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The One That Got Away:
Michael Crichton and the Mainstream
by Alasdair Stuart
Genre fiction has always been caught in the shadows of mainstream fiction. Whether you
believe mainstream fiction isn't prepared for the ideas put forward in genre novels or
simply that the sight of a dinosaur or a spaceship on the front cover means mainstream
critical suicide, the fact remains that most genre authors get precious little mainstream
It's ironic then to realise that one of the most successful mainstream authors of the last three decades has, since his career began, written about first contact, genetic manipulation, cybernetics, quantum theory, time travel, nanotechnology and deep-sea exploration. His books consistently top bestseller lists and one in particular has been responsible for one of the most successful films of all time. Michael Crichton is an almost exclusively science fiction author, and yet his books have achieved near total mainstream success. The question is, why?
In order to fully understand that, it's necessary to examine Crichton's novels on a number of different levels. These include the way in which Crichton is influenced by the times he writes in, the 'big science' ideas that lie at the core of his books, why he chooses those ideas and what position his books hold in popular culture. Finally, it's also necessary to briefly examine his non-SF novels for what they tell us about his work.
Firstly, like any author or creator, Crichton channels a great deal of the mindset of the time into his books. This is, oddly, particularly noticeable in The Andromeda Strain, one of his earliest novels. Initially inspired by a footnote in The Major Features Of Evolution, the book begins when a satellite comes down outside a small town and all but two of the inhabitants are killed outright. A group of scientists are called in to investigate and what they find, as well as the increasing pressure they find themselves under, brings them all to the limit of endurance.
It's a perfect example of how influenced Crichton is by the world around him. Originally published in 1970, the book is rife with the slight distance and paranoia that runs through much of the literature and cinema produced during the cold war. This has a number of effects on the book, not the least of which is the nature of the project they work on, code-named 'Wildfire'. Based in an underground silo complete with nuclear sterilisation warhead, it's a concept that embraces the paranoia of the times. Additionally whilst it's motives appear altruistic, both the book and film reveal that the lab's primary function is not to cure alien diseases but find samples for use in biological warfare.
Of particular note though, is 'The Odd Man Hypothesis'. One of the book's crucial plot points, it places The Andromeda Strain firmly in its time. The book's hero, Dr Hall, is selected for the project not only because of his expertise but because he's single. This is also the reason why he's given the only means of shutting down the nuclear sterilisation once it's activated. The Odd Man Hypothesis states that unmarried men are capable of carrying out the best, most dispassionate decisions in crisis situations, and as a result Hall finds himself given the choice between killing them all and saving the world or saving them and risking the lives of everyone else.
It's this, more than anything else that grounds The Andromeda Strain as a novel of its time. The inevitable charge of chauvinism aside, Hall and the Odd Man Hypothesis are perfect examples of their time. The lone, intelligent, dispassionate man, isolated even from any meaningful relationships and able to trust only himself, fits remarkably well into the two decades that saw Vietnam, Watergate and the resignation of Nixon.
This encapsulation of the time is equally present in his best-known work, Jurassic Park. Unusually, this is present in both book and film with both versions of the story openly parodying the self-same commercialism that they rely on. There's a superb moment of both product placement and postmodernism in the film, where Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) is absently mumbling about how no expense was spared, sitting in front of a vast wall of official Jurassic Park products which were, naturally, available to buy at the time. The postmodern irony of the 1990s combines with an advert for the film you're watching in such a way that the scene is either blatant or devastatingly subtle.
However, this head on approach to the issues and priorities of the day has not always met with success. Of Crichton's overtly mainstream novels, two have been roundly criticised for doing this very thing. Disclosure, for example, marries the cutting edge technology thriller with a reversed case of sexual harassment. Here, the corporate culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s is combined with the 'caring 1990s' to create a story that addresses the dividing line between altruistic development and overt capitalism and the change in gender politics that began during this time. Crichton would return to these themes with Airframe, another corporate thriller, this time focussing on a female crash investigator and the obstacles placed in her way during a crucial investigation.
Finally, Rising Sun deals with the encroachment of Japanese corporate blocks into the American marketplace, framed using a murder investigation. Here, gender politics are replaced with race politics and again the result was controversial. Whilst both books were a success, and both were made into films, it's interesting to note that Crichton has yet to return to this overtly mainstream approach to his work.
In the case of both Disclosure and Rising Sun, Crichton took a great deal of criticism for his portrayal of businesswomen and Japanese corporate practices. Whilst it's not this article's place to comment on either it's worth noting that both books stand as a distillation of their times. As an aside, it's also worth noting that the only information released (at time of writing, August 2004) about Crichton's next novel so far is its title: State Of Fear.
