Thursday, December 13, 2007

Michael Crichton's "Next"

A few days ago, I finished reading Michael Crichton’s latest novel “Next.” Originally published at the end of 2006, it's recently shown up on bookshelves in paperback. Being a longtime fan of Crichton's, I picked it up, expecting a quick, fun read -- a quick way to pad my 2007 reading list. Quick and fun, however, it was not.

Throughout my reading of it I often closed the book and stared, dumbstruck, at its cover, astonished that such unassuming covers could contain within them such awful trash. Though it sounds like the first line of a sulking fifth-grader's book report, I feel it needs to be said anyway: "Next" is one of the worst books I've ever read. There.

The copy I bought is one of those new tall mass-market paperbacks that are supposed to be easier to read than their stubbier brethren. The mass-market edition of “Next” was printed in a variety of lurid colors; I picked up the white version, not wanting to see a blazing lime green cove, for example, blaring out of my bookshelves for years to come. The logo, as pictured, is a monkey with a bar code over it. Quite graphic and interesting. There are a couple of blurbs at the bottom of the book. The first cites the Washington Post whose reviewer apparently called “Next” “chilling.” The Philadelphia Inquirer says “Next” is “spectacular.” Inside are pages and pages of positive reviews from a sampling of the nation's newspapers. Never before has the sense that I’ve read a book wholly different from the book the reviewers critiqued been so palpable.

I picked up “Next” thinking that, with his anti-global warming screed “State of Fear” out of his system, Crichton has returned to his techno-horror origins a la “Prey” or, even better, “Jurassic Park.” Not so. I never read “State of Fear” (one of the few Crichton novels I can say that about), because the “plot” was too ridiculous even for me. This from the New York Times review (an organization Crichton loathes, for the record) :

“Nicholas Drake, head of an environmental group called the National Environmental Resource Fund (NERF), who has conspired with radical eco-terrorists to trigger a series of climate-related catastrophes. Drake believes the disasters will convince the public that global warming is an imminent crisis that can be averted only by writing big fat checks to NERF.

That’s real, folks. Read the review here. You kind of have to read it to believe it.

In my view, the fact he wrote a book in which the above scenario was handled seriously is pretty embarrassing, which is why, out of deference to the old Crichton I grew up reading, I politely passed that book right on by. Sadly, his new novel "Next" suggests that the wild-eyed, crazy-haired right-wing zealot Crichton who wrote "State of Fear" is here to stay.

As screeds go, “Next” tweaks the lizard-brain as hard and as tastelessly as the best of them, but it is not nearly as targeted as “State of Fear”, a book that lasered in on environmentalists as its primary villain, and dangerous liberal-ness as their enabler. “Next” seems to target, with equal ferocity, human amorality in genetic engineering, and humanity itself. His view of humanity in “Next” is so dim in fact that the visceral reaction Crichton intends "Next" to evoke in the reader is less a feeling that the future is a frightening place, and more a general feeling that the only good human is a dead human. Once the lizard brain retreats, however, and the intellect re-emerges, the question that may come to mind is, "Who made Michael Crichton so mad?” There is, after all, a lot of anger in this book.

The plot, such as it is, doesn’t follow a single, or even a couple narrative lines, but rather a series of scenarios that all seek to expose injustices in the still nascent field of bioengineering. Written in his customary ultra-short chapters, the story bops from one outrage to another. In one story arc, a family in the suburbs has to adjust to life with a human/chimpanzee hybrid who acts like a precocious though unusually agile boy. (The geneticist father inadvertently created the "humanzee" at work.) In another plot thread we follow a gray parrot with human-like intelligence on a road trip of sorts. These are the most traditionally Crichton-esque of the stories and are, generally speaking, politically neutral and innocuous.

The novel’s other plotlines, however, deal with humans using and abusing genetic technology advancements for their own personal gain. These sections of the book are the most difficult to read because they are the most misanthropic. In these sections, all the characters are so one-dimensional as to be less than caricatures; Crichton uses them to make his political arguments with all the subtlety of a knife in the ribs. Crichton’s misogeny is on full display: his women are all either daft, spiteful, or plain old murderous. His male characters are all one of a dozen variants of unscrupulous bastard.

