might be thought wealthy if someone were to draw the story of his deeds, that they may be remembered." Ahmad then begins to 'draw the story' of Buliwyf's deeds using written words.

Go ahead, tell me you thought of it first.
 

Congo

The silverback gorilla is one of man's closest cousins.  They're very smart, and quite adept at communicating with humans via sign language.

A silverback gorilla has been raised in captivity and has a sign language vocabulary of over 600 words.  What would happen if you brought the gorilla to the wilds of Africa where it could then interact with indigenous silverback gorillas?  Would it be able to act as a 'translator' between man and beast?

Go ahead, tell me you thought of it first.
 

Sphere

There have been many sci-fi novels written over the years dealing with black holes and time travel and all that.  And 'scooping' something out a black hole doesn't sound like anything particularly new.

Far in the future, a spaceship is sent into a black hole to do just that.  It then returns to Earth, but the black hole has flung it back in time and it crashes into the ocean 300 years ago.  It is discovered today.  But what horror might it have brought back?  What if an alien entity entered your brain and you weren't even aware of it… and you were the one narrating the story?

Go ahead, tell me you thought of it first.
 

Jurassic Park

The year is 1991.  Gene manipulation and cloning are real.  DNA has been thoroughly mapped.  And it's only a matter of time until, from one strand of DNA, they'll be able to reproduce the whole enchilada.

An insect sucks blood from a dinosaur.  It is then trapped in tree sap for 65 million years.  The dinosaur blood is extracted from the insect and the dinosaur is cloned using the DNA in the blood.

Go ahead, tell me you thought of it first.
 

Rising Sun

The year is 1992.  The Digital Age has just dawned.  The word "video" means nothing to most people, and certainly not the term "video image manipulation."

A murder takes place in a fancy office building owned by a large Japanese corporation in downtown L.A.  The hero closely inspects the security tapes and, in a couple of frames, the murderer's face is reflected in a mirror.  Good piece of detective work?  Case closed?  Not so fast!  As it turns out, the Japanese, using cutting-edge technology, have manipulated the video image and inserted the face of an innocent person into the mirror's reflection.

Go ahead, tell me you thought of it first.
 

Timeline

The year is 1999.  About the only people who have heard the terms "quantum mechanics" and "chaos theory" are those who read or watched Jurassic Park.

Scientists use quantum mechanics and chaos theory to invent a time machine.  Unlike the classic time machine where you just punch in the date, there are severe limitations with this one.  And, unlike the happy tale where the guy goes back in time and appears to be real smart compared to everybody else, the crew here that ventures back in time faces all of the dangers that any modern person would, with disastrous results.

Go ahead, tell me you thought of it first.
 

Prey

The year is 2002.  Relatively few people know what nanotechnology is.  Basically, it's the creation of artificial cells that act together to perform a larger function.  'Artificial life', as it were.  One example would be to act as a subminiature camera that would enter a patient's bloodstream to take crude 'pictures' of cancer cells.  A million nanocells would act as the camera's 'body', another as the 'lens', and another as a primitive transmitter to relay the information to the outside world.

A team of scientists is developing just such a camera.  The nanocells grow and eventually obtain a primitive collective consciousness, causing them to reproduce and turn into a larger, man-killing 'swarm'.  The swarm escapes from the confines of the building.  It's truly a case of technology run amok, and the fate of every living entity on the planet is in peril.

Go ahead, tell me you thought of it first.
 

State Of Fear

The year is 2004.  With billions of dollars in research grants at stake, the global warming crowd has ignored the vast majority of evidence and focused on a few select facts, such as the overall average temperature of the globe has risen .6 degrees Celsius over the past century.  Discounting the fact that we were still emerging from the "Little Ice Age" a hundred years ago, and discounting the inaccuracy of thermometers during the early part of the last century, and discounting the fact that the sun has become measurably warmer in recent years, and discounting the fact that only 30 years ago virtually every environmental scientist on the planet was convinced that we were about ready to enter a period of 'global cooling', millions are swayed by the global warming craze.

A young man, thoroughly convinced that the planet is on the edge of destruction, inadvertently gets teamed up with some researchers who have stumbled across a plot by a radical wing of the global warming community who are bent on creating a series of 'natural' disasters taking thousands of lives, which they can then point to as supporting their cause.  In the course of preventing these atrocities, the young man is inundated with facts that prove so-called global warming is a massive hoax, in great part driven by the lure of lucrative research grants.

In this case, I bet a lot of people thought of it first.  "It", being a means of communicating to the masses what a hoax so-called global warming is.  But Crichton was the one who did it, and did it well.

It is my humble opinion that we, as Americans, were blessed with having one of the greatest authors who ever lived, here in our country, and here in our time.  Traditionally, the role of the 'ingenious' or 'original' author has been that of the science fiction writer, such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein.  But their adventures usually take place in the distant future, often on other worlds, in galaxies far, far away.

Compare that to the above.
 


 
A few words about his novel Next.  It's a real must-read, this one about the present state of genetic engineering, the dangers posed by our archaic laws on the subject, and how much misinformation the public is being given.

It's a rollicking yarn, filled with interesting characters, lots of action, and a wisecracking parrot that'll have 'em rolling in the aisles.  It also comes with a small warning.

After Jurassic Park became such a smash movie, Crichton altered his writing style dramatically.  Unlike most authors, Crichton is virtually guaranteed that whatever he writes will be turned into a movie, and his next book, Lost World (a sequel to Jurassic Park), reflected this — and badly.  The whole thing (at least as far as I got before I dropped it in the waste basket) read like some Grade-B Hollywood screenplay, with contrived plots and outlandish coincidences around every corner just to keep the movie audience's attention.

I'm sure he got roundly criticized for it, and the following novels went back to their usual style.  Next, however, is back to the screenplay-ish mold, with contrived plots and outlandish coincidences around every corner, but I believe it was done this way for a reason.

Because there's no obvious protagonist (dinosaur, gorilla, scientist, etc) in a story about genetic engineering, Crichton obviously had to do some stretching to wrangle up a tale where the many problems with genetics could be woven into the story line.  If it had come across as 'dry', Crichton knew that Hollywood would have jazzed it up, and I'm sure he didn't want to go through the legal battles that authors such as Tom Clancy have gone through trying to keep the screenplay reasonably close to the book.  So if you find yourself going "Huh?" a few times along the way, just go with the flow.  Like State Of Fear, when you strip away the yarn, it's a very sobering and important work.

 
Thank you, Michael, for the wealth of reading over the years.

We'll miss you.