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B- : passable pseudo-techno-thriller -- but only just
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The complete review's Review:
After dealing with very big bad things in his Jurassic Park-novels, Michael Crichton returns to the miniscule level again (he operated down there in early works such as The Andromeda Strain).
In Prey he's dealing with the very smallest of things -- nanotechnology.
"Our camera is one ten-billionth of an inch in length" one character proudly says early on, to give you an idea of how tiny things are.
But just 'cause they're small doesn't mean they're harmless.
This is a Crichton-novel, after all: with interfering scientists hard at work in these pages messing with nature and not taking the proper precautions readers know they must expect the worst.
It's midnight now. The house is dark. I am not sure how this will turn. The kids are all desperately sick, throwing up.And so on. (Funny how these scenes never happen at high noon .....)
Surprisingly much of the information about the book's conclusion is given on this page -- more than we'd mention in a review, certainly -- and it's a curious thing to tack on here, at the front. Presumably the author (or his publishers) thought the suspense of getting to this finale wouldn't be sufficient to hold readers' attentions unless appetites were whetted by a taste of how terribly things will turn out.
One of the problems with writing thrillers about microscopic threats -- diseases, for example -- is that the bad things are essentially invisible. Authors generally have to focus on the horrific effects -- pus and rot and noxious smells and flesh being eaten away and so on -- but the actual threat, being essentially invisible, can't be seen coming by the characters (unlike, say, a charging dinosaur). Crichton bravely makes the miniscule the bad guys in Prey -- but after his oversized Jurassic-success apparently isn't satisfied with merely making them characters that are seen through their effects. No, he wants it both ways. So beside the horrible effects Crichton decides to also make the bad guys visible -- very visible. It is not one of his more inspired fictional touches. (Still, it probably did help make the story more appealing for Hollywood, where people probably could be convinced that this would translate well to film; trust us: it won't.)
Crichton packs an astonishing number of thriller-models into this one. Prey is a virulent-disease thriller, a technology-gone-haywire thriller, a swarming-animal thriller (think Hitchcock's Birds, or any number of movies about attacking bees or fish or whatever), an isolated-outpost thriller (think Alien or The Deep or any of countless films set on a space-station or in a submarine), a genetic-engineering-gone-bad thriller, a hunters-becoming-the-hunted thriller, and, most bizarrely (and ill-advisedly) a zombie thriller (think Night of the Living Dead in daylight).
Prey begins with unemployed Jack Forman playing housedad. He's married to Julia (at thirty-six still "a strikingly pretty woman"), and they have three kids: a baby, Amanda, and two older brats, Eric and Nicole. Domesticity plays a big role at the beginning of the novel, and there's too much of it -- Jack's household misadventures and how he deals with his worries about what exactly his wife is up to tend to be either boring or unconvincing (or both). Things aren't helped by the two unbearably obnoxious kids (when Julia has to spend a night in hospital after a car accident, loving son Eric complains in a phone call to Jack: "Aunt Ellen made us go to the hospital to see her. It's not fair. I didn't want to go." -- to which Jack has little more to say than: "Uh-huh.")
Julia is a tech executive, desperately trying to raise some venture capital for Xymos -- a "world leader in molecular manufacturing". Xymos has a facility out in the convenient isolation of the Nevadan desert ("fewer regulations, easier inspections" than in California someone notes), and they're doing interesting things with nanotechnology. They've figured out a way to manufacture nanotechnology ("if it was true, it was an extraordinary development, a genuine technological breakthrough") and they're doing cool things with the output like making these tiny, tiny things work together to function as a camera that can, for example, take pictures anywhere inside the human body
It turns out Jack is indirectly involved in this success too. His field of expertise is computer programming, and he was doing work in "distributed parallel processing or agent-based programs". And Xymos used some of that programming to get the nano-things to work together.
Jack got himself fired from his company, but his expertise is called for and so he too gets involved with Xymos. But that's not before the baby gets a weird rash (which mysteriously evaporates when she gets an MRI) and he sees someone in the car with his wife and some other strange doings.
Jack heads out to Nevada, where he learns that some of the micromachines have apparently escaped from the facility. And they've started acting autonomously. And they're out of control. And they seem to be able to learn. And they don't look to be too friendly .....
Things turn out to be much worse than Jack expects, of course. The swarms (yes, they swarm !) look to have some weaknesses: they can't function together well in high wind, or, it appears, at night (no solar energy to keep them going). But, of course, they aren't quite as vulnerable as wished and hoped for -- and they prove to be remarkably adaptive. So readers can only laugh when Jack comes up with a plan and says:
"Three hours," I said, "and they're history."Jack -- like so many Crichton characters -- doesn't understand: hubris will get you every time.