Notions that would make most people blanch and consult their consciences don’t phase these awful characters in the slightest. For example, a valuable cell line collected by the University of California from a patient as waste material is patented by the University, which they then sell to a private company for billions. An act of industrial sabotage contaminates the cell line, and the aggrieved company, with the help of the courts, sends a bounty hunter to track down the original patient (or one of his direct relatives if he’s not around) and forcibly confiscate the cell line. Detain, restrain, and extract tissue. The reason: the courts have decreed that the company owns the patient’s cell line, not the patient. Instead of dealing with the issue in an honest way, Crichton decides to play on our worst fears about the judicial system, painting it as a monolithic, dusty bureaucracy that will, if asked, come after regular folks and take their dignity, their money, and finally their body parts.

Or how about the divorce attorney who orders his client’s spouse to have a full genetic work up, the kind of test that often reveal the disease that will eventually kill a person. In order to escape the test, which may be administered against her will, she must flee and relinquish her children to her weaselly husband. Both the husband and the divorce attorney practically twist their mustaches as they hatch their plans. I think it'd be hard to find fiction this bad if you went out and looked for it.

According to the New York Times, these stories, or some variant of them, check out. Something like what Crichton describes in the book actually happened. But in the hands of Michael Crichton, cautionary tales like this come off more like the alarmist hack work of Sean Hannity doomsaying about the coming jihadist holocaust then the firm, wonky warnings sounded by Al Gore (who Crichton, no doubt, believes is himself a demagogue). The difference between the writers is in how they view their audience. Gore believes his audience can be persuaded by a clear presentation of facts; Crichton, on the other hand, believes his readers can only come around to his way of thinking by terrifying them into lockstep.

But not all of Crichton's caricatures are merely venal; when he really wants to score a political point, he creates ridiculous straw men, which become the villains Crichton happily knocks down. Take the hippie environmentalist character Mark Sanger, heartbroken at the thought of sea turtles being eaten by hungry jaguars on Costa Rica. Read how Crichton describes Sanger’s environmentalist credentials:

Back at home in Berkeley, Sanger sat in his loft and pondered what to do. Although Sanger told people he was a biologist, he had no formal training in the field. He had attended one year of college before dropping out to work briefly for a landscape architecture firm, Cather and Holly; the only biology he had taken was a course in high school. The son of a banker, Sanger possessed a substantial trust fund and did not need to work to support himself. He did, however, need a purpose in life. Wealth, in his experience, made the quest for self-identity even more difficult.

And then:

Recently, he had started to define himself as an artist, and artists did not need formal training. In fact, formal education interfered with a the artist’s ability to feel the zeitgeist, to ride the waves of change rolling through society, and to formulate a response to them. Sanger was very well informed in his opinion. He read the Berkeley papers, and sometimes magazines like Mother Jones, and several of the environmental magazines. Not every month, but sometimes. True, he often just looked at the pictures, skimming the stories. But that was all that was necessary to track the zeitgeist.

Can’t you just feel the curmudgeonly hatred radiating off of those words like heat? Is it ever pleasurable to read fiction by a writer who literally hates one of his characters? In John Irving’s “Cider House Rules”, Irving presents the character of the train station agent as an idiot unaware of his own idiocy, which is harmless in and of itself. But the way Irving writes him it’s clear he deeply dislikes the station agent. The pages featuring this character are uncomfortable reading and succeed only in pulling the reader out of the narrative. But imagine pages upon pages of writing like that, featuring one hateful character after another. That’s “Next.”

Crichton expresses his own intemperate hate for environmentalists by creating an illiterate, thoughtless, and reckless loser to stand in for all of them. Here’s another choice tidbit between Sanger and a Costa Rican naturalist (the italics are mine):

“No, Senor Sanger, this is always the way it has been since my father and grandfather, and grandfather before. They always spoke of the jaguar attacks in the night. It’s part of the cycle of life.”

“But there are more attacks now,” Sanger said. “Because of all the pollution . . .

