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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1160

John Michael Crichton (KRI-tuhn), son of Zula (Miller) Crichton and John Henderson, onetime president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, grew up in Roslyn, Long Island. He was the oldest of four children, including two sisters and a brother, Douglas, with whom he collaborated under the joint pseudonym Michael...

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John Michael Crichton (KRI-tuhn), son of Zula (Miller) Crichton and John Henderson, onetime president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, grew up in Roslyn, Long Island. He was the oldest of four children, including two sisters and a brother, Douglas, with whom he collaborated under the joint pseudonym Michael Douglas. Frequently described as an overachiever, Crichton sold his first writing at age fourteen. He intended to major in writing in college, but instead he studied anthropology at Harvard University, from which he graduated summa cum laude with an A.B. in 1964, adding the M.D. degree in 1969. By the time that he had completed medical school at age twenty-six, Crichton had written six mystery novels, five potboilers, and a more promising work entitled A Case of Need, which earned for him the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America. The novel features a doctor who performs abortions; he is arrested for the murder of a teenager who dies as the result of an operation that he did not perform.

Because Crichton no longer intended to practice medicine after graduation and because his dean was aware of his growing fame as a writer (The Andromeda Strain had been accepted for publication), he was allowed to alter his last year of studies at Massachusetts General Hospital and research the book Five Patients: The Hospital Explained. In Five Patients, Crichton not only documents cases but also offers a convincing analysis of both the training of physicians and the quality of health care available in the United States.

Meanwhile, The Andromeda Strain launched his career as a best-selling novelist. Capitalizing on peak interest in high technology and the space race, the plot tells of four scientists in a Nevada desert laboratory located underground; they have five days to save the world from an alien bacterial strain brought to Earth when an unmanned U.S. research satellite unexpectedly returns. A formula effort written in the style of Crichton’s hero, Alfred Hitchcock, The Andromeda Strain was condemned by critics because of its forgettable characters and lack of passion but was well received by the general public because of its swift plot and facile writing.

The Terminal Man utilized up-to-date medical knowledge about stereotaxic procedures and brought Crichton further popular attention. Thirty-four-year-old Harold Benson suffers from psychomotor epilepsy and consequently becomes the first human being to have a computer implanted in his brain. Again, Crichton uses a time-lapse crisis to build the climax. Like The Andromeda Strain, this book quickly received a film offer, inevitably inviting comparison to the James Bond novels. Crichton received both praise for its verisimilitude and scorn for what some critics dismissed as cheap entertainment.

Now Crichton was in limbo: “I had graduated from Harvard, taught at Cambridge, climbed the Great Pyramid, earned a medical degree, married and divorced, . . . published two best-selling novels, and . . . made a movie.” The Great Train Robbery, set in London in 1855, was his next effort. Based on the heist of valuable gold bullion worth twelve thousand pounds and intended for British troops in the Crimea, this popular entertainment was made into a film in 1979, with the author serving as director. One critic complained of the novel’s “little essays and digressions.” Another called it a ballet mecanique. Still, Crichton succeeded as a popular storyteller.

He continued with the device of using purported historical evidence, like William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, and others before him, in Eaters of the Dead, his tribute to Beowulf and King Rothgar’s Meade Hall. The plot centers on a document attributed to Ibn Fadlan, a tenth century Turkish emissary to Russia who chronicled his abduction by Norsemen and his subsequent aid in their defeat of cannibals who ate the fallen warriors. Literary scholars praised Crichton’s work, while popular critics argued against its density and pedantry.

Crichton’s impressionistic biographical tribute Jasper Johns makes connections between himself, modern American artist Johns, and admirers who want to understand Johns’s creative process. Conversational in tone and illustrated with sixty color plates, the material was praised as “perfectly suited to its subject.”

In Congo, a group of four—including a communicative gorilla named Amy—sets out to acquire a cache of industrial diamonds located at a ruined city in the interior of Africa. Aided by a satellite computer hookup to their Texas base, their quest ultimately pits them against a troop of gorillas trained to guard the site. Despite unfavorable comparisons to the film work of Walt Disney and George Lucas, Crichton’s novel climbed the best-seller list.

Sphere focuses on Norman Johnson, a professor of psychology who, along with several other specialists representing various fields, is called to a crash site in the Pacific Ocean where a huge spaceship has fallen from the sky. The group must assess the possible threat. With a nod to Jules Verne and a bow to The Andromeda Strain, Sphere is an example of slick formula writing. With this work Crichton appears to be trapped in repeated patterns.

In the nonfiction Travels, Crichton captivatingly re-creates the journeys he has made—inward and outward—to increase his knowledge and locate background material for his novels. The memoir recalls his medical school years and his many excursions to foreign lands in the 1970’s, providing insights into the man and the writer.

Crichton’s next foray was into Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs have been engineered from fossilized DNA for a theme park. The devastation which occurs when security fails spawned a blockbuster Steven Spielberg film noted for its special effects and slim story line (the film underemphasized the book’s questioning of scientific ethics).

The next two novels returned to the real world and an exploitation of social concerns. In Rising Sun a young woman is murdered at the Japanese embassy. Disclosure takes on the theme of sexual harassment, with the harassed employee being a male in the fast-paced computer industry. The book and the film made of it aroused a great deal of controversy and discussion for its possibly antifeminist stance. In 1995 Chrichton returned to the world of dinosaurs with a Jurassic Park sequel entitled The Lost World. Airframe is the story of an airplane disaster and an investigator’s attempts to find out what happened; it was felt to have entertainingly authentic detail hitched to a routine plot. Timeline uses a time-travel frame to propel a team of historians from 1999 back to 1357 France, where they become stuck and must cope with the alien culture that is medieval Europe. In many ways, Timeline was a return to the historical swashbuckler that Crichton had created in Eaters of the Dead, and it may not have been coincidental that he published Timeline just as a movie version of Eaters of the Dead, which Crichton codirected, hit the theaters. Prey is a return to the dangers-of-uncontrolled-science theme, this time revolving around nanotechnology. Crichton published two more novels, State of Fear (2004) and Next (2006) before his death from cancer on November 4, 2008. He was 66.

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