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The Books of Michael Crichton
In a few ways, I owe my reading life to Michael Crichton. Though not strictly a science-fiction writer, Crichton wrote some of my favorite books and opened the door for me to explore larger worlds. He wrote science in such a way that I could understand it but still be in awe of how much work it takes. Genetics, quantum mechanics, animal intelligence, nanotechnology; all of that could be near impossible to explain but Crichton always had ways to get the information out and understood. His books were never bogged down by the science, but enhanced. Even when writing in other genres, such as his history books, he always found a way to let the research entertain and enthrall.
When I was a kid, Jurassic Park was the first true “adult” book I read. I was in the fifth grade and I devoured the book. There was the element of reading a book with a few naughty words, but I got past that infatuation quickly. Both Jurassic Park and The Lost World became favorites of mine, and I still claim the first to be my favorite book today. Crichton explained genetic manipulation and cloning with such ease, even when I couldn’t grasp the ideas 100%, I had a majority of the message. In these books, the ideas are as big as the dinosaurs.
The dinosaurs, however, are wonderful. It still boggles my mind that there is so little dinosaur literature out there (thought I never read Dinotopia). Crichton did such a job writing his dinosaurs as both awe-inspiring and terrifying, that the lack of imitators is strange. Maybe they’re just scared to be compared to Jurassic Park. I love how Crichton wrote the Velociraptors as vicious, mean pack hunters, too fast to believe. The Tyrannosaurus Rex is a creature of pure forward momentum; a locomotion of a predator. Any time a dinosaur shows up, in either of these books, there is a sense of the unexpected, of true danger.
For a while, after I dropped out of high school, I stopped reading all together. I didn’t buy books; I didn’t go to the library. I read comic books and played video games and that was the extent of my culture. One day, at work, I was talking and realized I couldn’t think of a word to finish my sentence. The word, forgotten now, was an easy one but for the life of me I couldn’t remember or think of a substitute. I realized there that my vocabulary was slipping. My brain was suffering from a lack of exercise and true use. The thought that I had quit reading for all those years frustrated me and I went out to find a book that could somehow grab my interest.
That’s when I found Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. Having read a review for it a while back, and knowing that Jurassic Park was still my favorite, I decided to see what else Crichton could offer. State of Fear brought me back to reading. Suddenly, I realized I didn’t need dinosaurs or superheroes to enjoy a book, I just needed good writing. State of Fear was good, and now I realize how controversial it was, and is today. Crichton may not take such a strong stand on global warming, but his characters do. When his main scientist claims global warming to be non-existent, it’s as interesting of a turn as any plot twist. While many people may read the book and then decide it needs to be burned, it’s one of the best written counter-arguments to global warming I’ve ever seen. As a work of fiction, it’s a roller-coaster ride, with scenes of car chases along rivers while outrunning targeted lighting. This book would have been a movie by now if not for its controversial statements.
From there, I decided Crichton was an author I was going to follow. I read Congo and found it to be interesting, though it was obviously an earlier novel, before Crichton had mastered his craft. The adventure itself was mediocre, but the discussions on animal intelligence and primate learning were great. Then, in preparation for an eight hour flight I knew I wouldn’t sleep through, I bought a copy of NEXT at the airport’s bookstore. I read through two-thirds of the book before I put it down. The ideas about current genetics were insane, frightening, and gripping. Really, this was book I shouldn’t have liked, plot and concepts moving the characters rather than our heroes moving the story, but it was too good to argue with. Crichton seemed to be able to look at our current state and say, “Yeah, but than this is going to happen.” Whether or not he’s correct or even making sense, you read his ideas and nod in agreement, just because he’s that good.
Andromeda Strain and Sphere were good, the former being another case of early writing. It wasn’t as gripping as I had heard, but it was still good and has more of focused feel than some of his other writings. Sphere, though, was creepy. I read the first half of the book one night, alone in the house, and realizing the ocean is a scary place. The book lost that creeping terror feel during its second half, but it’s one the few books that seems to be able to say, “No, Lovecraft, like this!”
Eaters of the Dead left me underwhelmed. While the movie, now called The 13th Warrior, was decent entertainment, the book was dry and uninspiring. I began to wonder if I had read the best Crichton had to offer. Then, I picked up Timeline at my local library and couldn’t put it down. The book, once it got past its need to explain quantum physics and time travel, was one of the best adventure books I had ever read. I just kept turning the pages without a care of the time. I needed to see what was going to happen next. Reading about our heroes trying to survive 14th century France, filled with knights rather than dinosaurs, is as much a thrill as Jurassic Park. The characters may be the most likable he has ever written, with character arcs we love seeing. In fact, if it wasn’t for Jurassic Park, Timeline would be my favorite Crichton book. It’s that good.
The Great Train Robbery was a surprisingly enjoyable book and kept me entertained throughout. While I worried that Eaters of the Dead was the rule of Crichton’s historical work, his Victorian heist book proved otherwise. I wanted to see the turns, to see how the characters got away with the crime. I even wanted to see them get caught. Reading The Terminal Man was interesting, but it was too thriller and not enough research, and that seems like a weird statement, even to write. Its biggest fault is that it’s one of Crichton’s earliest books and not as well done. Prey, Crichton’s nanotech novel, was good and had great pacing, but the main story was underwhelming. It was enjoyable; it just needed a bigger premise for such small machines.
Crichton wasn’t a perfect writer. His characters weren’t always the best. While Jurassic Park and Timeline were strong, the characters in The Terminal Man and Prey were lacking. Crichton also had problems finishing his books. The endings always seemed rushed and half-hearted, even the big climaxes. The books just seem to run out of steam, as if Crichton got bored once all of his ideas had been written down. Outside of Timeline and Prey, it’s hard for me to think of satisfying ending by Crichton. Not a perfect writer, but still one of the best.
Michael Crichton died on November 4th, 2008 of lymphoma. I found this out in my college dorm by stating that I finally had a favorite author, and it was Crichton. As I told my fellow students this with pride, someone informed me that Crichton had died a month ago. Shocked, I fled to the internet and confirmed the fact. Crichton had died, just as I was making him my favorite author.
It’s one of the stranger feelings to have your favorite writer die. You never knew them, but you’ve spent hours upon hours in their head. Suddenly, you realize, there are no more books coming and that all he will ever write is written. It was depressing and I still struggle accepting that fact. I’ve yet to read Rising Sun and Disclosure, and I’ll try to read Micro, even though it was published posthumously. With those books, there’s a comfort that I haven’t read all of Crichton’s work, but the number is slipping. If there was ever a writer that affected me, that showed me there was world of writing beyond Animorphs and comic books, it was Michael Crichton. His books brought me back to reading, his stories were always impossible to put down. This was guy who has had almost every one of his books turned into films, who had number one material in movies, books, and television at the same time. He may be gone, but Crichton is still my favorite author, and I doubt another writer will ever be able to replace him.
That’s a pretty bad ending. Looks like Crichton rubbed off me (hey, one can hope).