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Michael Crichton is best known as a novelist of popular fiction whose stories explore the clash between traditional social and moral values and the demands of the new technological age. Jurassic Park (1990), his most successful novel about re-creating living dinosaurs from ancient DNA, examines what can go wrong when greedy people misuse the power of new and untested technologies. Although some critics fault Crichton for stereotypical characterizations and old-fashioned plotlines, many have praised his taut, suspenseful, and fast-paced stories, entertaining narrative style, and his ability to impart specialized technical information to the uninitiated reader.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Doctor to Writer
Crichton was born in Chicago and raised on Long Island. At fourteen years of age, he wrote and sold articles to the New York Times travel section, and, in 1964, earned a BA in anthropology from Harvard University. The following year, while on a European travel fellowship in anthropology and ethnology, he met and married Joan Radam; they eventually divorced, in 1970. Returning to Harvard University in 1965, Crichton entered medical school, where he began to write novels under the pseudonym John Lange in order to support his medical studies. While doing postdoctoral work at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, Crichton published The Andromeda Strain (1969), a technological thriller that garnered literary acclaim and national prominence for the author. Upon completing his medical training, Crichton began a full-time writing career.
Technological Thrillers Gain Popularity
Crichton’s stories generally take place in contemporary settings and focus on technological themes, although his earliest works were traditional mystery novels. Writing under the pseudonym John Lange, Crichton published a mystery novel entitled Odds On (1966), followed by A Case of Need (1968), written under the pseudonym Jeffrey Hudson. A Case of Need received favorable reviews and the 1968 Edgar Allan Poe Award of Mystery Writers of America. In 1969, Crichton published The Andromeda Strain, a novel that, Crichton acknowledges, was influenced by Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File (1962) and H. G. Wells’s The War of The Worlds. The Andromeda Strain is a technological thriller about a seemingly unstoppable plague brought to earth from outer space; it became a Book of the Month Club selection and a 1971 motion picture, directed by Robert Wise and starring Arthur Hill.
The 1970s and 1980s were times of vast technological changes, from the advent of the computer age to medical advances such as the first successful in vitro fertilization, or, test tube baby, in 1978 and artificial heart replacements in the eighties. With these changes in a human’s ability to manipulate nature, Crichton’s work reflects the social discussion about the dangers of taking on god-like abilities. Cloning, which began in earnest in the seventies leading to serious breakthroughs in the nineties, especially incited fears of what destruction might arise from human beings weilding too much power over life and death.
A Detour into Historical Fiction on the Way to Jurassic Park
While Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery (1975) recalls the history of an actual train robbery in
Victorian England, and Eaters of the Dead (1976) is set among tenth-century Vikings, and is supposedly the retelling of the Beowulfmyth, Congo (1980) marks Crichton’s thematic return to the dangers of technology, greed, and power. An encounter with alien life forms and alien technology in the ocean is the focus of Crichton’s next novel, Sphere (1987).
In 1990, Crichton published his nationally acclaimed best-seller, Jurassic Park, which recounts the now-classic tale of greed and a genetic experiment gone awry. A wealthy entrepreneur and his scientists lose control of their experiment to re-create living dinosaurs for a wild-animal park on a deserted island off the Costa Rican coast. Steven Spiel berg’s 1994 Academy award-winning film Jurassic Park also helped to ensure the world-wide popularity and success of the novel. Crichton returned to the theme of genetic engineering in The Lost World (1995) and Next (2006).
Crichton’s cautionary tales about genetic engineering grew out of increased scientific breakthroughs in the late twentieth century. The manipulation of DNA, human genetic material, began in earnest in the 1970s, first with successfully cloned mice and culminating with Dolly the sheep’s cloning in 1996. The Human Genome Project, an unprecedented international effort established in 1990 to map the entire human genetic code, brought both the possibility of eliminating genetic disease and the fear of abusive control over human identity.
The Climate Change Controversy
In 2004, Crichton made headlines with his controversial novel State of Fear. which presents a controversial perspective on global climate change. The story challenges scientific data claiming that global warming is a real threat, instead positing that political and financial aspirations have influenced scientific findings. With efforts like the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 international agreement to significantly reduce greenhouse gases around the world by 2012, Crichton’s premise was felt to undermine positive progress towards curbing the negative impacts of climate change.
