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.
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
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