Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The curious case of Michael Crichton

with 3 comments

As long as we’re on the subject of research in fiction, we may as well consider the singular example of Michael Crichton, who, more than any other popular novelist in recent history, appeared to spin the straw of factual information into fictional gold. In many ways, it’s one of the most extraordinary careers in twentieth century culture: in addition to his bestselling novels, Crichton was a screenwriter, director, and creator of ER. He was perhaps the last popular novelist, aside from John Grisham, whose books all seemed destined to be made into movies, and without the benefit of a series character. He was also a graduate of Harvard Medical School, extremely tall, and exceptionally good-looking.

Given all these accomplishments, it would give me great malicious pleasure to inform you that, alas, Crichton was a bad writer. Except he wasn’t. Within the constrains of the genre that he invented, or at least perfected, he was the best there was. When you’ve read as many bad thrillers as I have, a novel like Jurassic Park comes to seem like a model of the craft: it’s smart, expertly paced, with characters who are just distinct enough not to be interchangeable, but not so memorable that they get in the way of the story. In short, Crichton’s books are the Cadillacs of technothrillers, and their quality is impressive enough to make Jonathan Franzen’s insistence that “the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s” seem more than a little childish.

Michael Crichton

Which isn’t to say that Crichton was always great, or even good. Near the end of his career, as is the case for many popular novelists, the titles begin to blend together, and I can’t say I’ve managed to get more than halfway through anything since Airframe. Even some of the books I read and enjoyed when I was younger seem a little thin these days. Rising Sun, especially, was a huge disappointment when I read it again a few years ago. It wasn’t the alleged xenophobia, which might have worked in a better thriller—and there’s certainly room in this world for a great suspense novel about two American cops up against an implacable Asian adversary. It’s more Crichton’s determination, in Rising Sun and elsewhere, to subjugate his facts to his message, when in his early novels, the facts were the message, and a very compelling one indeed.

And there’s an important lesson here. In the best Crichton novels—Jurassic Park, Sphere, and my own favorite, Congo—the facts are a filigree, a treat, an additional reward layered onto an exciting story. I won’t go as far as to say that Crichton’s use of factual information is as artful as, say, Thomas Pynchon’s, but there’s a joy in science for its own sake that seems to be missing in subsequent books. And the growing inclination to use information to convince or convert the reader, which all but destroys the later novels, is as deadly as in the most sentimental religious fiction. In the end, Crichton’s religion was science, or politics, when it should have been story. Like the writers who become ever more seduced by the possibilities of voice or style, or even the scientists in his own cautionary tales, he was destroyed by his own tools.

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2011 at 10:17 am

3 Responses

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  1. Nice counterpoint to the previous post; I had thought about Crichton too, before this post showed up. I’ve only read his earlier stuff, and I agree with you that he’s found a way to make the immense amount of technical detail he uses another character in his novels. You have to willing to accept it as such though, since it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it.

    JP, Andromeda Strain, Congo, and Rising Sun I liked a lot. Sphere not so much. Lost World was a cash-in/spec screenplay.

    Wakes

    February 12, 2011 at 11:13 am

  2. That looks like Bob Saget.

    Wakes

    February 12, 2011 at 11:13 am

  3. I loved Sphere, although I haven’t read it since I was fourteen years old. I really need to track down his earlier stuff—I’ve never read Binary or Eaters of the Dead, for instance. His memoir, Travels, is also very engaging.

    nevalalee

    February 13, 2011 at 7:12 pm


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