Why Readers Loved Michael Crichton and Critics Didn't

Michael Crichton once compared writing a novel to being deep in the bowels of a ship. "All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room, and you have to assume the ship's exterior," he said, adding that the role of an editor is to stand on the dock and say, "Hi, I'm looking at your ship, and it's missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed."

Despite that admission, Crichton, a physician turned author who died of cancer this week at age 66, was a master of narrative structure. Fans loved the way he mixed fact (especially science) into his fiction. Hollywood loved his action-packed, potboiler plots. But structure and pacing are paramount in Crichton's novels, and everything else -- plausibility, characterization -- is subservient.

Michael Crichton (Cori Wells Braun/TWP)
Here's a small example: In Jurassic Park (the book, not the movie) the mathematician Ian ("I hate being right") Malcolm dies. But when Jurassic Park became a colossal success and Crichton sat down to write a sequel, The Lost World, he knew he needed Malcolm back, if only to explain the science. So Crichton simply revived him. As our review noted at the time, the ludicruously shallow explanation -- "but as it turned out I was only slightly dead," Malcolm says -- showed "splendid panache on the author's part."

A second key to Crichton's success was that he eschewed literary pretensions. Back in 1970, he wrote a review for Book World of The Body Has a Head, a long reflection on biology and philosophy by Gustav Eckstein. Crichton's review is a short masterpiece of savage criticism.

"Anyone floating to the surface after 800 pages of this book feels a compulsion to speak plainly," he began. "For plainly, this book represents monumental self-indulgence." He went on to mock Eckstein's pretentious statement that "a literary tone fell of itself over the writing" of the book. "One yearns to reprimand the author, and shoot his editor," Crichton wrote. "We remember Galileo, among other things, for his crisp writing style. He set the tone for all scientific writing of the last 350 years. He got to the point, said what was on his mind, and shut up."

That's a pretty good summation of what Crichton tried to do in his books and why they sold millions of copies even though critics, as you will see, have generally found his characters to be cardboard. I wish I could give you electronic links to the full texts of all these reviews, but I can't; some of them appeared so long ago that I had to retrieve them from the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.

The Andromeda Strain (1969). Thanks partly to the hit movie, everyone knows the plot of Crichton's first novel published under his own name (he had previously written a handful under the pen name John Lange). A military satellite returns to Earth bearing a deadly microbe, and government scientists race to prevent a nuclear-cum-biological doomsday. It feels pretty dated now, but this techno-thriller was a stunning genre-bender four decades ago -- as I realized this week when I dug up Book World's original review. The splicing of fact and fantasy was just too much for our reviewer, British author Alex Comfort, who lamented that "science fiction has undergone an unwelcome change. It used to minister to our need for prophecy; now it ministers to our need for fear." "Worse still," he added, "we are now using real science as if it were fiction, for the physical acting out of the brainsick matter of such tales."

The Great Train Robbery (1975). The story of an 1855 gold heist aboard a steam-powered passenger train through Victorian England, this novel demonstrated Crichton's evolving talent for description and scene-setting. Many diehard Crichton fans think it's his best. What's more, the multi-talented brainiac author himself directed the 1979 film starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. But Book World's reviewer, Bruce Cook, thought the book was "written directly with the requirements of the screen in mind" and said Crichton "never really gets inside his characters."

Sphere (1987) This time, the extraterrestrial threat is underwater, in a spacecraft discovered by the U.S. Navy more than 300 years after it landed on the sea floor. Real-life astronaut Michael Collins, who reviewed Sphere for Book World, waxed enthusiastic about Crichton's ability to explain how oxygen under pressure becomes toxic to humans. "These details, rather than the characters, make this book seem more believable," he wrote.

Jurassic Park (1990). Once again making full, frightening use of the biotech background Crichton gained at Harvard Medical School, Jurassic Park played on legitimate fears as we entered the era of genetic engineering, even if scientists rejected the exact mechanism he propounded for generating dinosaurs from amber-encased DNA. Book World's reviewer said the novel produced "excitement in large quantities" and predicted that it would "make a terrific movie." But he didn't much care for Ian Malcolm's "extended philosophizing" about chaos theory. "Long before Malcolm has his say, this reader, at least, was hoping for some more dinosaurs to put him out of his misery," wrote science fiction author Greg Bear.

State of Fear (2004). Crichton annoyed environmentalists but made a fan of George W. Bush with this book, which sought to debunk warnings about man-made global warming and included a 20-page annotated bibliography. Book World's reviewer, Dennis Drabelle, wasn't bothered by its politics but found its "flatline prose" rather dull and added, "it is my unpleasant duty to tell you that Crichton's characters are strictly from Woodville."

What do you think was Crichton's best? And what did the public see that the critics missed?

-- Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  November 6, 2008; 5:00 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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Most obituaries are citing Jurassic Park as what Michael Crichton will be most remembered for, but if the planet ends up being cooked by global warming, history will remember him for "State of Fear." Just as Alan Greenspan's obituary will list his contribution to the global financial collapse of 2008 by opposing regulation of derivatives and denying a housing bubble, history will recall Chrichton's success fighting the regulation of greenhouse gases and denying global warming.

