Rest In Peace: Michael Crichton Nov11

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Rest In Peace: Michael Crichton


A Life In Review by Ryan Dixon

Since the bad news came during the elation of the Obama election — a celebration rivaled in transcendent excitement only by the Rebel Alliance’s defeat of the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi — perhaps the low-key response to Michael Crichton’s passing shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet the brevity and superficial nature of the coverage seemed more along the lines of tribute that would be paid upon the death of a typical grocery store prose stylist like Judith Krantz or Dean Koontz, rather than a man whose books had sold over 150 million copies worldwide and who was responsible for creating the two most popular pieces of entertainment of the 1990’s: Jurassic Park and ER.

The tone of the appraisals regarding Crichton’s work from mainstream literary outlets was, unsurprisingly, one of complimentary condescension: Crichton was an author (a very tall one, all managed to mention) adept at plot and concept, who abjectly failed at character and dialogue. And while Michael Crichton will never be remembered as a contemporary Balzac– a glance at the New York Times Trade Paperback Bestseller List will reveal plenty of authors trying to grab that mantle with their often purchased, but rarely read tomes– he does deserve a central position on the Mount Rushmore of Pop Culture.

If Stephen King will eventually be remembered as the Charles Dickens of our time, then Michael Crichton was Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs rolled into one pulpy package (for example, the ever-expanding, multi-branding universe of Jurassic Park can be traced back directly to Burroughs’ innovative, cross-platform marketing strategy for Tarzan). In the 1990’s, each new Crichton book was looked upon not only as a publishing event, but as political, scientific and cultural prophecy. Crichton was our very own show-stopping Oracle at Delphi, providing us with narratives where the prescience of the topic was only matched by the entertainment value of the narrative.

It’s hard to fathom it now, but Crichton was directly responsible for mainstreaming such issues as DNA technology, Japanese/American business relations, sexual harassment, the dot-com bubble, virtual reality, nanotechnology and the nightmare that is the modern airline industry. Those who will miss Crichton the most are not the 12 year-olds who read his work (usually their first “adult” novel) with wide-eyed awe at the wonders presented, but the producers of 60 Minutes, Dateline NBC, and 20/20, for it was his imagination that gave them countless hours of content.

Take, for example, his underappreciated 1994 novel Disclosure. When first released it was hotly billed as a critique of gender politics in the workplace and, not surprisingly, quickly found a host of feminists to screech in objection over the fact that the harasser was female and the harassed, male. Although the movie adaptation made this central issue somewhat absurd (what male wouldn’t want to be harassed, sexually or not, by Demi Moore?), Crichton’s work was dead on in predicting the Orwellian sexual harassment policy that now hangs over every cubicle dweller. In addition, the book correctly foresaw the rise of the dot-com industry and the eventual outsourcing of American manufacturing and technology to developing countries. Crichton was also the first major author to use email as a plot point. What is perhaps most impressive however, is that these creative visions weren’t cultivated by Crichton getting ideas from reading Time, he was the one who caused Time to write the articles about the topics.

This fact might now help to explain the curious minimalism of his legacy. The cutting edge is forever moving forward and because Crichton was able to put so many issues in the modern vernacular, his influence in doing so becomes largely forgotten. As years bleed into decades, the initial urgency and newness of his chosen topics have become diminished or dated. Thus the yellow peril at the center of Rising Sun now seems unwarranted and the virtual reality climax of Disclosure, quaint.

The bigger problem, however, is that in the mind of the MSM, Crichton turned from being the Oracle into a Cassandra with the 2004 publication of his anti-global warming thriller State of Fear. Unlike The Da Vinci Code, where reviewers ignored the howls of protests from various Catholic groups regarding theological inaccuracies and critiqued the novel on its own page-turning merits, reviews of State of Fear usually consisted of brief, predictable narrative complaints (lack of character development, etc.) followed by a long invective against Crichton and his use of “pseudo-science.”  The subtextual action lurking underneath these paragraphs seemed to be a concerted effort at turning Crichton, gifted with a genuinely curious and blessedly contrarian mind, into a Right Wing crank along the lines of Tom Clancy.

Although I have my own doubts about Crichton’s thesis in State of Fear, the majority of reviewers missed that fact that the global warming issue was secondary to his central point. At its heart, the novel was warning against the dangers of consensus science, where facts are decided by the number of people in agreement, not by the numbers in the data. Whether you like it or not, global warming has become a pseudo- religion in this country and, despite the fact that the threat seems very real, how many of us have actually looked at the data that is used to back-up these studies?  Michael Crichton was a proponent for incredibly tough environmental laws because he knew that no matter what happens 50 or 100 or 1000 years in the future, we would live a better life now by being as green as we could. But he also understood that the historic ramifications of science by consensus usually brought with it a final dark result. For proof, one need only to read Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo or look at the history of eugenics or the use of lobotomies in the 1930’s through the 1950’s.

In the end, it is this Michael Crichton I want to remember; a master of pulp and circumstance endowed with the spirit of a scientific Don Quixote, raging a war against the chimerical windmills of our modern age.