Avon, 2003 (2002)
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Reviewed by David Pitt
ichael Crichton has been having a very interesting career. The med student who wrote novels to pay for his education published, in his last year at Harvard, a thriller called
The Andromeda Strain
. It sold a few copies, got optioned by Hollywood, and Crichton never did practice medicine. Later, while he wrote one imaginative novel after another, he branched out into film, directing several movies with varying degrees of success, and television, where he created the popular series
. He's also written nonfiction: a memoir,
; a biography of the painter Jasper Johns; a couple of others. He's even won a Technical Achievement Academy Award.
lthough they vary widely in subject matter, Crichton's novels (mostly) have one thing in common: rigorous research, and, no matter how seemingly far-fetched the premise, a thoroughly realistic presentation. He's written about viruses, robotics, time travel, air safety, super-intelligent primates. He has, from time to time, performed variations on a theme: Several elements of
, his film about a robotic theme park gone haywire, reappeared, a couple of decades later, in a little ditty called
n a long line of far-fetched premises, though,
is -- in my opinion, at least -- the most fanciful of his novels. In a nutshell: a research facility in Nevada is conducting cutting-edge research into nanotechnology -- the creation of molecule-sized machines that are designed to operate as a group. They've vented a cloud of these nanoparticles into the outside world; because of their programming (these particles are essentially really teensy computers), they have memory, and the ability to learn. The swarm is, if you care to put it that way, alive -- and dangerous. And only one man, the designer of the software used to program the micro-robots, can stop it ...
es, this is wild and wacky stuff. Yes, it seems particularly fantastic, even for a man who asked us to imagine cloned dinosaurs on an island off Costa Rica. But it works. No matter what Crichton writes about, it (almost) always works. The man does an enormous amount of research --
has a three-page bibliography -- and he seems to know exactly how much of it to put into a novel. Here, he explains the field of nanotechnology just enough to allow us to understand there is a factual basis for his fiction; he designs, and describes, a research facility so detailed that we easily believe it could be manufacturing these deadly little beasties; he provides a plausible explanation for every aspect of the swarm's behavior, no matter how science-fictiony it is.
nd, most important, he builds characters realistic enough, and complex enough, that he can safely put wads of technical dialogue in their mouths without giving us the feeling we're being lectured. I think that must be the trickiest part of writing a novel like this; there are things Crichton needs us to know, and, rather than slow the story down with page upon page of narrative exposition, he wants us to listen in on conversations that make everything nice and clear. But how to do this, without making it seem clunky or, worse, boring? It must take a lot of hard work to make his characters' information-laden dialogue seem realistic and natural, and when he succeeds, as he does here, it's a testament to his skills as a storyteller.
his best novel? No. (My own nominee for that honor:
. And I don't care what anyone else says.) But it is a lot of fun and, despite its way-out-there premise, entirely believable.
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