He mocked the computer models used to validate the greenhouse effect with articles such as "Aliens Cause Global Warming", pointing out the uncertainty in values of the variables to be input to the models. The Drake equation, an equation used to predict the probability of intelligent life was his favorite target. Crichton was successful in delaying critical action on climate change using his book and his testimony before congress.

The former Fed chairman's no doubt wishes he had paid more attention to the accuracy of variables input into a model. His legacy would still be in tact. Greenspan has blamed inaccurate values of variables input into the CAPM risk model used by banks, as the cause of the 2nd greatest economic collapse of all time.

But Crichton's specialty of mixing fiction with fact was his downfall when he denigrated all computer models. The IPCC has gone to great lengths to validate its model. Ironically a model that Crichton did not attack was not one looking 10-50 years into the future as climate change models do, but the DOE's risk based analysis of Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site which strives to prove the waste safe for tens of thousands of years. Rodney Ewing has looked at the accuracy of the variables being fed into this model in his book "Uncertainty Underground." If these are wrong, DOE's crisis will be much longer remembered than Alan Greenspan's.

Posted by: sammy15 | November 6, 2008 12:41 PM

I've always liked Congo (the book, not the movie) and Eaters of the Dead (again, the book, not the movie).

Eaters of the Dead is an experimental piece, a what-if. In this case, "What if Beowulf vs the Grendel really happened?" and "What if the battle was recorded by a traveler, whose manuscript had just been discovered?" Good, if odd, book.

Posted by: wiredog | November 6, 2008 2:15 PM

Yes in the techno thrillers more time was spent writing about what he researched, but you can tell he was enthusiastic about what he had discovered about his subject materials and I as a reader appreciated it, and even though I didn't agree with his arguments, I admired his abililty and daringness to make them.

You only mention the sci-fi in your list of books. If you want more in depth characters, read the topical books like Rising Sun and Disclosure. Two of my favorites are Travels and A Case of Need.

Posted by: vankrasn | November 6, 2008 2:29 PM

I really enjoyed Prey by him with the nanotechnology. What I found in Michael Crichton books is that as a high school science teacher with several science degrees, he made me feel smart as I was reading. I started with Jurassic Park, and then went back to read his early work and read everything afterwards. I loved his work and will miss him terribly.

Posted by: annwhite1 | November 6, 2008 2:52 PM

I read most of Michael Crichton's books until Jurassic Park and found them to be great beach reading. He is one of our preferred authors in the car during long road trips and we recently listed to State of Fear and Timeline on CD. The stories are engaging, but my wife and I get a bit crazy with the various plot holes and odd character development (or simply the lack thereof). State of Fear was fun, albeit largely predictable, but there were too many loose ends that made me want to pull my hair out. I do, however, enjoy the way he mixed science with these fictional works.

Posted by: skipper7 | November 6, 2008 3:56 PM

There is a difference between a good plot and good writing. Chrichton had good plots. It's usually books with good plots that make good movies. Books that are good because of the writing and the characters are much harder to translate to movies. That's why the brilliant John Irving books don't make very good movies.

Posted by: Lalalu | November 6, 2008 4:42 PM

Every single book Michael Crichton ever wrote is a piece of crap. I don't know which is sadder -- the fact that nobody reads any more, or that when they do, it is the kind of garbage which passes for literature today -- Crichton Clancy, Koontz, Grisholm, Maeve Binchy. The Secret. Chicken Soup. Are we really so collectively stupid that this is the best we can do?

You know, there is a lot of wonderful literature out there if you just open your eyes and look for it, instead of wasting your time with this pure unadulterated garbage...

Posted by: jerkhoff | November 6, 2008 5:14 PM

The first great tragedy of Nov. 4, 2008 will be remembered by Americans as the election of B. Hussein Obama, that radical neophyte politician from the streets of south Chicago and consorter with domestic terrorists and Caucasian race baiters, as president of the US. The second great tragedy of the same date, almost gone unnoticed in the euphoria of the former happening, will be the death of Dr. Michael Crichton, the great unmasker of pseudoscience and pseudoscientists. We can only hope Dr. Crichton's accomplishments for society will be remembered long after the memory of the former and his socialist misfits have been consigned to the ashheap of history.

Posted by: worldnomad1 | November 7, 2008 11:40 AM

Michael Crichton was far more than a novelist. He was a brilliant philosopher who explored ideas and issues through fiction. On a wide range of important topics, he ignited analysis and debate among readers around the world as few writers have ever done. Crichton’s strength was not in the answers he provided, but in the questions he provoked. His death is a tragic loss, but his books will continue to entertain and educate readers.

Posted by: Marla_Warren | November 8, 2008 11:51 PM

What is not to like about Crichton? He wrote entertaining fiction about the issues of our time, with an unsurpassed imagination. He virtually created the genre of the techno/science thriller, yet he could also write historical fiction like The Great Train Robbery.Truly a man for all seasons,and taken from us prematurely, I, for one, will miss that penetrating intellect that has been there for most of my life.

Posted by: puzzled3 | November 9, 2008 9:15 PM

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