Thought of primarily as a writer of slick, exciting popular fiction, Michael Crichton has received far more praise for the sensational premises of his novels and their action-fueled plots than for his writing style, which is at best serviceable and at worst far less imaginative than his story lines. A chief importance of Crichton in popular American fiction of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, however, is his adroit manipulation of science-fiction texts, as he boldly rewrote and reenvisioned the more far-fetched and fanciful stories of classic fantastic novels and films within a framework of straightforward “hard” science as he perceived it as a working scientist. As such, Crichton rivals Stephen King as the foremost “pop” practitioner of metafiction (fiction addressing the reading and writing of fiction) and intertextuality (text addressing other texts), trends in literature usually associated with belletristic, “highbrow” writers.
For example, as some reviewers noted when his second best seller, The Terminal Man, was published, the book is in many ways an update of Frankenstein, byMary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who, because of this 1818 novel, is often seen as the originator of the modern science-fiction genre. In the early 1880’s, electricity was still a fairly new discovery and hence a mysterious force, and so Shelley’s suggestion that it might somehow revitalize inert limbs and organs seemed not implausible. Today, however, such an idea is laughable. In The Terminal Man, then, Crichton rewrites Shelley’s scenario: The “monster” is not a creature stitched together from cadavers but a living man beset by physical and emotional ailments whose brain has been wired so as to control his moods and impulses, thereby giving him a new life. These procedures as described may be in advance of contemporary science, but they still fall within the realm of near-future possibilities.
Likewise, in Next, Crichton reworks H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, that seminal science-fiction writer’s exploration of the borderlands between humanity and other species. Whereas in 1896 Wells had Dr. Moreau create humanoid creatures from animals through painful operations, Crichton’s characters employ more believable twenty-first century science involving DNA and gene splicing. Consciously or unconsciously, Crichton seems to have devoted much of his career to creating a vast patchwork quilt of intertextual reconstructions of classic science-fiction stories.
Crichton’s dedication to “real” science is his most obvious and recurrent theme. Many reviewers and even ardent fans of his work have assumed that Crichton’s principal concern is with the dangers of science run amok, as is the case with Shelley in Frankenstein. However, although Shelley was indeed concerned with scientific inquiry and invention going so far as to be dangerous and dehumanizing, Crichton is more specific: His fiction addresses the dangers posed by science when it is corrupted by outside influences, most commonly business, the government and military, and popular media.
The Andromeda Strain
The first novel published under Crichton’s own name—and his first work that was not a conventional murder mystery—The Andromeda Strain remained until the publication of Jurassic Park in the 1990’s Crichton’s most widely read book. In it, we see at the inception of his career as a best-selling science-fiction/thriller writer the themes and techniques that he used most consistently throughout his life. The plot is simple and fast-moving: A space probe crashes in the American Southwest bearing a dangerous microscopic organism that causes the death of an entire town except for one small boy and one old man. A team of scientists must...
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