State of Fear by Michael Crichton

I’m not sure where to start with this one, so I guess we’ll start with the premise.

In Tokyo, in Los Angeles, in Antarctica, in the Solomon Islands . . . an intelligence agent races to put all the pieces together to prevent a global catastrophe.

To be more precise, the “catastrophe” has to do with eco-terrorists proving global warming, and the “intelligence agent” seeks to disprove global warming. The book in its entirety is a bit mind-boggling, and not necessarily in a good way (though, it would seem, intentionally so).

Now, since I’m not a scientist, nor do I come from a position qualified to accurately comment on climate change and its validity, I will stick to focusing my critique on Crichton’s storytelling. Many spoilers ahead.

John Truby wrote about Crichton in The Anatomy of Story:

Michael Crichton doesn’t have the deep human characters of a Chekhov or the brilliant plots of a Dickens. He just happens to be the best premise writer in Hollywood.

And Truby is probably right. The premise here, and even the designing principle of using actual scientific references to frame a controversial standpoint on global warming and to highlight some of the shortcomings of the “eco-friendly” community is interesting and has the potential to both spark conversation and be a good story.

But like so many others I’ve been reading lately, it’s not the idea that fails, but the execution. And in practice, this book amounts to what may be the most pretentious thing I’ve ever read, largely as a result of unlikable, irredeemably pretentious characters.

To bring back a critique I’ve used elsewhere before, there is no clear protagonist to this story. There is the character who drives the plot (Kenner), and the character the reader is stuck following around most of the time (Evans). Kenner is a mystery, which isn’t inherently bad, and in fact works well for his character. However, he is an insufferable know-it-all with no redeeming qualities who only seems to exist to make the rest of the characters feel stupid. This is a prime example of how logic bombs (one of my favorite things in fiction) can be used poorly, since while Kenner comes from a position of authority over the other characters, clearly supports his arguments, and seems to be trying to do the right thing, it’s still difficult for the reader to like him because they have such a limited sense of who he is as a person. Other than the fact that he’s annoying.

And then you have Evans, who is arguably worse. The reader is privy to most of Evans’ thoughts, but he rarely thinks for himself, spending the entirety of the book going along with what all the other characters do or say, or simply repeating things he’s heard.

Compare these characters to Nick and Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, who serve similar roles as the Kenner-Evans pairing. However, unlike Kenner, Gatsby manages to be mysterious while still having clear, human desires, emotions, and flaws. And though, like Evans and Kenner, Nick serves as the lens through which the reader views Gatsby, he still has his own opinions and steers the reader toward the intended focus of the narrative.

Now, the narrative does have some genuine moments of tension, in which the pace quickens as the characters get tangled in situations with deadly consequences, both for themselves and for the rest of the world. These scenes were often augmented by frequent section breaks in which the perspective would rapidly shift between multiple viewpoints. This was a pretty good technique, as it gave the reader a series of highly cinematic “mini-cliffhangers” that helped amp up the drama. Two major things kind of ruined this effect, however. First is the characters’ apparent invulnerability. They get dropped into icy crevasses, struck by lightning, poisoned, shot, and hit with tidal waves, and the most anyone suffers as a result is the possibility of having to lose a few toes (well, except those other guys that the narrative doesn’t care about, but I’m referring to the main cast). By the time you get to the end, the tension is broken because you know nothing the narrative can throw at the characters can possibly kill them. The other thing that ruins the quick-cut effect occurs during the book’s climax, in which the cuts are so rapid and numerous that it loses the tension that it had in previous scenes.

Otherwise, the narrative is often bogged down with way too many long information dumps, but the narrative itself seemed to be aware of this, with Kenner and Sanjong at one point handing Evans a list of references to their source material since they didn’t have enough time to explain all the science. The inclusion of footnotes throughout the narrative allude to this as well. This brief, but witty exchange is actually pretty funny and so self-aware that I can’t not share it below:

“What we decided,” Kenner said, “is that we’re going to give you references from now on. Because it’s too boring to try and explain everything to you.”

While much of the book is forgettable, this part stands out to me because of how cleverly Crichton is able to manipulate Kenner’s words so that they sound perfectly serious and in keeping with Kenner’s pretentious attitude, while at the same time allowing Kenner to break the fourth wall and share a private joke with the reader. Whether or not this actually was Crichton’s intention, I think it succeeded in turning a boring, pretentious scene into a self-aware, memorable one.

Ultimately, I’m not sure how this compares to Crichton’s other work, but it definitely requires a certain type of reader to fully appreciate its.. Crichton-ness. Unfortunately, I am not that reader. So now, before I go off and attempt to draft a sci-fi novel in only 30 days, I leave with the most important question of all:

Who the fuck tries to assassinate somebody with a tiny octopus???

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