The Terminal Man

Michael Crichton, favorite author of my younger years, died on Tuesday:

He was an experimenter and popularizer known for his stories of disaster and systematic breakdown, such as the rampant microbe of "The Andromeda Strain" or the dinosaurs running madly in "Jurassic Park." Many of his books became major Hollywood movies, including "Jurassic Park,""Rising Sun" and "Disclosure." Crichton himself directed and wrote "The Great Train Robbery" and he co-wrote the script for the blockbuster "Twister."

In 1994, he created the award-winning TV hospital series "ER." He's even had a dinosaur named for him, Crichton's ankylosaur.

I read most of Crichton’s books during my early teenage years, and have reread many several times over. At the beginning, I didn’t absorb any of the deeper points or scientific suggestiveness and read purely for the enjoyment of the suspenseful and creative plots, which more often than not had the sort of wonderful violence that every lad adores.

As I grew older, however, and read his works of the last decade, I became more aware of his use of plot as a pretext to explore various real world issues. Especially in his later works, most notably State of Fear, the plots and characters are pretty thin gruel, with the reader meant to chew less on the imaginary than the real. (Consider that in State of Fear, one of the main characters is described as having earned his PhD at Caltech at 20, completing a Harvard law degree in two years, almost qualifying for the Olympic ski team, summiting dangerous mountain peaks as a hobby, and working both as a full professor at MIT and as a commando for the National Security Intelligence Agency—I believe rhetoricians call this technique “piling it on.”) Still, the breadth of his knowledge was astounding, from genetics and cloning to nanotechnology and quantum physics, and from law and technology to art and culture, and many of his books taught me something.

Beyond his written words, I grew to respect Crichton as a pubic thinker and speaker. Crichton had the admirable quality of, as he put it, looking at data himself rather than relying on the expert witness. He had a scientific mind and a keen intellect, and though I’m sure I didn’t share all of his sympathies, I wish there were more like him. One can only hope that one day in the future, archaeologists will discover a mosquito preserved in California amber, and, drawing upon the DNA still present in its belly, begin using life to imitate art.