Starting on last week’s cruise and finishing over the weekend, I read the latest Michael Crichton thriller, Next, which is about the thrills and perils of biotechnology. It’s less strident than previous book State of Fear; his messages here, spelled out in several pages of afterword, aren’t so one-sided or anti-scientific as that book’s.
The main plot thread of Next concerns a southern California biotech firm called BioGen, which has rights to a cell line derived from a UCLA leukemia patient who’s now suing the university for some of the big bucks they made selling his tissues. BioGen needs investment money, but an appeal for help from ruthless industry leader Jack Watson sets off a chain of events seemingly designed to ruin the company, prompting BioGen’s leader to set a bounty hunter on the trail of the leukemia patient’s daughter and grandson, an extended chase sequence that drives the second half of the book.
Several parallel and intersecting plot threads involve ‘transgenic’ animals — an orangutan in Sumatra, an African grey parrot living with a Parisian family, and a chimp in a US primate facility — all of whom can talk (the parrot can do arithmetic too), having been infused with human genes and then apparently forgotten or abandoned. The ‘father’ of the chimp takes him home to San Diego, where his wife, after the initial shock, gives ‘Dave’ a haircut and sends him to school as a child with a very rare genetic deformity… which works, for a while.
As usual with Crichton, the book is composed of many short chapters, multiple story threads only some of which eventually merge, and occasional sidebars of mock news items or speeches. The prose is flat and to the point, characters are one-dimensional, and usually (not always) greedy, hypocritical, or merely stupid, and plot contrivances are sometimes awkward or transparent. (Two women in the book both have sons named Jamie, a circumstance which at first I thought was an egregious authorial oversight — but no, it’s a setup for a chase-scene confusion that is only temporarily consequential.)
However creaky Crichton’s book is as fiction, you have to hand it to him that, whatever his political sway, he’s writing books these days that address serious issues of technology and science in a direct, popular way that virtually no one else is attempting. (The closest might be the occasional SF thriller from Benford or Bear or McAuley, without anywhere near the visibility.) He’s raising issues that matter, and at least in this book he’s not setting scientists up merely as ruthless monsters whose work could destroy the world and who therefore must be suppressed. If anything Crichton’s message here is that the legal system needs some serious adjustment to handle the implications of biotechnology — his point #1 is that genes shouldn’t be patentable, as they are now, a situation which leads to counter-intuitive notions about ownership of bodily tissues, and disincentivizes research into genetic diseases where ownership of the gene is lacking. And another of his points is that prohibitions, on types of research or anything else, simply don’t work. He spells all this out in the afterword (recapitulating points of a judge’s decision late in the story) which can be skimmed at the bookstore, perhaps, by those uninclined to read the whole book…
At the same time I admit not entirely trusting an author who can be so cynical (as in State of Fear) as to sound ideologically paranoid, and who would commit the gratuitous slur against a columnist who wrote a mildly unflattering article (now subscriber-only) about Crichton a while back (Crowley’s response is here). Just think if a Michael Crichton novel were to contain a character who was a bestselling novelist on contemporary scientific and technological themes who was taken so seriously as to be invited to meet the President(!), the devious motivations that would be impugned upon him. Still, Crichton does raise pertinent issues, even if we might suspect he’s giving us only his side of the argument.