Michael Crichton 1942–
(Full name John Michael Crichton; has also written under the pseudonyms Jeffrey Hudson and John Lange, and with Douglas Crichton under joint pseudonym Michael Douglas) American novelist, nonfiction writer, screenwriter, film director, and autobiographer.
The following entry focuses on Crichton's career from 1981 to 1995. For further information about his life and work, see CLC, Volumes 2, 6, and 54.
Crichton is best known as a novelist of popular fiction whose stories explore the limitations of a humanistic worldview in the age of advanced technology. Jurassic Park (1990), his best-selling novel about re-creating living dinosaurs from preserved DNA fragments, examines the dangers of exploiting and coming to rely on highly sophisticated scientific breakthroughs, like computers and biogenetic engineering, whose "inherent unpredictability" ultimately mocks humankind's belief that it can control its world. Although a number of critics fault Crichton for stereotypical characterizations and trite plotlines, many have praised his taut, suspenseful, and fast-paced stories, his entertaining narrative style, and his ability to convey technical information in a readable, exciting manner.
Crichton was born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised on Long Island, New York. When he was fourteen, he wrote and sold travel articles to the New York Times. In 1964 he earned a B. A. in anthropology from Harvard University. Returning to Harvard in 1965 to pursue a career in medicine, Crichton began writing novels under the pseudonym John Lange in order to support his studies. While doing postdoctoral work at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, Crichton published The Andromeda Strain (1969), a popular thriller, and soon began a full-time writing career. Crichton is also a respected figure in the motion picture and entertainment industries. In 1972 he adapted his novel Binary (1971) for television and then began writing and directing his own films, including Westworld (1973), The Great Train Robbery (1979), Looker (1981) and Runaway (1984). He is also the creator of the critically acclaimed television drama E.R.
Crichton has written on a variety of subjects and in a variety of genres: The Great Train Robbery, for example, recalls the history of an actual train robbery in Victorian England; the 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead explores the myths of tenth-century Vikings; the nonfiction work Electronic Life (1983) focuses on the practical applications of computers; and Travels (1988) is an autobiographical account of Crichton's life. He first established himself, however, as the author of Odds On (1966) and A Case of Need (1968), detective novels written under the pseudonyms John Lange and Jeffrey Hudson, respectively, while he was in medical school. Crichton is best known, though, for his work in the science fiction genre. Writing under his own name, he published The Andromeda Strain in 1969, a novel about a seemingly unstoppable plague brought to Earth from outer space; he has said that this story was influenced by Len Deighton's The Ipcress File (1962) and H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898). In his film Westworld, he depicted modern Americans as jaded individuals who depend on technology as a means of escaping reality. At the Delos theme park, guests live out their fantasies in various "worlds" populated by androids. Westworld guests, for example, stay in an "Old West" town where they win all their gunfights and brawls because the androids are programmed to lose. Computer programming problems occur, however, and the robotic cowboys begin to threaten and harm the guests. Congo (1980) similarly explores the dangers of technology, greed, and power. Likened to H. Rider Haggard's adventure novel King Solomon's Mines (1885), Congo tells the story of a behavioral scientist who attempts to return a gorilla capable of linguistic communication to the jungle. In the process they must overcome the ruthless activities of a group of corporate-sponsored explorers who are searching for the Lost City of Zinj, where a band of hostile apes guards a cache of rare diamonds. An encounter with alien life and technology is the central focus of Sphere (1987). Scientists investigating an alien spacecraft that landed in the ocean three centuries earlier get trapped inside the extraterrestrials' ship during a raging storm and are set upon by aliens. In 1990 Crichton published his best-seller Jurassic Park, which tells of greed and technological experimentation gone awry. Set in a wild animal preserve called Jurassic Park, the novel relates how a wealthy entrepreneur and his scientists lose control of the living dinosaurs they have recreated from preserved DNA fragments. Steven Spielberg's 1994 Academy Award-winning film of Jurassic Park—for which Crichton helped write the screenplay—ensured the worldwide popularity of the novel. In more recent works, Crichton turned away from such fantastic tales. Focusing on contemporary Japanese-American relations, Rising Sun (1992) begins with the murder of a young woman and explores the seemingly exploitative and unprincipled actions of Japanese businessmen. Disclosure (1994), which is also set in the business world, examines the issue of sexual harassment. Reversing the traditional tale of a patriarchal abuse of power, Crichton's novel concerns a female executive who accuses a subordinate male employee—with whom she was once romantically involved—of sexual harassment when he spurns her advances. The story focuses on the employee's fight to save his job and reveal the truth. In The Lost World (1995), a sequel to Jurassic Park, Crichton returns to such science fiction themes as genetic engineering and the misuse of technological capabilities. This work focuses on scientists and entrepreneurs investigating an island thought to be inhabited by dinosaurs.
Crichton's works have received mixed reviews. Initially praised for his detective stories—he received the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America in 1968—he is recognized by most critics for his ability to make technological information understandable and engaging. Some, however, have argued that his plotlines—such as the battle-of-the-sexes scenario in Disclosure and the well-worn story line of Jurassic Park, which exploits the fear of scientific advancement—are hackneyed and predictable. While some critics have favorably commented on Crichton's well-organized narratives and use of clear and simple prose, they also lament his use of stock characters. For instance, the unprincipled entrepreneur John Hammond and the greedy computer genius Nedry of Jurassic Park are seen as caricatures, while the female antagonist of Disclosure is seen as a predictable femme fatale. As Robert L. Sims has asserted, most of "Crichton's characters are one-dimensional figures whose psychological makeups are determined by the particular drama in which they are involved." A few commentators have also remarked on Crichton's ability to identify and successfully capitalize on current public issues and concerns. For example, Disclosure examines the issue of sexual harassment in the business world, and Rising Sun focuses on the fear associated with Japan's growing presence in American business. These two novels, however, have also generated criticism. Disclosure has been compared to the film Fatal Attraction (1987) for its sexist depiction of predatory women and weak men, and Rising Sun was deemed racist for its presentation of the Japanese as ruthlessly bent on destroying the American economy. Nevertheless, Crichton's concise prose style, tightly organized plots, and examination of contemporary concerns continue to make his works popular.