Review by C.J. Bunce
Micro: A Novel is a solid footnote to the successful writing career of Michael Crichton. It doesn’t approach Jurassic Park in terms of character and intrigue, but it would fairly line up alongside the likes of Terminal Man, The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, and Congo. Crichton had completed only about one-third of the book when he died in 2008. Richard Preston, author of fiction and the non-fiction work The Hot Zone, picked up the reins to complete the book, finally published in November 2011.
I am always incredibly curious to read a book featuring co-authors or a work finished or packaged posthumously. Louis L’Amour died in 1988 and for years it seemed like his estate kept churning out books as if he were still writing. In the first issues of Kevin Smith’s The Bionic Man, I was very interested in how much content came from Smith and how much from co-author Phil Hester. With this final Crichton work, I initially spent more time thinking about structure and technique more than getting engrossed in the book, asking myself “Is this Crichton, or the imposter?” This was true for me for the first third of the book. At some point, however, I jumped in fully and went along for a fairly thrilling ride. And if Crichton didn’t write it all, then Richard Preston was able to fake it very well.
The biggest hurdle in embracing Micro was the struggle for the reader’s suspension of disbelief. In Jurassic Park, Crichton made readers believe that you could take dried mosquito blood from ancient amber, mix it with frog DNA and grow your own dinosaurs. It was explained so simply so as to be believable without question, despite how impossible it would be to replicate in the real world. It was harder for me to grasp the concept of taking humans and shrinking them to a half an inch tall. Micro explains the science perhaps too briefly, taking from some apparently real-life experiment showing that magnetic fields acting on an object could shrink the object’s size. Extrapolating that to organic beings of any size or complexity on any scale or scope that matters seems plainly absurd to me. This despite the fact that “I want to believe” and am an open-minded science fiction reader, and despite any number of past suggestions in science fiction going back to The Incredible Shrinking Man, which might prime the open mind for such a possibility. Didn’t The Fly teach us there were too many variables to consider to be able to make an experiment like this work? It is that type of question, and the philosophy behind Crichton’s techno-thrillers, that are often as intriguing as the works themselves.
In Micro when a scientist criticizes another for being a vegetarian—he is written off with the pointed question, “how do you not know plants have feelings, too?” Basically, end of story, vegetarians are illogical. In the preface, quoting statements made by Crichton tied to this novel, Crichton seems critical of global warming theory. We know from Jurassic Park that he embraced chaos theory and the science of complex systems. We know from his work Prey that Crichton jabbed at believers of global warming, or at least those purporting to understand the puts and takes of global warming. Here in Micro he implies that, because there are too many variables we can never understand nature. Yet at the same time he tries to get readers to understand nature, and through his characters he suggests that if you do study nature you can use it to your advantage, to even save your life in the most crazy, unlikely, and perilous circumstances possible. I am sure if you could only interview Crichton today he may be able to iron out this apparent ambiguity. In the end, I think you can enjoy Micro as a thrill ride, but as an attempt at anything more serious, the piece doesn’t stand up. If he believed that we can never fully understand nature, why spend any time researching nature, or why care about the characters in this book who do?
Like Crichton’s sequel to Jurassic Park, The Lost World, where Crichton seemed to switch from hard science in a way similar to Tom Clancy’s delving into every nuance behind the military-industrial complex (similarly, both sometimes ad nauseum), to a more instantly cinematic form of storytelling. Micro, too, seems to be written directly for ready-made actors to jump into their roles for the impending Hollywood release. Its ending is better than several of Crichton’s early works, where Crichton never seemed to know when to stop the story, or like Sphere, the story dazzled at first then drifted to boredom at the end. Here the ending is full of catastrophe and skin-of-your-teeth, nick-of-time wrap-ups. It all works as the stuff of a thin-science, romping summer blockbuster. And it may work for readers who don’t ask too many questions. Such as:
- Can you safely carry people around in a plastic baggy?
- Can you envision a vehicle that you can fit into your pocket?
- Could you fly a plane that was an inch long across the entire island of Oahu and arrive at any intended destination, no matter how many times you tried?
- Would the sheer terror of encountering bugs that were bigger than you not induce a heart attack or even slightly put you off kilter so as to not allow you to tap your immense knowledge of the science of beetles to think about ways to assemble poisons to be able to successfully eliminate the creature?
- If your co-worker was held underground by a wasp as a prisoner, to be the wasp’s offspring’s lunch, would any human in any context feel sympathy for the offspring who was to be deprived of his lunch if your rescue succeeds? (As noble and naturalistic a thought this may be, I think terror would win out in any event).
- At what percent of normal function could you function if your arm, as an example, was injected by a giant insect with its larvae, using you as a host? Could you then fly a plane that you’d never seen before, or would you just freak out and cower in the corner, or beg your friend to cut off your arm?
The best part of all Crichton novels is the creation of a small think tank of a half dozen experts of distinct disciplines pulled together seemingly to research some project, only to realize their real purpose is to solve a difficult problem under unthinkable conditions. Crichton creates these mini-universities where ideas can be shared, theories argued and defended. The human condition—personalities, foibles, belief systems, behavior–always gets in the way, but never to the detriment of the entire operation. Here we have seven graduate students, anxious to get their own deals post-grad with private industry. Then Vin Drake, president of tech corporation Nanigen, comes along to recruit. One of the students, Peter Jansen, has a brother Eric who already works there. They all fly to the headquarters on the island of Oahu. First Eric turns up dead, and in attempting a quickly and poorly thought plan to get an admission from the killer, the seven are sucked into the microverse and left to die in the woods.
Meanwhile enter a local detective, Police Lieutenant Dan Watanabe (my favorite character in the book), who is part Officer Gunderson from Fargo and part Marshal Gerard from The Fugitive, but would have been nicely played on the big screen by Jack Soo (Barney Miller), Kam Fong (Hawaii 5-0), or Kwan Hi Lim (Magnum, PI). He’s getting misinformation about a group of bizarre deaths, and they all have one company in common. The story works back and forth among Watanabe (just not enough for my taste), the seven students, and the villain of the story and his minions. The ride has its moments.
To my surprise, what also becomes most “real” in the novel is what made Jurassic Park real for me—the shock and horror. To this day the most vivid scene for me from any Crichton novel is when a character is hiding in Jurassic Park in some inner hallway in the dark after all the dinosaurs have escaped their pens. Something moves past him and he doesn’t feel much or know what happened, until he reaches down to feel his intestines are in his hands, quickly and seemlessly slashed by some plotting raptor. Several of these gut-churning scenes abound in Micro, all involving the fleshy, oogy, gory, grizzly, and grotesque that would likely occur when encountering bugs head-on when they out-size you. If anything, the encounters as concepts are predictable—get out a sheet of paper and write out every worst-case encounter you would have as an insect—as prey—and you will see each of those scenarios revealed as happening to one of the characters somewhere before the final page. Horrific to be sure, but it’s that kind of thrill that makes you soar to the end to find out what happens to everyone.
The result is a book worthy of Crichton’s catalog, and an interesting last entry for those that have gobbled up everything else he had to offer. Available everywhere books are sold.