Near the very end of the novel Jack says: "It was so dumb, it was breathtaking." He's talking about what caused the disaster in the first place (and, boy, is he right), but it also goes for quite a few scenes in the book itself. People don't do some fairly obvious things (including sharing information -- or at least trying to obtain information (which, if Jack had bothered with it, might have made some things clearer earlier)) and they do some phenomenally stupid things (r.i.p. David Brooks, you dumb panicky schmuck).
One of Crichton's points is, perhaps, that scientists aren't to be trusted because they'll do any nutty things for success -- and that we can't afford that with some of these very dangerous new technologies. It may be a valid point, but with his cartoon characters -- and with a "villain" (these tiny particles) that literally turns cartoonish (or any other shape you want) ... well, it's hard to take the point seriously based on this.
Prey is a novel about evolution, and the dangers this constant change brings with it. It's an interesting subject, and Crichton correctly suggests some of the consequences. His wedding of nanotechnology and self-reproducing machines (which can, in some sense "learn" and adapt as they reproduce) is also a fairly good idea. But the execution is far too simplistic. Crichton warns -- correctly -- of the inevitable unintended consequences of technological innovation. The only problem is he does so in a way that is so completely over the top that there's no lesson to be learnt here.
Crichton provides a two and a half page bibliography of serious titles, many of which he no doubt relied upon in researching his book -- but the science remains at the Sunday-supplement level. Any issue of Scientific American is more challenging. Clarity and back-to-basics isn't the worst thing (especially when dealing with complex technology and science), but, while Crichton's simplifications often read easier, they also fudge the science. Don't get us started on the swarms (nanotechnologists the world over will be complaining about some of those details) -- just consider when he gets to summarizing evolution, beginning:
The old ideas about survival of the fittest had gone out of fashion long ago. Those views were too simpleminded.He goes on to say some moderately interesting (and accurate, if not particularly well-expressed) things about large-scale coevolution. But consider that first sentence. "Survival of the fittest" never was in fashion -- and Darwin never said anything of the sort. The stupid sentence is tautological: we define a species as fittest post facto -- when it has survived. (There is no way to tell what species will survive in the future because we don't know what future conditions will be like. Humans are doing okay in the fitness department right now, looking like good survivors in current conditions -- but remember: conditions always change, and one nasty virus, or meteor strike, or twenty degrees of global warming and the cockroaches (or ferns or whatever) are suddenly top of the heap and humans are looking decidedly unfit.) Yes, the view is too simpleminded -- but it also never was a "view" (certainly not one held by Darwin or any other evolutionist): everyone has always understood that evolution is a very complex beast where everything affects everything else (often -- perhaps even usually -- in ways that can not be predicted).
In Prey Crichton offers a good deal of science -- of sorts. Most is reductionist simplification, disguised by tossing in the impressive gobbldeygook of two pieces of pure code and a few bits of other 'real' science (nanotechnological manufacturing processes, for example). And some of the science -- including the most significant bits -- is completely ridiculous.
Crichton also isn't too great with the characters -- and he is especially clumsy in his handling of human interactions, including using far too many telephone calls (Jack keeping in touch with family and the like). The important character of Julia is largely also only a prop and Crichton never really gets a good grip on her; Jack's inability to communicate with her is baffling (and very irritating).
Crichton's characters all tend to be a bit flat -- and there are also too many stock characters. No one does anything unexpected, and the evil characters might as well be wearing signs reading: "DANGER ! DANGER !". Still, most of the dialogue isn't too wooden and unreal, and Jack a tolerable narrator for most of the book.
Prey is heavy on dialogue, but fortunately it's not all talk and no action. What fun there is is in the action. Bad things happen and Crichton does some of these very well. Surprisingly (or not) it's the basic things -- the hunts, the chess games between prey and predator -- that are the only really good things in the novel. The science is just fancy frill; unfortunately, Crichton let's it get too fancy (what the bad little nano-things ultimately do is simply ridiculous) and that detracts from what qualities the book might otherwise have as a good action story.
Prey is a passable thriller. Crichton is not great stylist, but his prose isn't terrible. He packs a lot into the novel -- science ! technology ! action ! domestic life ! marital infidelity ! monsters ! the thrill of the hunt ! etc., etc. -- and he keeps things moving quite well (at least after the early domestic scenes). The book is unbelievable in more ways than we can count, but there's enough going on for that not to matter too much.
Too often the nanotechnology seems to be nothing more than convenient but irrelevant window-dressing (though the adaptive/evolutionary aspect is of interest), so Prey is not much of a techno-thriller -- but seen simply as a plain old thriller readers might find it acceptable.
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American author Michael Crichton (1942-2008) wrote many bestselling novels, several of which have been made into successful films.
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