Krishna Andavolu remembers Michael Crichton's billion-dollar career on the anniversary of his birth. Originally published November 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.
Since his days as a student at Harvard Medical School, Michael Crichton wrote fiction. And as any purveyor of the paperbacks knows well, he wrote a lot of fiction. All told Michael Crichton, a doctor by training and a novelist by profession, sold more than 150 million books.
Despite Crichton’s fascination with technology, science and aliens, his novels were never really considered science fiction. The flights of fantasy—science that could create dinosaurs, extraterrestrial diseases that could infect the world—were held in check by time (he almost always set his books in the present) and by scope. Unlike Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein, Crichton constrained his discussion of the intersection between technology and morality to the service of taut, gripping narrative, rather than using those consequences as stepping-stones to discussions of epistemology.
He was a master of the technological thriller, page-turners that, much in the same way John Grisham used the law, enabled a series of unexpected events to unfold around a fanciful “what if.” And though he was often derided for being disinterested in character development and for having a poor sense of dialogue, he was innately attuned to writing vivid and appealing stories.
For the most part that “what if” was something going wrong with a supposed flawless, complex system. A corollary of that formula is that human hubris, man’s quest for perfection, is his own undoing. It’s the Titanic, the Hindenburg, Frankenstein and Faust rolled into one. It’s the fall of Icarus; it’s the fall of man.
Though Crichton wrote for many years under the name John Lange as a medical student, he published his first novel under his real name in 1969. The Andromeda Strain, a tale of an alien disease that ravages the nation, proposed the clay feet of the military scientific complex. It also revealed the lucrative potential of Crichton’s gift for narrative.
The book was a bestseller and was made into a successful 1971 film of the same name. The screenplay followed the book’s plot closely. This formula was repeated 11 more times over the next three decades, including Jurassic Park, Sphere, Congo, and The Lost World. He was also a creator of the long-running TV show which started its last season this fall, surprisingly outliving its creator.
Science and technology, though dominant subjects, were not always Crichton’s focus of inquiry. Following a similar worldview that systems are never perfect, he wrote two other books that were turned into movies, Rising Sun (which features an underrated pairing of Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery) and Disclosure, that put corporate culture under the Crichton microscope.
His latter books took a decidedly right-wing turn. State of Fear, essentially a polemic against the calcification of scientific thought towards inevitable human-caused climate change, knocked down a pillar of Crichton’s respectability. Many of his novels used actual scientific studies as inspiration for the ideas and circumstances that precipitated his narratives. State of Fear, however, seemed to distort the studies of a few noted climatologists who came out strongly against the work in 2004.
Claims against credibility notwithstanding, State of Fear reinforced Crichton’s basic worldview: skepticism. Crichton had more in common with the classical tradition of skeptics headed by such ancient Greeks as Pyrrho and Elis than one might consider at first glance.
Reading Crichton is a hell of a lot more fun than reading Pyrrho (though there are scholars who claim that most of Pyrrho’s early work was mostly about dinosaurs). And so it is with fond memories of page-turning excitement and blockbuster nights at the movies that we bid adieu to one of the world’s most successful novelists. It would have been fun to see what a mind so attuned to the basic epistemological narratives of man would have produced when confronted with the vicissitudes of geriatric life. But we’ll take what we can get.