Michael Crichton: Ave Atque Vale

crighton75My friends and I passed around a single copy of Jurassic Park and all read it during our 8th grade year, in anticipation of the movie coming out.  The one copy sufficed because it only took each of us a few days to read it; it was impossible to put down. 

The author, Michael Crichton, died suddenly this week.  Crichton was the kind of author that you read for fun: when we English teachers talk about “lifelong reading” and “pleasure reading,” this is exactly what we mean.  Crichton novels don’t have deep universal themes or fancy, elevated language, but they do have quick plots packed with exciting surprises. 

People pick up a Crichton novel when they want to relax with a guaranteed roller coaster ride.  Rising Sun was one of the best detective procedurals I’ve ever read; it’s one of the few books I’ve devoured in just a day or two.  (Incidentally, I’m no expert, but I attribute the failure of Crichton’s gloomy predictions coming to pass on the implosion of the Southeast Asian stock market in 1998.  I could be wrong.) 

State of Fear was an ambitious globe-trotting adventure as well as a textbook example of integrating controversial research into a compelling story.  The chapter near the end where an outcast professor describes the fall of the “military industrial complex” and the rise of the “politico-legal-media complex” is one of the best explications of society in the 21st century so far.  Everyone should read it.

He wasn’t perfect, though: I remember being quite underwhelmed by Congo and Prey

However, my most important Crichton memory so far was his memoir Travels.  I picked it up because, knowing the extent of his scientific knowledge, I figured that the varied locales for his fact-packed books must be rooted in some pretty extensive firsthand experience.  And Travels didn’t disappoint. 

Ironically, when I picked it up, I was a little flustered to see that a book ostensibly about his worldwide journeys devoted its entire first third to the story of his medical school days.  Yet, after reading the book, that section was by far my favorite part: Crichton’s revealing anecdotes about the world of medicine gave this occasional misanthrope quite a bit of fodder.  He tells of manipulative and self-destructive patients, devotions to ineffective routines and policies, and highlights how our psychological foibles throw a monkey wrench into the works at hospitals, both as patients and as doctors. 

Although, I found it strange that someone who’s made his name as a popularizer of science spent a lot of time in the 80’s dabbling in the paranormal.  His narratives of those experiments is sober enough, but still…it was a bit odd. 

At any rate, as I take the opportunity to assess my reading of this great pop culture icon, I’ll re-read his excellent essays and speeches on the dangers of rampant environmentalism and litigation in science, and add Timeline to my “to do” list for next year.


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