In Crichton’s view Sanger, and by extension all environmentalists, are blithering idiots who are all heart and not an ounce of brain. I don’t know if this example demonstrates Crichton’s hate for environmentalists, or if it shows his complete inability to "get inside the head" of another human being. Though I think the latter's definitely a problem for him as a writer, I think the problem is more the former – Crichton is too keen to demonize them then to try and understand them, as is made quite clear in the next example:

"Ramon Valdez said, 'Jaguars must eat, too. I think better a turtle than to take a human baby.'

That, Mark Sanger thought, was a matter of opinion."

Absolutely poisonous. Sanger's not just thoughtless and stupid, he actually believes the life of a sea turtle matters more than a human baby's. Sounds like Sanger's almost as misanthropic as the guy who created him.

But it gets worse.

Chapter “045” begins this way:

"Alex Burnett was in the middle of the most difficult trial of her career, a rape case involving the sexual assault of a two-year old boy in Malibu. The defendant, thirty-year old Mick Crowley, was a Washington-based political columnist who was visiting his sister-in-law when he experienced an overwhelming urge to have anal sex with her young son, still in diapers."

Yes, apropos of nothing, halfway through the "novel," Crichton inserts an infant-rape vignette into his story about genetic research. And it’s just as extraneous to the plot as it sounds. But it gets worse.

This from the New York Times:

But one of ["Next"]'s minor characters — Mick Crowley, a Washington political columnist who rapes a baby — may be a literary dagger aimed at Michael Crowley, a Washington political reporter who wrote an unflattering article about Mr. Crichton this year. Certainly Mr. Crowley thinks so.

“In a “Washington Diarist” feature that was to be posted last night on The New Republic’s Web site, tnr.com, and published in the magazine’s Dec. 25 issue, Mr. Crowley says he is the victim of “a literary hit-and-run” because of a 3,700-word article in The New Republic in March.”

I’d say “literary hit-and-run” is putting it nicely. How does Crichton expect us to take him seriously as a novelist when he’s capable of such vile and transparently vindictive juvenilia? What’s sad about this is that, despite his terrible writing, there remains the vestiges of a serious mind chugging along in that ole Crichton noggin’.

At the end of "Next", in a section entitled, “Author’s Note," Crichton states in plain language five things that ought to be changed based on research he did for this book. And here’s the surprising thing: they seem to make sense. “Stop patenting genes,” is his first suggestion. He then lays out a concise case for why this ought to be done, and, wonder of wonders, he’s persuasive! When he isn't subjecting the weary reader to political opinion disguised (loosely) as bad fiction, Crichton is on firmer ground. But even here his he begins to fail.

The fourth conclusion/suggestion is strange because, prior to his making it, he’s appeared to come down strongly against it with the full weight of the preceding novel. “Avoid bans on research," he says. Right. We wouldn't want to discourage the future John Hammonds of the world from creating their "amusement parks," now would we?

In “Next”, unfettered, unrestricted research of the kind he says he supports, results in the creation of the aforementioned “humanzee.” In all the scenes relating to it, the humanzee is depicted as a kind of lovable abomination, pitiable in that he doesn’t belong in either the human world or the ape world. Crichton’s clear implication is that the humanzee shouldn’t exist, and that the experiments that brought him about ought not to have been done.

In other scenes, an unscrupulous researcher makes an inhalant that carries something called the “maturity gene” in it. The researcher’s brother, a drug addict, takes it and suddenly grows up: he quits drugs, cleans up, gets a good job, and matures all at once. Of course, one side effect is that recipients of the spray die inside of a year.

In Crichton’s hands, all of this is just so much pabulum, but the subtext of the entire book is that as research moves us further and further onto shaky moral ground in the field of genetic research, as scientists are able to do more and more things, humanity enters into a strange and frightening world. So maybe banning research would, as Crichton believes, be ineffectual, but why intentionally depict a world of unbanned research that is so frightening? Did Crichton forget which side of the argument he was on?

