Saturday, April 14, 2007

Would you take Michael Crichton's word for anything?

Got involved in an extended discussion of Michael Crichton this week, courtesy of Jon Adams of the “How do facts travel?” project at LSE.

Not a popular science author (though I dare say he could have been) but lots of people uneasy about his use of fiction to support arguments about science issues. The most troubling example seems to be State of Fear, which I don’t know. But his latest, Next, comes across as less objectionable in some ways. I think it feels that way to me because it just seems part of a tradition of mixing fact and fiction in discussing biotech. OK, it is an uncomfortable genre violation to have a novel which has an addendum in which the author suddenly appears to tell you his “conclusions” from his “research”. But one’s unease is somehow quieted by the fact that it is a hilariously bad novel – clunky, unoriginal, badly written: an unthrilling techno-thriller. F. Paul Wilson’s Sims, from 2003, has many of the same ingredients and does a far better job with them. Also, Crichton’s “conclusions” this time are commonplace. Lets not patent DNA. You can’t stop biotechnology but we really ought to think about it.

Crichton’s procedure isn’t new, either, of course. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake makes much of contemporary biotech news, and you can still look up the headlines which she wove into her story on the book’s website – though there wasn’t actually one about a scientist who decides to destroy humanity using a genetically engineered virus because, well, he can, as featured in the book. Further back, the great British SF writer John Brunner showed Atwood how it could be done more than 30 years earlier in Stand on Zanzibar. His arresting picture of a possible future, inspired in part by the John Dos Passos’ 1930s vision of the USA, mixes real and made-up news reports, letters, diaries, and conventional narrative.

On the other (that is, "non-fiction"!)side, there was David Rorvik’s largely forgotten book In His Image, a novel presented and published as non-fiction in the late ‘70s, in which science reporter Rorvik portrayed the first human clone. And Lee Silver used fictional vignettes of people grappling with future genetic technologies all through Remaking Eden in 1998. Like Rorvik, Silver is a poor fiction writer (though an interesting writer), so his little fictions, though clearly framed as stories to think with, fell a bit flat.

Conclusion? Mixed. You need to be a really good novelist to bring off this kind of thing. Atwood is one, but Oryx and Crake isn’t her best work, as seems to happen when literary novelists wander into SF territory. (Everyone seems to think more highly of The Handmaid's Tale than I do, too.) Crichton’s current fiction is hobbled, even by his techno-thriller standards, by his new-found addiction to preaching. Biotech is everywhere – and tends to be more interesting when it is just, as is increasingly often the case, a taken for granted feature of the landscape (White Teeth, Cloud Atlas) rather than the main thing driving the narrative.

And mixing up fact and fiction, without making it clear which is which? I’m not in favour. But it is, at least, a reminder that when it comes to writing about the future everyone, scientists included, is making up stories.


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