The Crux: To Worry or Not to Worry
December 14, 2004
By CHARLES McGRATH
Almost every Michael Crichton novel has embedded in its
clockwork plot machinery a microchip of alarm, intended to
start readers fretting about something they hadn't
sufficiently worried about before. In his first book, "The
Andromeda Strain," Mr. Crichton introduced us to
space-borne plagues. In "Jurassic Park" and its sequel,
"The Lost World," we found out what could happen if genetic
engineering ran amok. "Airframe," it seems safe to say, did
not swell the ranks of frequent fliers, and "Timeline"
ought to have made any sensible person think twice about
stepping into a quantum teleportation machine.
"Rising Sun" raised the specter of a Japanese takeover of
the American economy. "Disclosure" revised that scenario
somewhat to suggest that an even bigger problem might be
rapacious female executives. And "Prey," Mr. Crichton's
last book, refined that message still further to suggest
that an overly ambitious mother who worked outside the home
might find herself caught up in nanotechnology research and
unwittingly turning the world into goo.
In an interview last week, Mr. Crichton suggested that we
have become a nation of worrywarts. "There are many groups
in contemporary society who find it in their interest to
promote fears," he said. "A free society, a free press, has
a lot of good features, but giving you an accurate view of
the world is not one."
Mr. Crichton himself, of course, is not without blame for
this state of affairs. His scary techno-thrillers typically
spend lengthy sojourns on the loftiest slopes of the
best-seller lists and bounce up there again, in paperback,
when they're made into movies
Mr. Crichton's newest novel, which came out last week, has
the classically Crichtonian title "State of Fear," and it's
about a subject so menacing that it's surprising he hadn't
got to it long before now. This time he has taken on global
warming, which provides the book with some cliffhanging
action sequences including an ice slide, tidal waves, a
flash flood and some SUV-melting lightning strikes - except
they're all engineered, it turns out, by a new kind of fear
monger. The villains here are the sinister agents of an
environmental group called NERF, reverse eco-terrorists,
bent on making us think that the earth is in much worse
shape than it actually is. In a review of the book
yesterday in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called
the plot "ludicrous" and said the characters "practically
come with Post-it notes on their foreheads indicating
whether they are good guys or bad guys."
Plot aside, the not-so-hidden message of "State of Fear,"
spelled out in copious footnotes, a lengthy afterword, an
appendix and a 20-page bibliography, is an oddly reassuring
one for a Crichton book, even if many scientists would
disagree with it: there is no such thing as global warming,
or not that anyone can prove or predict, and when it comes
to climatic change, the only thing we have to fear is fear
itself and the compromised and politicized experts who are
in the business of purveying it.
For good measure the book also includes a number of
mini-lectures challenging some of the green movement's most
cherished beliefs and arguing, for example, that DDT is
safe enough to eat, that the giant sequoias are practically
junk trees and that the methane emitted by termites is
potentially a greater hazard than the atmospheric buildup
of carbon dioxide.
"For most of my life I have felt burdened by highly
publicized fears that decades later did not turn out to be
true," Mr. Crichton wrote in a recent article for Parade
magazine, and the new novel appears in some ways to be a
heave of exorcism. Throughout the novel and in the
afterword, he takes the opportunity to disparage a number
of other widely held fears. Fossil fuel shortage? Not to
worry, we'll come up with something. Population explosion?
Nope, birthrates are coming down. Cancer from power lines?
Please, you've got to be kidding.
Mr. Crichton, who was in New York last week to promote his
new book, could easily be mistaken for one of his own
creations. He is himself an example of superior
bioengineering: extremely tall (6 feet 7 inches), almost
unnaturally youthful looking (62, but you'd never know it),
and opinionated about all manner of scientific subjects.
(He is also a medical doctor, a successful film director
and the creator of a long-running television series.) He
speaks slowly, without much inflection, in perfectly
outlined paragraphs that frequently begin with a topic
sentence and include subsections and analogies.
Sitting in his hotel room, he had at hand a stack of
photocopied graphs and articles, but he seldom needed to
refer to them as he patiently explained what he thinks is
wrong with the theory of global warming: temperatures have
not increased at anything like the rate that was originally
predicted, and temperature data are not especially reliable
to begin with; back in the 70's we were worried about
global cooling. He was particularly dismissive of the
various computer models for climate change, saying, "You
have to remember, I come from an experience where you can
use a computer to make a photo-realistic dinosaur, and I
know that isn't real."
He began idly looking at temperature records about three
years ago, he explained, and even after he became convinced
that climate changes were impossible to predict and the
threat of global warming much less than environmentalists
were claiming, he resisted writing about it. "I didn't want
the hassle," he said, adding that at first he didn't see a
way to turn his findings into a novel. "My message is there
isn't a problem," he said. "That's not a very good message
- it's not a smash-bang one."
Eventually Mr. Crichton shamed himself into starting "State
of Fear" - he "felt like a coward," he admitted - and his
most important breakthrough came when he hit upon the
notion of inverting everything and turning the ostensible
good guys into bad ones.
The book's action sequences, he said, were modeled on the
old Saturday-morning movie serials, though he added that
"no one in the contemporary world knows what a
Saturday-morning serial is."
And, indeed, for readers who may not remember how often
cannibals figured in Saturday-morning cliffhangers, "State
of Fear" includes a doozy of a scene in which the heroes
are captured and tied to posts by some man-eating Solomon
Islanders led by a menacing chief called Sambuca, as in the
liqueur. ("Don't ask why this name," another character
says. "Him crazy man.")
"This book has been the most wrenching experience for me
personally - in terms of what changes it has brought about
in my view of the world," Mr. Crichton said. He explained
that two years ago some armed robbers entered his house in
California and held him and his daughter at gunpoint. "That
changed me," he said. It taught him "that there really are
events that are going to take place about which you can do
nothing - things that really do happen."
"But I think it heightened my attunement," he continued. "I
mean, if that was a real fear - then what about all the
other fears that maybe weren't so real?"
Mr. Crichton also said that in his opinion the message of
"State of Fear" is cautionary. "What you're reading may not
be right," he explained. "Take it easy, just be careful.
Could be overstated, could be not entirely accurate."