There are other examples where Crichton’s novel-length propaganda doesn’t quite line up with what he actually thinks (like the stem cell issue for one), but his appeals to the intellect at the finish of the book are too little too late. He’s already insulted the intelligence of his readers with the preceding dumb-as-shit book; even his right-wing readers should feel insulted, and probably do.

And lest anyone think that this is just another example of a diehard liberal coming down hard on a previously neutral author that's dared express conservative thoughts, I'd say that's untrue. Crichton has always skewed slightly right, and I read him anyway. A little slant is cool with me. But what's happened to Crichton is of a different order. It'd be as if Stephen King, who's always skewed a little left, suddenly wrote a novel in which a group of evil Pro-Life activists devised a scheme to abort thousands of babies to end, once and for all, the "abortion holocaust." Weird, right? Off-putting right? Even to his liberal-leaning readers.

I’d say with the publication of “Next” Crichton has moved full-bore into the realm of right-wing ideologues. Writing “State of Fear” to say that global warming was a giant scam was no fluke. Crichton now looks at the printed word the same way Hannity and Coulter and propagandists of that ilk do: just another way to disseminate their political views. The suggestion I have for readers and critics is this: don't look at Crichton the way you used to: the guy who told us about the future of technology before it arrived. Though a remnant of that Crichton still exists, that is no longer where he's at, which is, for me, a sad downturn for a once interesting writer.

11 comments:

Lil' Lith said...

When does the paperback of your review come out?

nathan said...

ha.

This isn't the first time i've heard you bad-mouth Crichton. Are you sure you're a fan?

harwell said...

Ha ha - "paperback of your review". That's great.

Enjoyed the read though. What was that one character's name you were telling me about? "Research in biogenetics" or something ridiculous like that?

JudgeHolden said...

Peter: That was really funny, dude.

Hinesy: Yeah, I read "The Terminal Man" last year I think and blogged about it; again, Crichton did not come off well. But I was a fan of his all the way into the 21st century, and, at one time, a big fan, getting his latest book in hardcover whenever it came out back in the "Lost World", "Disclosure" and "Timeline" era. But with these two books, Crichton enters a new and terrible era.

Shawn: My G-Chat writing skills are not what they ought to be. What I was trying to say was that there's no main character in the book, but if you had to pick out a protagonist, you could make a claim that the main character is in this case is not a person at all, but rather a scary concept: "research in biogenetics." Me and my obscure points.

blankfist said...

Good one, Peter! Hah!

blankfist said...

You must see this, Crane, it had me rolling because it's just so absurd.

Anonymous said...

"Sanger's not just thoughtless and stupid, he actually believes the life of a sea turtle matters more than a human baby's. Sounds like Sanger's almost as misanthropic as the guy who created him."

And you haven't yet met people who have the same views as the fictionary Sanger? Or read articles expressing the same opinion? Crichton gets the character exactly right.

JudgeHolden said...

I haven't met anyone like that, Anonymous. And I haven't read any articles to that effect either. If you've come across articles like that, please post a link here.

Also: I'm not saying that I think there's no one in existence who shares the fictional Mark Sanger's views, only that he is not representative of even a minority of environmentalists. Based on Crichton's depiction of environmentalists in "State of Fear" and of Sanger in "Next" however, it's clear that Crichton is implying that Sanger IS representative, which, aside from being not true, serves only to dumb down and heat up a serious debate.

Gretchen said...

Go to PETA's website. You'll find some Sangers there. But, I'll spare you, don't go. Just trust me that they're there. I'm not anon. by the way.

JudgeHolden said...

I did forget about PETA. I agree. There are a whole lot of Sangers in PETA.

Anonymous said...

Just finished reading “Next” and had to look up some reviews to see if I wasn’t imagining things. I used to be a Crichton fan till I read this book. I’d heard about, but hadn’t read “State of Fear” because I know people can be pretty polarized on the subject of global warming (if real, the potential consequences are too stark for some folks to deal with). But I read “Next” to give him the benefit of the doubt. What a mistake. Crichton has gone off the deep end and appears addicted to spite and anger in the same vein as Coulter and Hannity. Your review couldn’t have hit closer to home. I don’t like the word “screed” but it seems accurate in this case.