Posted by: Jack | February 24, 2007

Michael Crichton’s Next

Despite his fame and success, in my experience Michael Crichton has never failed to disappoint. I suppose my first exposure to his name was probably when the movie Jurassic Park was released. As movie remakes hardly count as a testament to the writer’s abilities, it wasn’t until I read Timeline that I was truly exposed to his work. Like all of Crichton’s books, the premise for Timeline sounded very exciting. Quantum physics, time travel (sort of), teleportation, etc. All of these concepts currently fall under the category of sci-fi, but with realistic basis which is the kind of book I most often enjoy. And indeed, Timeline started out excellently. But about one third of the way through the book I realized it was losing my attention and after thinking about it, I discovered that all of the sci-fi had been left behind and what remained was a story set in mediaeval times.

I have to bring out a bit of the sci-fi-critiquing-nerd in me for a moment to point out a significant problem with the plot of Timeline. There are no spoilers here as all of the following events occur in the very beginning of the book. So basically a company creates a quantum computer that can simulate (keyword) time travel by sending a person or persons to another dimension where the world exists as it did in our dimension but at a different point in history. This technology is exposed to the main characters through the following events: An old man travels to another dimension which is equivalent to our mediaeval era. The old man drops his eye-glasses somewhere. In our dimension these glasses are dug up during an archeological dig. They run tests to confirm the age of the ~600 year old glasses which inexplicably, have a modern design. The main characters’ investigation into this discovery leads to the entire story. In case you haven’t picked up on the problem yet; how is it that glasses dropped in another dimension, turned up in ours?

I forced myself to endure the remainder of Timeline but by the end I was so frustrated that I felt I had been deceived. If Crichton wanted to write a book about the mediaeval era, he shouldn’t have masked it as a sci-fi novel.

Next came Sphere. I had seen the movie which I was told was a crime against great literature and indeed it did seem that just when the plot was getting interesting, the director gave up on trying to integrate the sphere into the story and just wrapped things up as quickly as possible. Just last year I decided to give the book a chance and while it was far superior to the movie, I found that it certainly left something to be desired. My best description of the problem is that Crichton wrote an exciting, sci-fi/psychological-thriller but then took a fire hose to it, dispersing and diluting all intensity to an unrecognizable level.

When a free copy of Prey was presented to me I figured I would give it a chance. Its topic-of-interest was nano-technology. In a good sci-fi story, the science and fiction are thoroughly mixed but like a true mixture, the parts retain their original properties. In other words, the science sticks with science and the fiction creates the story. Failure to do so causes a book to slide into the genre of fantasy. In Prey, the fiction definitely invaded the science and the whole book just became a little too difficult to swallow.

When I came across a copy of The Lost World, I was hesitant due to my past experiences with Crichton’s work but above all others, this book had received great praise from friends whose opinions on literature I certainly respect. I read it just last summer and honestly, the only thing I remember from the story is how bored I was while reading it.

Just yesterday I finished reading Next, Crichton’s most recent work, and I was relatively impressed with the intriguing subject matter. This book held my interest more than any of the above listed novels, but surprisingly I feel that Crichton’s writing style and technique in this book were extremely flawed. There were so many characters, most of who were never properly developed, and the narrative jumped from one character’s perspective to another’s far too often. There were even multiple characters with the same name. Normally this isn’t a big deal but when you get a dialog going between two young boys of the same age who are both named Jamie, it doesn’t really help the reader when the author writes, “And then Jamie said…” The other major problem with Next also relates to the over-abundance of characters. Crichton used a technique of which my earliest memory dates back to the release of the movie Independence Day. In that movie, a bunch of ordinary people were thrown into extraordinary circumstances and as a result their stories all tied together in the end. In Next, Crichton tried to use this technique except that he took a bunch of unordinary people who happened to be unordinary in the same respect and put them into circumstances that were entirely ordinary given their unordinary characteristics. The big problem is that he still brought all of their stories together in the end thereby implying the most unlikely coincidence in the history of literature.

I honestly don’t know why I keep reading his books.

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Responses

  1. Well I guess it might help you learn to spell mediaeval! Seriously though, is it really a simulated time period, or the real mediaeval France? I no longer have the book to refer to, but I suppose if what you say is true, then the plot does fall down. That said, and despite the inadequate film adaptation of TIMELINE, I have to say that I really liked the book. There is a key phrase that is necessary here; “Suspension of disbelief”. If we spend the whole book looking for errors and gleefully exposing them at the expense of the author, aren’t we short-changing ourselves, and losing the enjoyment we sought by reading the book in the first place? I used to know someone who would sit and watch films with this mentality, endlessly pointing out fake buildings , dummies, bad effects etc. My point is, why watch or read these things if they don’t give you what you want? If we could really solve the paradox of Time travel we’d all be off to give ourselves next weeks lottery numbers, not sitting around reading novels!

    Kev Moore

  2. Try then “State of fear”. I agree with you in the idea that Crichton is a bad novelist. However, there is always something interesting and very documented.

    The one I am retired from is Dan Brown. The script is bad but not as bad as the knowledge he has about the subject of his books. I left a note in http://www.amazon.com about his book “Digital Fortress” because he arrived there to the highest peak of incompetence.

  3. Re: Crichton’s “Next” and “Jamie”

    Being a Jamie, I always cock an eyebrow when I come across a character named Jamie. Found one in “Next.” Strike that. Two. And they’re both young boys. What the … ?

    As an author myself, I typically avoid criticism.

    However … let’s assume Crichton should have known better than to dream up two young boy Jamie characters. One quick read of his own work would have uncovered that oopsie. Maybe he was busy and under the gun to get the book out, let’s just say it happens.

    But what’s going on at HarperCollins? If I have an indictment of someone’s work ethic — it’s the alleged “editors” at HarperCollins. Come on, folks. A grade-schooler wouldn’t have made that mistake. And it is a mistake. I stopped mid-sentence to search online to see if I was imagining things. Wondered if someone was smoking something nearby that I was inhaling second-hand …

    Generally, I find Crichton to be a solid writer (stylistically), with sparks of truly creative brilliance. I do have to wonder about the work ethic, however. Multiple Jamie characters just shouldn’t happen — unless you’re knee-deep in a creative writing assignment designed to draw out character differences through dialogue and action — with the built in obstacle of the same name. That was not the case in “Next.”

    Crichton and the editors at HarperCollins owe their readers an apology and a pledge to improve the quality of their work.

  4. Actually the name Jamie was the same for two bosy to felicitate the wrong kidnapping which features in the climax of the book
    He is just a fiction writer
    cool……….


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