Crichton's focus turns to stem cells
Michael Crichton has made a career out of taking hot-button scientific or political topics and spinning them into fast-moving, high concept adventure novels. He did it with cloned dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, global warming in State of Fear and time travel in Timeline. Now Crichton has given us Next, a blockbuster science thriller that tackles the subject of genetic manipulation.
With stem cells, embryonic research and predicted miracle cures so much in the news, the topic is great fodder for headlines. As Next proves, in the hands of the right author, it can provide fine material for fiction as well. Crichton is one of the few writers with the brains and the chutzpah to pull it off, and he’s done so in spectacular fashion.
Describing the plot of Next is a challenge, because there really isn’t much of one. The author does attempt to tie the disparate threads of the story together in a rather loose whole, but it’s still all over the map. The plot jumps from a courtroom battle over the ownership of a man’s cells, to a scientist who implanted his DNA into a monkey, to a researcher who illicitly tests his company’s latest experimental product on an unsuspecting subject.
Crichton has a substantial bag of writer’s tricks, however, and that enables him to give Next the appearance that he’s telling more of a story than he really is. He cuts between the different scenes deftly enough, and changes point-of-view subtly enough, that most readers won’t even care that what they’re reading is essentially a series of vignettes with little connective tissue holding them together.
Even if, in the end, the book is more a collection of incidents and characters than it is a conventional story, it is still an entertaining book to read, as those characters are so much fun. The menagerie that Crichton has created to fill the book is rich both in humor and absurdity. There’s the hulking bounty hunter with his ear bitten off, the “manpanzee” (half-man, half-chimp) who did the biting, the precocious talking parrot who does math problems – and that’s just in one chapter!
Next also includes plenty of characters (caricatures?) we already know well: clueless politicians, venal divorce attorneys, greedy capitalists, incompetent journalists and arrogant scientists. Crichton has always taken great delight in skewering the people and ideas that he disagrees with, and he does so to delicious effect here. True, they’re easy targets, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a good lampooning, which the book gives them.
Another common Crichton device is to insert a sage character or two into the story to hold forth with great reason, intelligence and foresight, giving, one presumes, the author’s own beliefs on the subject. (Readers might recall the character of Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, the mathematician who expounds on chaos theory and is the only one in the book who thinks that recreating dinosaurs is a bad idea.)
Crichton uses two such characters in Next. One is an academic who warns against the false hope perpetually held out by the media and its darlings with regards to stem cell research. (The scientist in question calls it, “nothing more than a myth, intended to ensure funding for researchers, at the expense of false hopes for the seriously ill.”)
The other is a judge who presides over a case in which a company wants to seize a man’s cells because they have patented the rare compound that his body produces. Although this seems eminently reasonable to the plaintiff’s attorneys, the judge in question wisely rules to the contrary, proclaiming that human genes and facts of nature cannot reasonably be owned by any person or corporation.
As Crichton states at the book’s opening, “This novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren’t.” A frightening amount of the book is true, especially the parts that relate to the rights that corporations and the medical establishment have to our bodies, tissues and genes – and the lack of rights that we ourselves have in regards to them. (The book points out that one-fifth of the human genetic code is already privately owned.)
For readers who are interested in the real-world applications of the issues Next brings up, Crichton provides a seven-page Author’s Note, which includes both his own views and a plan for action, and a seven-page Bibliography in which he lists the sources he relied on in doing his research. For those who are simply interested in a fun read, those parts can simply be ignored.
How seriously we’re supposed to take all of this is hard to say. The author definitely has some interesting ideas, and he expresses those ideas clearly and intelligently. But he’s also a born showman – Crichton couldn’t write an uninteresting book if he tried – and so Next is more a romp and a potboiler than it is a serious novel of ideas. Of course, for most of us, that’s just fine.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer, December 7, 2006