Crichton’s mass appeal continued to rise as most of his novels drew multi-million dollar film deals soon after their publication. Between his page-turning action and his detailed technical and scientific elements, Crichton’s stories energize audiences and draw them both to bookstores and movie theaters. Despite their sometimes over-moralizing qualities, Crichton’s thrillers both entertain audiences and cause them to question some of the main technological advances of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Crichton died in Los Angeles in 2008 after a battle with cancer.
Works in Literary Context
Crichton’s books have come to be classified as techno-thrillers for their combination of high-action plotlines and detailed technical elements. But his writing is also an outgrowth of more traditional genres developed by writers such as George Orwell and Wells.
Science Fiction and Science-Based Storytelling
Science fiction presents fantastic events that have not or do not occur in regular life, but these elements are usually presented in a believable way. Crichton’s novels do not invent entirely new worlds but instead build on a basically realistic environment to present an extraordinary occurrence. Like other science fiction novelists, Crichton relies on scientific principles in his stories, offering detailed and compelling evidence for the extraordinary events he presents. Often, the futuristic science and technology in these stories leads to destruction rather than human improvement. Jurassic Park, for instance, follows as regenerated dinosaurs attack and murder humans; the dinosaurs’ existence seems possible because of elaborate descriptions of genetic preservation through prehistoric fossilization.
Crichton’s work fits into a larger, and popular, body of work in which late twentieth- and early-twenty-first century storytellers present detailed scientific knowledge to audiences for entertainment purposes. Other well-received examples of using science in stories include Tom Clancy novels and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation television shows. Crichton himself pioneered this kind of television show with his work on ER, a medical television drama, portraying the lives of emergency room doctors in great detail. Audiences respond to in-depth explanations of military, medical, and scientific phenomenon when they are combined with heightened drama, and Crichton has based his career on that exact mixture.
Works in Critical Context
Crichton’s works have received mixed reviews. While most critics applaud his ability to make technological information understandable and engaging, some fault his traditional and predictable plotlines and shallow characterization.
As G. Thomas Goodnight notes, Crichton is ”famous for doing his homework, for introducing popular audiences to complex concepts. . . . His character Ian Malcolm presents us with Chaos Theory, often taken for granted, and this view represents the postmodernist, skeptical view of life as we know it.” Other critics see Crichton’s main theme as one of techno-dystopia, a warning against technology out of control. Some reviewers claim that the scientist character, Hammond’s ”re-creation” of dinosaurs is not reality; it is a new reality with an unknown outcome, and scientists in their greed for fame and fortune fail to recognize this unpredictability. Evan Watkins views Jurassic Park as a retelling of the creation story, with Hammond as God of a creation that fails to behave as he wants— and in which the tenets of Chaos Theory interfere. Whether Crichton imbues his scientific characters with a God complex or some other motivation, critics recognize Crichton’s tendency to portray scientists with flaws: overwhelming pride, greed, and lust for control.
- Aaseng, Nathan. Michael Crichton. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2002.
- Grazier, Kevin Robert. The Science of Michael Crichton: An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science Behind the Fictional Worlds of Michael Crichton. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2008.
- Trembley, Elizabeth A. Michael Crichton: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
- Benford, Gregroy and Martin Hoffert. ”Fear of Reason: Michael Crichton’s State of Fear” New York Review of Science Fiction. 17.8 (2005): 15-16.
- Blanch, Robert. ”Medieval Fictional Odysseys: Better Time Travel Through Hallucinogens, Nets, and Quantum Foam” Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. 45.3 (2004): 305-17.
- Goodnight, G. Thomas. ”The Firm, the Park and the University: Fear and Trembling on the Postmodern Trail” Quarterly Journal of Speech 81.3 (1995): 267-90.
- Hahn, Torsten. ”Risk Communication and Paranoid
- Hermeneutics: Towards a Distinction Between ‘Medical Thrillers’ and ‘Mind-Control Thrillers’ in Narrations on Biocontrol” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation. 6.2 (2005): 178-204.
- Watkins, Evan. ”The Dinosaurics of Size: Economic Narrative and Postmodern Culture.” Centennial Review 39.2 (1995): 189-211.
- Michael Crichton: The Official Site. Retrieved September 6, 2008, from http://www.crichton-official.com/.
- The Michael Crichton Homepage. Retrieved September 6, 2008, from http://www.randomhouse.com/ features/crichton/.
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