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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Michael Crichton
(writing as John Lange)

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Binary

Title: Binary
Author: Michael Crichton
Genre: Novel
Written: 1972
Length: 220 pages
Availability: Binary - US
Binary - UK
Binary - Canada
Binary - India
Giftglocke über San Diego - Deutschland
  • Originally published under the pseudonym 'John Lange'

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Our Assessment:

B : solid if very basic thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Binary is the last of the thrillers Michael Crichton wrote under the pseudonym 'John Lange'. Set around the planned 1972 Republican convention in San Diego, Crichton/Lange notes the book was finished before the convention was moved to Miami, and he: "preferred not to follow the convention to Miami Beach". The historical inaccuracy hardly matters: the president figures only very distantly in the story, even when he's on site, and though the convention is the main reason the action takes place in San Diego the action itself remains completely separate. Instead, the story is tightly focused on the binary conflict(s) between agent John Graves and a millionaire with a political agenda, John Wright.
       Binary is explicitly a countdown-novel: bookended by an introductory 'Beta Scenario' and a concluding chapter of 'Beta Scenario Revisions', the novel moves, chapter by chapter, from 'Hour 12' to 'Hour 0'. The Prologue describes a complex train heist, in which canisters with chemicals are stolen from a government train -- "one half-ton of the most potent nerve gas in the world". In real time then, first in Los Angeles and then San Diego, the novel mainly follows John Graves as he is on the case, trying to determine what Wright is up to (with his connection to the nerve gas not one that is immediately made) and whether or not he can be stopped.
       Graves, "the world's foremost expert on John Wright", knows his adversary well -- and, as he later learns, Wright is pretty up-to-date on him, too. Graves works for the State Department, and he's not thrilled about spying on fellow Americans. But he does enjoy putting together puzzles, as he's called on to in his job; indeed, he's very much a game-player -- and:

To him the ideal was chess -- one man pitted against another man, each trying to calculate the intentions of the other in a game of enormous complexity with many alternatives.
       Better at these games than most, Graves finds a worthy opponent in Wright:
He and Wright were well matched: the same intelligence, the same mathematical background, the same fondness for games, particularly chess and poker.
       And it is a game they play over these twelve odd hours, Wright leading Graves on, Graves trying to put together the pieces so that he can defuse the situation. As it turns out, Wright makes it very personal, too: "Everything has been designed especially for you, so to speak", he tells Graves. It's a bit of a far-fetched cat and mouse game, especially when Wright goes on a very last-minute shopping spree, tailed by Graves, but Crichton does surprise nicely by changing some of the fundamentals as the game progresses. It's a high-stakes game, too: that nerve gas is nasty, nasty stuff.
       The binary-theme extends throughout the novel, from the way the toxic gas functions (combining two inert ones to make the lethal mix) to the battle of the minds between Wright and Graves to computer code, as the computer systems of the day also play a role in the whole plan (an interesting glimpse into a pre-Internet age of connected computer systems and how data could be accessed and retrieved).
       Binary is crisp and quick, with practically no padding -- later Crichton would have fleshed this out to at least double the length. It's very basic, too: a lot of dialogue, a lot of quick, changing action, with little follow-through about anything (probably wisely: a lot here doesn't really withstand much closer scrutiny). That's okay: Binary doesn't pretend to be much more than an easily digested action-thriller.
       Still, Crichton sprinkles in a lot of odds and ends, notably about chemical weapons and computer systems, making for nice (if now in part dated) technical detail that also brings up a variety of policy issues. This may not be a cerebral thriller, but there is considerable intriguing thought (and knowledge) behind it; in some ways it's a shame Crichton didn't take this all more seriously and build a more substantial novel around it.
       Appealing too are familiar Crichton ticks and tricks, from the ALL-CAPS computer printouts to the lists. He does like structure and it shows in different ways here; it also helps make his fiction look sturdier than it actually is.
       A bit dated, a bit simple, a bit too far-fetched, Binary nevertheless offers perfectly fine thriller-entertainment.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 October 2013

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Binary: Reviews: Michael Crichton: Other books by Michael Crichton under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Michael Crichton (1942-2008) wrote many bestselling novels, several of which have been made into successful films.

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© 2013-2014 the complete review

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