This is the first reason why Crichton's novels have achieved such mainstream success. By reacting to and being inspired by the important issues of the day he produces books that both address and remain distant from those issues. His books act as a bridge of sorts between the popular consciousness and his subject matter.
This is even more obvious when the science at the heart of many of his books is examined in more detail. As discussed earlier, The Andromeda Strain addresses the paranoia of the late 1970s but tempers that with the optimism still engendered by the space programme. With man having walked on the moon the year prior to the book's publication, there's an almost palpable sense of something wonderful just beyond our reach. The fact that it turns out to be a virus is defused by the eventual revelation of the virus' true nature. For all its pessimism and impressive death toll, the book remains, in many ways an optimistic piece of science fiction. Not only are we not alone, but also there are other people out there actively looking for us.
This approach not only to science but also to our view of science continues in Jurassic Park. Published at a time when cloning and genetic engineering were starting to enter the public consciousness, the book focuses on both the childlike wonder many feel towards dinosaurs and a growing sense of concern about the excesses genetic engineering could prove capable of. Given that Dolly the sheep was born within five years of the novel's publication and the legal implications of cloning humans are now being addressed, the novel certainly appears to be ahead of its time.
His most recent novel, Prey, is less prescient but deals with a newer field of study. Extrapolating current developments in nanotechnology to the point where the first nanotech industrial plant is rolled out, the novel combines the cautionary approach to science of Jurassic Park with a detailed look at nanotechnology theory and a nod to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. The end result is complex but accessible, enabling Crichton to easily communicate a great deal of complex information.
It's this accessibility that is the key to Crichton's mainstream success and as a result it bears closer examination. He excels at the single sentence; big idea approach to writing and many of his novels can be summed up this way:
The Andromeda Strain
- a disease from space causes havoc on Earth
- scientists clone dinosaurs for an amusement park
- archaeologists get trapped in history
Even his mainstream books can be summed up this way:
- two executives, one male, one female accuse one another of sexual harassment
- murder in the Japanese corporate culture
All Crichton's books are based on this principle of the 'big idea' - be it reversed sexual harassment or cloning dinosaurs. As well as being neatly summed up in single line 'pitches' as above, these ideas also have one very important thing in common. Each one is both simple and unusual enough to attract the attention of potential readers.
A side factor worth considering here is how attractive these big ideas are to production companies. Almost all Crichton's novels have been made into films, ranging from the historical comedy thriller of The First Great Train Robbery to the archaeological action thriller Timeline. However, whilst some have enjoyed huge success, many of these films have been less than successful both as adaptations and films in their own right. To take Timeline as the most recent example; it keeps many elements of the book but replaces the relentless survival horror elements with a far more conventional action story. Almost every plot development is visible from miles away, the science, which is both unusually complex in Timeline and one of the novel's greatest strengths is rendered nonsensical and entire plot lines seem to simply vanish.
At the other end of the scale, Rising Sun is improved immeasurably by its translation to the screen with the racial elements being given an extra twist by the casting of Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery as the two lead detectives. This also plays up the 'mismatched cops' element of the book, giving the film an extra air of familiarity to cinema audiences that makes it all the more accessible.
Finally on this subject, Crichton's screenplays are worth a brief mention. Like his novels they're clearly inspired by the times and, like his novels, embrace the concept of the big idea. Runaway, produced in the 1980s takes the automation of many industries to its logical extreme, Looker is a neatly produced satire on the modelling industry and Westworld is both a knowing satire and update of the western. It's also the first example of themes that would resurface in Crichton's work more than once, most notably the conflict between science and entertainment and the dangers of too much automation. It's interesting to note as well that for a film that dealt with the perils of automation and computers, Westworld was the first film to use a computer to create special effects.
The key here though, is the way in which this 'high concept' approach to writing is viewed in the media. Crichton's books are written in the same basic way as blockbusters, with the same focus on a single outlandish idea dealt with in a plausible way. When this is taken into account, it becomes clear that the reason why his books in general and Jurassic Park in particular are so successful is because they present cutting-edge science concepts in a manner that is familiar and easy to follow.
Ultimately, this is why Crichton's novels have had the mainstream success many other SF authors have been denied. He combines science fact with science fiction, the mainstream with the fringe to create books that are presented in a way which is familiar but which deals with subjects that lie far outside mainstream culture. His books are science fiction or horror second, and mainstream 'big idea' action thrillers first. In short, Crichton has adapted to the mainstream market's needs and as a result is embraced by it.
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