by Michael Crichton
HarperCollins Hardcover :ISBN 0066214122 November 2002
Review by Alex Lightman
352 pages List price $26.95
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A few weeks ago I received an email from Christine Peterson, the director of the Foresight Institute warning of a backlash against nanotechnology because, in Michael Crichton's new book, Prey, the nanotech company that employs the primary characters, in its desperation to stay in business, didn't follow the Foresight guidelines for research. Since all of nanotechnology has been science fiction from its conceptual origin in 1959 during a speech by Caltech's famous Prof. Richard Feynman up to the present, fictional criticism actually can hurt the real world chances of its embryonic field. Sort of like hurting a human in the Matrix also hurts them in the real world. As such, I wondered whether Crichton's latest effort to commercially exploit people fears of new technology and rage against capitalist efforts to make money would do some good as well as harm.
I had to read this book and see for myself, since the idea of an intelligent nanoswarm sounded pretty derivative of Greg Bear's short story turned into a novel Blood Music, in which a research lets intelligent viruses loose into the world, with catastrophic consequences. Even the title was the name of Debra Messing and Anthony Ventresca's short lived TV series, Prey, before they went off to do Will and Grace and The Invisible Man, respectively. Could it be that, as life imitates art, that Crichton would write a novel about heedless replication by replicating the titles, themes and details of other works, including his own? The answer is yes yes yes.... In fact, the movie story that most resembles the danger from Prey is a synonym for a copy by a living organism: Mimic, a movie about genetically engineered creatures (roach/scorpion hybrids) that are released in New York that evolve to look like humans, only more deadly. But that's getting ahead of the story. We should look at Crichton's place and perspective before diving into the book.
Michael Crichton is in the pantheon of best selling authors whose members can be counted on one hand. If he were ever put on trial and attorneys were required to select a jury, they would have to get Stephen King and Tom Clancy, who have also had their novels become movies, television shows, and games, but after that there would be few who could legally called "peers". Part of the reason for their unparalleled nature is that all three prolific factories of prose are stealth science fiction writers, who manage their careers and associations, as well as their writing, so carefully that even editors don't know what they are doing in mimicking both SF topics and content but mainstream respectability by obsessing on the emotions of their lead characters and setting things in the modern day with plausible suggestions.
Science fiction is a vision of technology or mutation that people will pay to experience, and all three write books that depend upon technology or mutation to drive their books forward. This fiction that Crichton's work is not science fiction has real world implication. The book review editor of the LA Times has sworn that the LA Times would never, ever, review a science fiction book (according to first hand drop jawed eyewitnesses Greg Benford and David Brin, both of whom are successful nonfiction writers as well as award winning science fiction writers). Crichton's work is always reviewed, but might not be if he simply called it what it was. If time travel, extraterrestrial artifacts, intelligent gorillas, engineering dinosaurs, virtual reality with real world impacts, alien virus plagues, intelligent swarms, and cyborgs and androids running murderously amok are not science fiction, then what is? Yet these are the technologies uses to drive to Crichton's multimillion dollar novel/movie/franchise machines.
It may not be true that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but fiction writers and editors certainly come close, in a world ruled by fictional distinctions.
Michael Crichton's latest bestseller (because all his books are bestsellers) can be described in high concept, probably the same way he pitched it to his publishers: "It's The Andromeda Strain meets Jurassic Park plus Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Stepford Wives - that's the twist. You've got two - bam - two threats in one!"
In short, innovative commercial organisms (viral/bacterial in this case) escape and wreak havoc until they are blown up…but they still might be around for a sequel.
The story is written in a first person perspective by a wrongly fired Silicon Valley programming executive turned househusband whose wife seems to be stranger all the time. We start with the gender reversal so popular in The X-Files that has become more standard with the marketing of the story software Dramatica, which refers to thinking approaches as male mental sex and female mental sex. Julie, the wife/bitch/Enron-ethics exec seems to be having an intimate affair that's left her a little leaner and meaner, and with some parasites - excuse me, symbiotes - that infect her 9 month old. The sexually transmitted disease in this case is based on a Frankenstein semantic bouillabaisse of genetic algorithms, distributed computing, and molecular assemblers, integrated through the perspective of someone who watches the Animal Planet channel or plays Turok (the leading animal killing game) a bit too much.
