In the spring of 1971, I was twelve and sitting with my friend Randy in a dark Suffern, NY movie theater. We were two boys who couldn’t sit still in school, yet neither of us had moved in over an hour. I felt the blood rush from my face and my mouth was agape at the action unfolding on the screen. As the rolling credits snapped me back to my senses, we excitedly discussed what we had seen, debating the merits of the film and the scientific implications of the extra-terrestrial virus code named The Andromeda Strain. For Randy it was a cool movie, for me it altered my choices in film and, more importantly, in books. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the Michael Crichton novel.
For me, Crichton is the father of the medical/techno-thriller. While I explored science fiction and mystery on page and screen, I found myself returning time and again to this genre often not knowing the influence of Crichton. My favorite film of 1973 was Westworld, where a “Disneyland” for grown-ups, populated by androids goes horribly wrong. Later, I would realize the movie was written and directed by Crichton. He also adapted and directed Robin Cook’s medical thriller Coma.
Crichton used his medical background, a M.D. from Harvard, as well as his undergraduate major in Physical Anthropology, to write with authenticity and create some of the most innovative thrillers of the last forty years. Whether using biotechnology to create dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1990), nanotechnology in Prey (2002) or genetically modified organisms in Next (2006), Crichton has had his finger on the pulse of the next big push in science, as well as what could possibly go wrong, often through corporate greed or negligence. The take-away message from many of his novels seems to be proceed with caution.
Perhaps Crichton should have taken his own advice before State of Fear (2004), a thriller about global warming and eco-terrorism. His selective use of research in casting doubts concerning global warming caused an uproar in the scientific community. While the Appendix cautioned against politicizing science by drawing comparisons to the eugenics program of Nazi Germany and Lysenkoism or agrobiology of the Soviets, the novel led to serious, polarized debates, the exact thing Crichton warned against.
Michael Crichton died three years ago at the age of 66. Pirate Latitudes was completed at the time and was published a year later. Also found on his computer was Micro, a thriller that was a third of the way written. There were notes and a character list with descriptions. Richard Preston, a master of scientific thrillers including The Hot Zone, was selected to complete Crichton’s original vision. The novel will be released on November 22 and I hope it will be a fitting finale to a remarkable career.