Science writer Ronald Bailey has put together a very informative and insightful review of Michael Crichton’s latest novel, Next, for National Review Online. Bailey points out that the depiction of science as basically scary—as is Crichton’s usual approach and is the case with Next—is entirely in conflict with reality:
Frankensteinian concerns persist in the modern age because of humanity’s inborn suspicion of the new. Happily, over the past few centuries the West has established firm linkages between scientific and economic actors — launching the industrial/technological revolution that has lifted billions of people out of humanity’s natural state of abject poverty. But such transformations of economic and social institutions remain scary. Frankenstein was essentially a reactionary response to that revolution. But there are other ways to craft narratives about humanity’s growing technological prowess — telling stories that are more hopeful and liberating.
Bailey suggests an alternative approach that could be just as entertaining and more edifying, using Crichton’s Jurassic Park as an example:
I have often wanted to suggest to Crichton that he could have gotten the same narrative bang for his buck if he had instead celebrated the achievement of bringing dinosaurs back to life. In my alternative plot, a kindly old paleontologist, using the miracle of biotechnology, conjures dinosaurs back into existence to delight the world’s children. Things go wrong only when a cadre of evil anti-biotechnologists led by Jeremy Rifkin break into the peaceful island zoo to kill the dinosaurs. This revised scenario would provide Crichton with all of the gunfire, gore, chase scenes, and satisfying explosions without the Luddite baggage of the original.
This plot would actually be more true to life—because there is practically no evidence that humanity rushes headlong into misusing powerful new technologies. Instead of using computerized probes for mind control, physicians implant them to control Parkinson’s disease. Instead of carelessly bringing space viruses to Earth, NASA set up elaborate containment and decontamination systems for astronauts returning from the moon. And researchers hope to use biotech to bring back to life animals driven to extinction by humanity, including the Tasmanian tiger and the woolly mammoth.
That is indeed a more accurate vision of what science really does, particularly in the hands of Westerners.
Next, as noted, is firmly in what Bailey refers to as the Luddite category, but Bailey still considers it enjoyable:
Despite its considerable narrative flaws, Next is still a compulsively readable beach book about the dawn of the biotech revolution. If your taste runs to car and helicopter chases, gunfire, explosions, sex, and entertaining demises for villains, combined with a bit of public policy, Next delivers all that and more. So squirrel away this one in your luggage when you fly to some sandy strand for your winter vacation.
You can purchase it here.