Julia has been spending nights at a plant in Nevada desert where nanocameras are being built. A VP desperately seeking VC money to save the company when a military contract has been cancelled (a la Norman Osborne in Spider-Man), Julia and another colleague engineer a leak of hundreds of pounds to get the frankenmolecules to evolve themselves so that they can form a floating camera that doesn't get blown away by the wind. Surprise - the organisms continue to evolve, and the hero, Jack, must leave his full time fathering to go see what's happening after Julie has a car accident. Unfortunately, this is after 99 pages of mostly listening to the whining of Jack and Julia's nasty little beasts, Nicole (age 12) and Eric (age 8). I'm not sure why so much space is given to the children's dialogue - it makes you wish that they were killed off rather than sympathetic, and men without children will seriously consider a vasectomy, if this is what kids are like. I swear, if I hear "That's not fair" one more time…There is also a nine month old, Amanda, who is attacked by something that looks like a full body rash that disappears after an MRI, leaving her the color of Barney the singing dinosaur. Other than memory chips turning to dust in the MRI and Eric's walkman and Jack the hero brooding about his kid's arguments and his wife's evening showers, nothing much happens.
Once at the isolated molecular manufacturing plant courtesy of a helicopter, Jack is given a tour and finds that every person at the plant but the avuncular facilities manager worked for him in his last job, allowing him to see the subtle differences in their personalities and behavior. The plant tour is excellent: I felt as though I were there, and can imagine architects and engineers taking notes and making Powerpoints for client presentations based on what they read.
Crichton's work is cinematically successful in part because people will pay to see what things look like on the screen. It's the molecular assembly plant description that separates Prey from the other works mentioned. Nanotech stories and television always play the Wizard of Oz game, and don't take risks in saying how the machines and rooms are arranged. I felt as though I knew the factory, with its rooms that blew cold air and vacuumed, and contained machines like three story snowflakes with their fractal edges of diamonoid capillaries as well as Copenhagen visitors know the Carlsberg brewery (the one that gives free Elephant Beer at the end of each tour, thereby encouraging repeat visits and leaving visitors to stumble into the Danish afternoon with the knowledge that they've been there, and buzzing enough not to reflect on the fuzziness of missing details).
The first villains are dust devils (think of the Tasmanian Devil on Bugs Bunny cartoons, in tornado mode) that stalk and spring like carnivores on rabbits and people, swarming them and thereby choking them to death from anaphylactic shock. As one who swells up from dust and bee stings, I found this part was also original and believable.
There are several tension-raising scenes in which characters are chased by the little bugs (including one right out an X-Files episode when the bugs get into cars) and the good guys start to die (and have their bodies dragged off) one by one. At this point the believability starts to go. Why wouldn't Jack or anyone call 911 as soon as the first employees die? They all have email and most have cell phones, which work inside and out. It's over 12 hours and many explosions later before they even try.
I call them bugs because, as it turns out, they are actually not entirely nanotech organisms, but the comprised in large part bacteria - we don't really see all varieties clearly, so this is fuzzy - that can be killed by white blood cells, or phages, thereby sort of defeating the Luddite anti-nanotech drum that Crichton tries to beat in the nonfiction-style opening chapter. Well, yeah, we are indeed worried about bio-organisms and diseases. Crichton finesses the whole machine/animal thing by having characters declare them alive based on a few criteria that are true of other things that aren't considered alive. However, you can't really have it both ways. If they are machines, you can kill them with radiation, heat, etc. but not with a virus. If they are microorganisms that can be killed with biological means, then they are not really nanotechnology, and the book is a false warning.
In the course of evading the swarms of bugs Jack and his dwindling allies come across things they can use as weapons. Jack is increasingly suspicious of some of the others who seem to take deaths of colleagues a little too much in stride. One of them has increasingly well defined muscles, something that readers of Blood Music will recognize as a sign as clear as Intel's logo indicating "Nanomachines Inside" as they rebuild their host for optimum power.
