Michael Crichton has a distinguished academic background. He obtained his first degree, in anthropology, at Harvard, and later qualified in medicine at the Harvard Medical School. He then did post-doctoral fellowship study at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. This strong scientific background is reflected in everything he writes.
State of Fear is, by my count, his fourteenth novel under his own name, and his books have been extremely successful since the beginning. His first novel, The Andromeda Strain, was a considerable success and was filmed. His most famous book is perhaps Jurassic Park. He has also written and directed movies; and he created the TV series ER.
Crichton's genre is, I suppose, the techno-thriller, though you could equally well call most of his books science fiction. The precise description doesn't matter: the point is, he knows how to write popular fiction which grips the imagination.
Judged as a thriller, State of Fear is, in my opinion, pretty run of the mill. Indeed in places I found it positively banal and almost inadvertently comic. The big surprise which is brought out at the end has been obvious for some 300 pages.
True, Crichton is exceptionally good at putting his good guys into desperate peril and then describing how they get out of it; but in this book Crichton was not, I suspect, particularly interested in the thriller framework, which is why the writing is, overall, somewhat less than distinguished.
What Crichton really wanted to write about was what is generally referred to as global warming. And he probably thought long and hard before writing about this topic in a fictional context at all. (He had previously written four non-fiction books. Consider, for instance, Five Patients, in which Crichton expresses some pretty robust views about doctors.)
I hesitate to condense Crichton's opinions on global warming into one sentence. He has, after all, given us a 567-page novel on that theme, plus an author's message and three appendices, including a lengthy annotated bibliography. However, I think it is fair to say that he believes that there is more nonsense talked about global warming than about any other scientific topic in the modern era. Time after time in State of Fear he quotes data which demonstrate that most newspaper reports, and virtually all television programmes, which make reference to global warming, are based on thoroughly half-baked and only dimly understood science.
In his author's message, Crichton tells us that he spent three years on reading environmental texts. The difference between Crichton and me, and, I imagine, most other readers of this blog, is that Crichton can go back to the original scientific research, as published in the most reputable academic journals, and read the papers with a critical eye.
As a result, State of Fear was much more interesting, to me, for the quotations from the academic literature than it was as a thriller. Just to give a few brief examples:
Did you know that, at West Point in New York, there has been no change in the average temperature over the last 174 years? In Punta Arenas, the city closest to Antarctica, the average temperature has fallen by about 0.6 degrees C between 1888 and 2004. In Antarctica itself, there is one small peninsula which is melting and calving huge icebergs. It's been melting for the last 6,000 years, and as a result the sea levels have indeed been rising: they've risen by four to eight inches every hundred years. But the rest of Antarctica is getting colder, and the ice is getting thicker.
Crichton is really much more interested in considering these data than he is in driving along his thriller. As a result, there are times when the characters simply stop the action and make speeches to each other. One of the speeches which caught my eye was that of the character (not a thousand miles from Crichton himself, perhaps) who bitterly criticises modern universities.
The universities transformed themselves in the 1980s. Formerly bastions of intellectual freedom... they now became the most restrictive environments in modern society.... Universities today are factories of fear. They invent all the new terrors and all the new social anxieties. All the new restrictive codes. Words you can't say. Thoughts you can't think.... Foods that are bad for you. Behaviours that are unacceptable. Can't smoke, can't swear, can't screw, can't think. These institutions have been stood on their heads in a generation.Over the years, Crichton has spent a great deal of time in Hollywood, and he has clearly had his fill of big-time stars and celebrities who latch on to the latest fad in order to demonstrate their concern for society at large. In this book, Crichton gets his revenge: the principal Hollywood asshole gets eaten by cannibals.
For my part, what little I know about global warming is derived from the very sources that Crichton so deeply despises: the better-class newspapers and magazines. However, I have never been convinced by arguments that our environment is deteriorating because of carbon emissions. And in any case, even if I was so convinced, I think I would also take the view that it's going to be very difficult to do anything about it.
If you read The World is Flat, you will discover that the developing nations, such as India and China, are fast acquiring their own affluent middle class. So pretty soon the global-warming brigade are going to have to say to these people something along the following lines: Sorry, boys. We in the west have all got our motor cars and fridges and air conditioning and central heating, but you can't have all those things because it will destroy the environment.
Somehow I don't think that's going to play very well in downtown Beijing.
And another thing. If we're talking about the earth's atmosphere, for example, perhaps we ought to remember that the earth is currently on its third atmosphere anyway. (The first two didn't last.) And perhaps we ought to remember that, for the last 700,000 years, the planet has been in a geological ice age, characterised by advancing and retreating glacial ice.
'No one,' says Crichton, 'is entirely sure why, but ice now covers the planet every hundred thousand years, with smaller advances every twenty thousand or so. The last advance was twenty thousand years ago, so we're due for the next one.'
To read more of what Crichton has to say on environmentalism, read his 2003 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.