Remembering Michael Crichton, Planet Earth's novelist of doom.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Nov. 5 2008 1:49 PM

Michael Crichton, RIP

Remembering Planet Earth's novelist of doom.

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Crichton, on the other hand, eschews flesh-and-blood heroes; the star of his book is usually a high-concept premise—dinosaurs! killer viruses! Without a returning hero to lure readers (à la Tom Clancy), Crichton's concepts themselves must be nerdy and sufficiently topical. Crichton has an unparalleled genius for this—a gift for seeing years into the future. He began writing Rising Sun when the Berlin Wall was crumbling; by the time the book was published, in 1992, George Bush had thrown up in the lap of the Japanese prime minister. Jurassic Park arrived just as Steven Spielberg's imagineers figured out how to bring dinosaurs to the big screen, making it an iconic film of the age of computer-generated special effects. Before Bill and Monica hooked up, Crichton published Disclosure, a story of sexual harassment in the corridors of power. It was little surprise that this week, as State of Terror hit bookstores, ecoterrorists began popping up in the  newspapers.

One of the real pleasures of Crichton's books is their erudite polish. You can imagine Crichton leafing through obscure journals and textbooks to find scientific underpinnings for his outlandish premises—it's an overeducated novelist's penance for writing about the stuff of little boys. (Evidence of Crichton's genius: About half the world still believes you can re-engineer dinosaurs with DNA from mosquitoes trapped in amber.) But when Crichton begins to proselytize, State of Fear-style, the journal citations begin to seem indistinguishable from those contained in the latest study from the Brookings Institution or the American Enterprise Institute. Instead of being charmed by the nerdy footnotes, you feel suspicious of them—they're propaganda.

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This isn't to say that Crichton doesn't believe his right-leaning, contrarian poses. It's his belief in these poses that's the problem. Crichton's early novels were escapist fantasies that happened to be instructive. His political books are hectoring screeds that incidentally turn out to be thrillers. (As one character in State of Fear moans, "Did all this have to do with weather?") Crichton's early work was often conceived on a dare—How can I convince people that dinosaurs could exist in the real world?—and despite their documentary elements, the books seem to have remained fantasies to him. But as Crichton waded into the real world, and the documentary elements have become the backbone, his charm has disappeared. His novels have gone from dares to graduate seminars.

Crichton is like a college professor who insists on lecturing 10 minutes after the class period ends, when his students are edging toward the door. In State of Fear, the narrative stops cold for climate charts that are printed on the page ("Goteborg, Sweden: 1951-2004"). When one of Crichton's heroic skeptics makes a controversial statement about global warming, Crichton tags it with a footnote—look it up for yourself, liberal critic! The novel ends with 20 pages of bibliographical references and the author's 25-point "message" about global warming. It's a bulwark for what Crichton thinks will be a backlash from the newspapers, the same sour reaction that greeted Rising Sun and Disclosure. But first, doesn't somebody actually have to finish reading State of Fear?

Crichton seems to sense that he's become too much of a pedant. As State of Fear races to a close, he wedges in some swashbuckling pratfalls. The heroes are kidnapped by cannibals in the Solomon Islands, who tie them to wooden posts and poke at them with bats and knives. A woman named Sarah, fleeing from a man-made lightning storm—don't ask—crawls smack-dab into the middle of a nest of … scorpions. Why scorpions? I have no clue, but I loved it. It's like something a grade-schooler would have thought up—it has childlike, "top this" passion. Amid the pages of climate charts, it may be the only proof the novelist hasn't become a dinosaur.

Slate V: An interview with Crichton from Charlie Rose:

Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.