Jack and the most biologically informed member, Mae, set out on ATVs to track the little bugs, who have been sprayed with radioactive Windex, in order to kill them, while, supposedly, those who have been infected secretly would have no problem with this.
The trio of heroes come across a termite mound atop a cave. Last night (Dec. 26), just as I started reading Prey, I saw the movie The 13th Warrior, based on the novel, The Eaters of the Dead, also by Michael Crichton. In this story the warriors must go deep, deep underground into a cave to kill one of the two sources of the evil that plagues them. The warriors escape, barely, with their lives, only to get back to base to face a more severe challenge.
If you've seen the 13th Warrior, basically the next part of Prey is pretty much the same: heroes go deep into cave, destroy one part of the evil, and escape. Jack, Mae and one other escape via a conveniently available helicopter (courtesy of Julia, who came out in the middle of the night) and find themselves back at the plant for a final showdown. I won't completely reveal the ending, other than to say that part of defeating the evil bugs involves drinking what looks like liquid shit, a memory of a sprinkler at home, an MRI unit, and out thinking organisms that are getting smarter by the minute using a clever and novel checkmate move.
I guess that the sort of stories that sell well, both as books and as movies, must follow some sort of formula, and perhaps there are only so many different things that a writer aiming to reach millions can do. However, the idea that I started with, Christine Peterson's fear that Prey could increase criticism and skew the debate over nanotech, leads me to conclude that Crichton is power tripping here. By starting with a nonfiction discussion of evolution and ending with a bibliography of only nonfiction books (when he should have included references to Bear's Blood Music and Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, whose localizers for visualization which are clearly inspirations/models for the bodybuilding bugs and nanocams, respectively), Crichton is clearly attempting to create the illusion that he wants to frame a debate on this subject. However, Crichton is not presenting a factual argument, but, rather, a series of scenes meant to drive the drama forward, many if not most of them drawn almost identically from his previous cinematic work and thus meant to be recalled as authentic experience, a sort of 'fact artifact'. The nonfiction is thus a cloud of nanononsense that isn't really taken into account, but whose inclusion is simply to distract from the obvious 100% fictional basis of everything.
A few points: Crichton says that the particles have memory, processing power, and batteries for at least three hours of operation even without light, as well as locomotive capability - all in an artifact that is on a nanotech scale. There is no evidence that this is possible; this aspect is completely made up. Crichton makes much of the fact that there is a softwired predator/prey relationship. Well, if software can be downloaded, then these organisms should be able to have additional software downloaded to them. They should be traceable, especially since almost a weeks production was purposefully released by people who wanted to turn the bugs into a commercial product. Also, why not put them into a greenhouse, a mini-Biosphere II so that evolution could take place but without losing the organisms, and to observe what changes they were going through, especially if they were expected to die overnight and their corpses would be needed for study and debugging?
Why not ask Jack in on the project weeks or months earlier, since his wife's fortunes are his own and Jack is the world expert in the operating system? If a woman was making an embedded computer built around Microsoft Windows code, wanted it to be successful, and she was married to the Microsoft product manager for embedded Windows code, wouldn't she ask him about things? The lack of communication, even before the venting, is not credible for people married for 13 hours, much less 13 years.
Why would one version of the bugs - one that which could understand human fears of threats to human survival, find it acceptable, even desirable, to kill off their closest relatives, when these could evolve into allies? What animal programming is that based on? No animals that I know of. They had a strong instinct for self-preservation, and they could have protected their cousin organisms in dozens of ways, including infection during sleep, touching ears or eyes, etc.
