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by Michael Crichton

(HarperCollins, 367 pages, hardcover, $26.95; November 25 2002)

It is almost impossible to doubt that the bestselling sf novel of 2002 will be Michael Crichton's Prey; it is only cover scanmarginally less certain that, when lists are compiled by the book trade of bestsellers published in that year in various categories, and of the relative financial performances of one category against another, that Prey will be conspicuous by its absence from most if not all of the sf rolls.

Why? Because, despite the fact that it is a fiction set in the near future whose plot depends on an extrapolation from current science, it's not really, you see, a science-fiction novel at all. It's in a different category altogether.

That category is called "Bestsellers".

Now, just before you dismiss this as a trivial point, be aware that the name of the category is somewhat misleading. "Bestsellers" is a marketing term, and by no means all of the books in this category actually sell well. Rather, they are works which the book trade decides in advance of publication have the potential to bestsell, and to which the trade therefore devotes a hugely disproportionate amount of money to be expended upon a marketing campaign designed to persuade readers that this book is among the very best current products of the publishing industry. Such a judgement is based not on any bookseller actually reading the damn' thing -- perish the thought! -- but simply on a combination of publisher's hype, author's sales track record, cover design, blurb (although even this may not be read), a certain amount of (legal) corruption, and so forth.

Which is not to say that all bestsellers do not deserve their status; simply to explain what the marketing category "Bestsellers" is.

After that preliminary digression, what of this specific example itself?

In this reviewer's experience, Michael Crichton's novels have a bad habit of reading as they were movie novelizations written before the fact. Almost all of them have indeed been filmed, and some of those movies have been among the cinema industry's great blockbusters of the past few decades: The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park (and its sequel Jurassic Park II: The Lost World) are the most notable examples, but others like Rising Sun and Sphere should not be forgotten ... although some, like The Terminal Man and The Great Train Robbery (vt The First Great Train Robbery), have advisedly been.

Part of this criticism is true of Prey; or, to be more accurate, this criticism is true of parts of Prey, but they're the least interesting parts -- as you might expect -- and in a curious way don't affect in any substantive way one's opinion of the novel as a whole.

Jack is a high-flying, cutting-edge computer programmer out of work because, in his last job, he attempted to whistle-blow concerning the corrupt dealings of his boss; as a result, he was fired and a whispering campaign was started within the industry to besmirch his name. His wife Julia more than compensates for the drop in family income, however, being herself a high-flyer in the nanotechnology company Xymos; so financially it's no great problem that Jack stays at home as a house husband and father while searching for a job. However, and even though he in many ways hugely enjoys this role, it does bring about psychological insecurities; and at first it is to these that he attributes his growing conviction that Julia is having an affair.

His youngest child falls ill with a mysterious skin inflammation -- an inflammation that abruptly disappears when the toddler is placed in the MRI chamber for a magnetic scan. Julia accidentally drives her car off the road and, although pretty badly injured, in hospital vociferously refuses to allow herself to be subjected to an MRI scan.

Jack is suddenly phoned by his old company. One of the programs he created for them is being used by Xymos, and is causing problems -- not because of any fault in the program's writing but because Xymos have been a tad overambitious in its application. Could Jack step in as a consultant to sort things out? He sees this as an opportunity to get to the truth about Julia's supposed affair, accepts the job, and is immediately on the way -- even as she lies in her hospital bed -- to Xymos's nanotechnology manufacturing plant somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert.

The particular sphere of programming that is Jack's speciality is that whereby AI is approached not through trying to design an artificial intelligence from above, as it were -- through the design of a comprehensive program that will, hopefully, cover every problem the AI might encounter -- but through the creation of large numbers of basic units which are given relatively few rudimentary rules; these units, interacting, will evolve new behaviour patterns of their own, and this evolution may generate something that, if not a sophisticated artificial intelligence, will be something that looks pretty goddam like it. The parallel here is with the so-called "group mind" of ants and termites: an individual termite has so little intelligence that it's probably wrong even to use the word, but has just enough to grasp a couple of simple rules or imperatives, and it is through the application of these rules or imperatives that colonies of thousands and millions of termites display behaviour patterns that include architectural feats so sophisticated that even we ourselves would have difficulty countenancing them.

Xymos has applied such principles to swarms of nanobots, and has released several swarms into the desert in order to accelerate their evolution -- their development of exploitable quasi-intelligence. This stratagem has worked far more effectively than Xymos anticipated; unfortunately, the swarms have evolved out of control. Worse still, their imperatives have driven them, so that they may build more nanobots, to seek fresh organic material -- in other words, to become killers of living creatures, humans included should humans be available.

That's the first and by far the most interesting part of the book, and it's made even more interesting not just by the author's uncharacteristically sure handling of Jack's situation and introspections but by his copious infodumping: the flashing to and fro between a genuine narrative zeal and fascinating tidbits related to programming, nanotechnology and animal behaviour creates a fine tension.

Then, inexorably, the "Film me! Film me!" side of Crichton takes over as Jack and a steadily attritioned band of Xymos workers endeavour to destroy the swarms through penetrating their hive, blowing things up, enacting cunning plans, and so on. They are countered by not just the swarms but those humans, including Julia and her supposed lover, who have been taken over by swarms of nanobots and thereby made fitter, stronger and a whole lot nastier: there are things out there, Jim, with which man was never meant to meddle...

The cracking-adventure part of the book is competently enough handled that one is never positively bored, and certainly it contains more than a sufficiency of filmic set pieces, some designed to take advantage of the very latest CGI special effects. Faces dissolving? -- we gottem! Near-invisible swarms of nanobots coalescing into human simulacra? -- right on! Fisticuffs in a Frankensteinian laboratory? -- you betcha! A daring venture into a creepily atmospheric subterranean hive with spooooooky lighting and lotsa explosions? -- Crichton's your man! Even so, its melodrama does seem a heck of a let-down after all the careful work of the first part of the book; the pages may turn faster, but that's merely because there's far less on each of them to engage the interest.

Crichton's denouement is effective within these limitations, and perfectly satisfying in context even although by this time one doesn't believe a word of it ... which creates a slight dichotomy of the intellect, because the very last thing in the book is a three-page bibliography of perfectly sober books and articles, and one finds oneself looking at this, too, with a sort of tolerant, amused incredulity.

Overall, however, this is a pretty good sf novel, and it's also pretty good as "Bestsellers" go -- indeed, the first 140 pages or so are sufficiently fine that you won't have wasted your money even if you don't bother reading the rest of the book. So in a way one begrudges the novel its bestsellerdom very little alongside some of the genuine drek, the truly witless pabulum, that's hyped to the top of the sales charts.

That said, is it not slightly galling that, purely because of the arbitrary classification of this book (like all of Crichton's novels) by the book trade, it is likely to sell several hundred times as many hardback copies in the USA as other sf novels of a similar type that are at least as good and quite often better. The best 2002 novel that this reviewer read was likewise a near-future sf tale, likewise extremely accessible to a mainstream readership, gripped far more absorbingly than even Crichton's first 140 pages and kept this up for the entire book ... yet Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark was classified by the trade (and indeed its publisher) not as a "Bestseller" but as "that sci-fi stuff", so that 99% of the readers dodging the fortress walls built out of copies of Prey at the entrance to every Barnes & Noble in the land will never even have heard of Moon's book, let alone think to buy it.

Perhaps Michael Crichton, for his next speculation concerning near-future developments, might choose to focus on the US publishing and bookselling industry.

Review by John Grant.

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