(I wrote this shortly after Michael Crichton’s death in late 2008.)
The first Michael Crichton book I read was “Jurassic Park”. Right after I watched the movie. Yes, I realize it does not get any more cliched than that. But I was enthralled. I started reading more. Soon, I had bought into the author, not just the books.
His recent death made me sad, by surprise. I had counted on enjoying a new Crichton every year or so. The loss of that voice was real.
He wrote sci-fi, but of an immediate flavor. Not fantastic sci-fi like that of Asimov or Clarke set centuries from now, but in the current day or very soon after it. The advances he detailed titillatingly skirted the boundary between suspend-your-belief galactic travel and taking today’s cutting edge and extrapolating it a few years. But it was the characters in his book that had me hooked. They were perfectly human. The “bad guys” were sometimes good, and vice versa. Everyone was conflicted about the course they were tumbling through. Many of his characters made me think, “I know someone like that.” A few made me identify with them.
He revisited a few common themes in many of this novels.
One was organizational psychology. His forte was picking a bunch of mostly staid but slightly extraordinary people, and throwing them together, usually in the context of a larger organization or group (The Jurassic series, Congo, Andromeda Strain, The Sphere). I was deeply fascinated by how his characters handled crisis behavior, and how modes of failure always took the most unexpected route, culminating in a perfect storm. As an enginner, you can’t help but identify with that. To add to the realism, he weaved in pressures from politics, lobbying, journalism and public perception (Disclosure, Airframe, Next).
Another common theme was man’s relationship to nature. His stance was, again, rooted in realism. His wiser characters believed man could shape nature to his benefit, but at the same time were deeply humble towards natural forces. His foolish characters carried a romantic city-slicker notion of the wild and usually paid dearly for it. In his non-fiction writings, he argued against global warming alarmists. His critics confused it with arguing against global warming. He plainly acknowledged that humans had changed climate, but advocated a measured approach to address it. He wanted us to think of any redress as a tradeoff, and carefully consider the costs of both the disease and the cure.
If you’ve read a few Crichtons, you’ll see all this. It is what was “between the books” that he deserves most credit for.
He was a perpetual grad student. Each of his novels was the side-effect of a long deep-dive into a specialized topic. Read the detailed, annotated bibliography at the end of most of his books. He was not in a university, but he led a life of the mind. In his autobiographical “Travels”, he talks about the real feel of first-hand knowledge from personal experience. He lamented the futility of a single human understanding any significant fraction of knowledge in the modern world.
It seems to me he tried anyway.