Crichton talks about business people as if they are money-grubbing predators and as if he isn't one himself, another act of hubris. Crichton wants the millions of dollars that comes from playing the leading Luddite, the Cassandra swollen with righteous warnings about what this technology will do as we make mistakes. He postures as one morally superior, like politicians who pretend that there is a social security account that the taxes go into (there is not - it's all spent) and then express outrage that Worldcom expenses its payments to monopoly Telco's. Crichton states, "We never seem to acknowledge that we have been wrong in the past, and so might be wrong in the future." This is utter nonsense. Crichton provides no examples. Mistakes are costly: consider the legal judgments regarding Thalidomide, Dalkon Shields, asbestos, tobacco, Iran-Contra, 50 million dead in World War II. Not only do people acknowledge mistakes from the past, they write thousands of books of alternate history to replay things with different circumstances with titles like Alternate Hitler and The Guns of the South. We have a multibillion dollar industry - the news media (which Crichton has cleverly branded by calling titled "Jurassic Journalism") - that gives everyone who wants to criticize something the chance to do so. Is there a single politician aiming for Christian votes who hasn't demonized genetic engineers as evil cloners? Jesse Jackson and others have generated millions by claiming that not enough has been done to acknowledge mistakes, but, as there is no standard for mass acknowledge, one can make this claim as self-evident, without providing evidence. Thus, we need to pay millions to Crichton to warn us about, say, technology.
And yet…people are richer today than they've ever been. When China pursued an anti-intellectual, anti-capitalist path, its people were poor and miserable, with a per capita income of $300 a year, about the same as India. After just over two decades in pursuit of wealth via the same sort of technophilic approach that Crichton decries, China's wealth has soared past India, and now has a per capita income that is over five times as large as India's. Enthusiasm for technology does thousands more good than harm, if one simply looks at the world we live in over time. Pessimism about technology causes more harm than good, as we have seen in an America that has lost two million jobs in the first two years of this millennium.
The business part of the book Prey, so strong in the factory description, is weak in the description of business logic and objectives. The CEO of Xymos would be checking in every few hours at the plant to see what was going on, but we never hear from him, and he would be sending waves of experts to check things out, rather than the unbriefed husband of Xymos's top VP, Julia, without even telling her.
It defies belief that a company that had 100% of its funding from DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) would create a weapons-grade nanoswarm - one that could provide security, surveillance, human impersonation, as well as follow predator/prey instructions, and yet make no deal with the US government, nor that the Pentagon would not express any interest in buying, testing, or using such as technology. DARPA funding typically implies that Defense (and other government departments) would have some uses without payment required. They would try it out, as there are many situations where such a collective camera could be used, such as indoors (where most of the value of something that could pass through windows and doors would be, anyway) and in environments with wind under 7 kilometers an hour, which includes most cities, most of the time, and areas in forest nearly all the time. The ability to see inside the human body would also be useful to an army fighting against biological weapons. In short, the military would love this, wind dissipation or not.
As for VC funding, wouldn't it have just been easier to have the bug take over a VC, who would then write a check? All it would take would be one, since VCs are the ultimate swarmers, preferring to invest in a group. There are other logical inconsistencies, but these will do to indicate that this is a work of fiction without consistency or a factual basis.
In the end, we return to Crichton's reputation, itself a swarm of titles and images like ER, Jurassic Park, Congo, Sphere, Disclosure, etc. that bypasses our skeptical faculties and takes over our brains. This meme swarm's power compels millions of us, myself included, to march into shopping malls and Borders as if pulled by the strings of puny puppet masters that have crossed the blood-brain barrier, to approach the termite's mound of Crichton books and to buy them. Once bitten, we are compelled to replicate the Buy Crichton shopping memes, by talking, or, in case of heavy infection, to write reviews about Crichton books. Yes, a self-replicating swarm has indeed been vented into the atmosphere, but this happened decades ago, and now there are hundreds of millions of antitechnology Luddites. The impact on our economy has been devastating: the dot com and telecom crashes, 95% drop in a majority of technology stocks, and deep cynicism about venture capital and entrepreneurship, the primary source of America's wealth and prosperity. We have met the source of small things that can do tremendous damage, and they are the ideas and images crafted and spawned by Master of Ceremonies Michael Crichton and his fellow cash-in-advance Cassandras to cause terror of technology. And thus does the self-preventing prophecy cause more harm than good.