By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The American author Michael Crichton (1942-2008) was a pioneer of what became known as the ‘techno-thriller’. He wrote novels informed by the latest up-to-date science on a range of issues, but what sets him apart is his willingness to adopt a contrarian position on scientific and technological developments, as well as social questions.
This is not to say he was deliberately ‘against the grain’ on the leading issues of the day: simply that he wasn’t afraid to swim against the tide if that’s where his convictions led him.
The following ten novels are, for our money, Michael Crichton’s best books and are all worth reading. We’ll say a little bit about each book as we introduce it, offering some reasons why it’s worth seeking out. We’ll begin at number 10 and work our way towards what we believe is Crichton’s best book.
10. State of Fear.
Forget what you’ve heard, or think you know, about this late novel by Crichton: State of Fear (2004) is not a ‘climate-change denial’ book. Indeed, Crichton even states in his (extensive) notes that he believes in climate change, although (to summarise his complex position somewhat crudely) he questions some of the conclusions drawn by climate scientists and the way certain data are gathered.
Although the plot to this novel is not as well-crafted as some of Crichton’s earlier books, and the characterisation is a little thin, one of the novel’s chief ‘messages’ – that, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the media have deliberately ramped up fear among the population – is compellingly presented, and the novel is worth reading for the discussions between the various characters, some of whom adopt the mainstream view on climate change while others oppose it.
9. Rising Sun.
This 1992 novel now gets a bad press (and it won’t hurt to give the film adaptation a miss) because it suggests that Japan poses a threat to the American corporate world.
However, even if we grant that Crichton’s fears of a Japanese ‘takeover’ were misplaced, at its heart Rising Sun is an engaging thriller and a kind of murder-mystery novel (the book begins when a woman is murdered at the American headquarters of a large Japanese corporation).
8. The Andromeda Strain.
This 1969 novel, written when Crichton was still in his mid-twenties and a student at medical school, was the first to be published under his own name (he’d already published several novels under pseudonyms).
It was a runaway success, concerning a deadly microorganism which arrives in Arizona from space: this fatal ‘strain’ starts to infect and kill people at an alarming rate. One of the distinctive features of the novel, which doubtless helped it to become so popular, is Crichton’s use of news reports and other ‘found’ data which lend credence to the terrifying plot.
Crichton was reportedly influenced by Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File, which he’d read while studying in the UK.
Michael Crichton wasn’t an author to rest on his laurels, and it takes a certain amount of gumption to write an ‘airport novel’ about an air disaster. A transpacific flight from Denver to Hong Kong radios through an emergency, requesting clearance to land – and forty ambulances ready and waiting when the plane arrives on the runway.
What happened on board the flight? Like many of Crichton’s novels, the book is a kind of mystery tale which focuses on the investigation into what took place on board the flight, on which countless passengers were injured and three killed. If you have a fear of flying, you may want to give this one a miss …
Of all of Michael Crichton’s novels of the twenty-first century, this one, from 2002, is perhaps his finest. It’s another tale of ‘science gone wrong’, as a cloud of ‘micro-robots’ escapes a laboratory and spreads out into the world. These nanoparticles have been programmed to be predators – no prizes for guessing what, or rather who, is their prey …
Here’s another Michael Crichton novel that was turned into a film – in this case, a truly forgettable B-movie adaptation. The original novel, however, is well worth reading, despite its rather ridiculous-sounding premise.
If other novels by Crichton recall the fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of whom more in a moment), Congo reads like an update of H. Rider Haggard, best-known for She and King Solomon’s Mines.
In Congo, we have a group of explorers travelling through Africa in search of the lost city of Zinj, a place known for its diamonds. And then there are the killer mutant gorillas.… It’s Allan Quatermain with laptop computers and satellite communications, and a very readable, well-paced adventure yarn.
Crichton has sometimes been compared to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author best-remembered for creating Sherlock Holmes. Like Doyle, Crichton had a medical background; like Doyle, Crichton even wrote a novel called The Lost World (which is not one of Crichton’s best) about dinosaurs roaming the modern world.
Another similarity between these two authors is that they both wrote novels set in fourteenth-century France. However, in Crichton’s case – the 1999 novel Timeline – his characters (a group of history students) travel back to the Middle Ages thanks to quantum technology. The science-fiction element is handled fairly well, and the story is full of Crichton’s usual fast-paced antics with plenty of twists and turns.
Michael Crichton had a long publishing career – his first novel under his own name appeared in 1969, and he was still writing at the time of his death nearly forty years later – but remarkably, this 1987 novel was only his sixth to be published under his name.
It’s also regarded by some Crichton fans as his most satisfying book. A spacecraft is discovered at the bottom of the Pacific ocean. In Conan Doyle’s late novel The Maracot Deep, scientists travelled to the bottom of the ocean to discover the lost city of Atlantis; in Sphere, they are plummeting to the ocean depths to discover how the spacecraft got there – although the real voyage of discovery is into the human psyche itself.
Here’s another novel in which Michael Crichton turns an accepted narrative on its head in order to explore the theme from a new angle. In the case of this 1994 novel – which was turned into a successful film the same year, starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore – Crichton flips the issue of sexual harassment on its head by swapping the usual gender roles for such cases.
Meredith Johnson is Tom Sanders’ new boss at DigiCom, a fictional Seattle company specialising in cutting-edge computer technology (which, in the early 1990s, meant CD-ROMs and virtual reality; at least the latter is still with us). She’s also Sanders’ ex-girlfriend. When she invites him to her office on her first day in the job and he rebuffs her advances, she files a harassment claim against him.
But is sexual politics the only thing at play here? Although it’s more legal thriller than techno-thriller, Disclosure succeeds in bringing together the world of corporate skulduggery and new (for the 1990s) attitudes towards sexual relationships and behaviour in the workplace.
And even the virtual reality technology will come in handy as Sanders endeavours to clear his name, keep his job, and find out exactly what’s going on with Meredith and DigiCom …
1. Jurassic Park.
Where else to conclude this pick of Michael Crichton’s best books than with this 1990 novel that was adapted three years later into one of the biggest films of the 90s?
Six years before Jurassic Park topped bestseller lists, a novel by Harry Adam Knight, titled Carnosaur, appeared and then largely disappeared without attracting much notice. Knight’s book had much the same premise, although Crichton’s version (there’s no evidence that he knew of Knight’s book – few did) is more scientifically detailed and, therefore, plausible.
It’s essentially a variation on an old theme for Crichton: a theme park gone wrong. (See his 1973 film Westworld, which he both wrote and directed, for an important precursor.) Crichton’s best book needs no introduction from us, so all we will say is: read it, even if you know and love the Steven Spielberg film.