Monday, 18 August 2008

The Crichton Dilemma

I have a deep, dark secret to admit. I am a fan of Michael Crichton.

Now, to a lot of people, admitting such a thing is no big deal. "What's wrong with enjoying his work? I mean, Jurassic Park was great!" they might say. But to someone as science-centred as myself, it is a big deal.

I've been a fan of Micael Crichton for a long time. The first book of his that I read was The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, back when I was in 4th Grade (I remember it clearly, my 4th grade teacher asking me if my parents approved of me reading something filled with explicit language and violent, gorey scenes - the book was entirely unlike the crappy movie version). Since then, I've read about half of his most well known works (Sphere, Timeline, Prey, State of Fear, and Next). And I liked them. All of them. And I'm eagerly awaiting his next book, to be released this December. The reason I like his work is because they always include lots of science. Whether it be the science of genetics, as in Next or quantum mechanics, as in Timeline, Crichton's books have always been centered around science.

But what has caused alot of science-minded folks to dislike him is the precieved "anti-science" message his books have. Jurassic Park had genetically reconstructed dinosaurs....that went on a rampage, destroying and killing all in their path. Prey featured nanotechnology and self-reproducing nanobots...that devoured people and took over their lives. Timeline had timetravel and quantum mechanics....and people ended up going back in time, getting killed in horrific ways. Alot of people read his books and walk away with a feeling that Crichton is completely anti-science, like he's saying "Look at all the terrible things that science causes! People die and their lives are ruined because of what science does!" and this has caused alot of people to shun him and his work.

I look at it differently though. I dont see Crichton as having a totally anti-science message. Rather, his work acts as a caution. His stories all tell of the bad things that can happen if we do not use our newfound discoveries and technologies in a responsible manner. Crichton is not saying science is bad. He's saying "Be careful. Science can give us some totally amazing things but it can be terrible if we are not responsible". And this is a message that I agree with completely. I absolutely love science (so much that I have dedicated my life to it!) but it is easy to see how science can be dangerous if used improperly - look at the atomic bomb, for instance.

This is not to say that I support Crichton and his views entirely. Crichton is known for being a climate change denier (his book State of Fear was about 'ecoterrorists' deliberitely changing the climate to convince the public of, well, climate change), and has even said that SETI is more of a religion than science (!). However, this is immaterial concerning his views on whether science is good or bad.

Nevertheless, I am a fan of Michael Crichton. Many people may think that, as a scientist, I should be ashamed of that. But I'm not. His stories are always interesting, thrilling and carry an important message of scientific responsibility (even if he does get some of the scientific details wrong). Why should one be ashamed of liking that?

1 comment:

Fips said...

Couldn't agree more, Crichton is after all, all about entertainment, and the elements of science drawn in are generally only plot elements in a cautionary tale. Whilst re-reading Jurassic Park recently for the first time in many years, I was struck by just how 'anti-science' the novel appears, with Malcolm's voice appearing to represent that of the author, in his predictions of unpredictability in complex systems, the dangers inherent in wielding scientific power, or even the end of the 'scientific era'. One link I noticed even went as far as to compare Malcolm's chaos theory to dialectical materialism and the prediction of societal revolution through systematic instability. Not to forget of course that one would have to stand particularly aloof to decry scientific innovation on the basis of the implications of chaos theory.

Crichton's message of scientific responsiblity is an important one for us to remember, and whilst there's occasionally an overtly anti-scientific message in some of his works, the former is clearly the stronger implicit message. And ultimately they're just good, fun fiction!