Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Michael Crichton: State of Fear

Do you lie awake at night, worrying about global warming? Do you think our weather is deteriorating? Are you convinced that sea levels are going to rise and wash away London and New York? If so, perhaps you ought to read Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear, and then you might feel a bit better.

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.


Dee Jour said...

When I first read the novel a little while back, I thought it was racy and pretty much written to the airport fiction rhythm, a page turner if you will. After reading it, and taking into account Crichton's intellect and the 'between the line' data he provides, I also wondered whether the novel was written primarily to get people thinking about the media bombardment they'r receiving in terms of global warming, particularly right now as Al Gore is trying to reach a new audience and reinvent himself.

What Crichton says, between the lines, is interesting. In and among the data, there's also the reality that the temperature hasn't really varied that much, it's not so drastic as it's said to be. I was reading a newspaper article here in Sydney, promoting Al Gore's latest film vehicle, and it contained 'before and after' photographs but we're also living in the world of photoshop and one set of photographs didn't really seem so drastic either.

Al Gore, at this time, is prancing round the world going on about global warming, but in countries with a high population (namely India and China) and equally immense manufacturing schedule, we're also looking at global cooling, which means that pollution from such manufacture also affects the amount of light that gets through, and photosynthesis is an important process for biological processes. Funnily enough, it's all about global warming in the media, and I remember one little blurb on global cooling via New Scientist.

Then there's the other reality that environment organisations post profits in the multi millions. If anyone looked up the year end profits (2005) for Greenpeace they'd be startled, we're talking something like 200 million dollars(US) posted, and they're a corporation in the wider sense, but in the everyday sense, particularly in the city I live, they also use university students or any students wanting to make an extra buck, to gather donations by approaching most passersby in the street, including aged pensioners. Why don't corporations who manufacture (and produce emissions) provide a percentage of their annual profits to these organisations? Why does the everyday person who works, pays tax to their government etc, have to be confronted by, what essentially is, a 'corporate' beggar on the street asking for donations?

There's something up with that and Crichton's asides in the novel, the way he portrays these conglomerate 'greenie' organisations, isn't too far off. These people will enlist celebrites to influence everyday people, and no one really knows how much these celebrities get paid for endorsements, but they sure as hell get paid more than the average person representatives of these organisations approach on the street.

For me, what makes this novel a 'good' novel isn't the fancy wording, simile, metaphor and whatnot, but more its ability or the author's ability to make a person stop and think about everything they're being bombarded with via the media. Many media corporations also have to rely on advertising, therefore have to keep these other companies happy as well, and they're integrity isn't up to scratch most times.

I count State of Fear as one of Crichton's best novels, in terms of him using a novel in a more revolutionary manner. It's a subtle attack on organisations like Greenpeace, PETA and similar, who rely on Hollywood celebrities. The average person may buy a synthetic handbag, or a cheaper leather handbag, but these celebrities that these groups enlist to endorse their current marketing campaigns earn enough to initiate irrigation programs in small nations, but they don't because they need the money fo r their Louis Vuitton handbags and personal aircraft, and here they are telling people like you and me, to use Greenpeace approved shopping bags because plastic is 'evil'.

Maria said...

I haven't read the book, but why is it that those shouting loudest about the environment drive the biggest cars (and multiples ones at that) and have the largest mansions (and multiple ones at that)? Sure, we're all for the environment. No one is going to be against it.

I appreciated Anastasia's point of view on the matter. :>)

The media are just gullible star-struck mouth-pieces for politicians and celebrities that pick an easy topic and then want to be fawned over because they "care." Good grief.

Don said...

I'm sorry, but the science is not in doubt on this: Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have been rising dramatically for the last fifty years. It's not a cyclical thing, it's a rate of increase which is unprecedented (those who try to dispute it are disputing a lot more than this basic claim: They're effectively claiming that almost every scientist* studying the earth's atmosphere doesn't know how to collect data, that the error rates are so high that even though they show the difference between summer and winter in the northern hemisphere (more landmass so more plants converting CO2 to O2+Carbon), they miss out on much larger shifts in CO2 content.

Complain about celebrities all you like (and there are celebrities on both sides** of this issue). The science on this is really not being debated by serious scientists.

I find the comment about the earth being on its third atmosphere a bit odd. Sure it is, but of those three, this is the only one that I can breathe (and I suspect the same applies to you as well).

As for the developing middle classes in India and China, they're going to have to do the same thing that the existing middle classes in the west are going to have to do: Not live like we are now. That doesn't mean giving up refrigerators and cars, by the way, it means getting our electricity in different ways (something which is already beginning to happen, and would happen even faster with real leadership on the issue), and moving to automotive technology which doesn't pollute as much as the existing technology does (which, incidentally, is something that we're going to have to address in some way as things exist because we're at a point where oil demand is pretty much right up against oil supply).

And one more thing, conservation doesn't mean making that major of a lifestyle change. My first suggestion: Run down to the dollar store, buy a bunch of compact fluorescent bulbs and replace the lights that you use the most and watch what happens to your electric bill. Since CFL bulbs last much longer than regular incandescents, you'll make back the cost of the bulbs in lower light bulb costs alone, so the lower electric bill (and if you replace just the three bulbs you use the most, you'll see it in your electric bill) is pure savings. Eat environmentally friendly foods and you'll find that you're eating foods which are both better for your health and taste better as well. It's not a question of giving things up as making choices that are sustainable.

* Those employed by energy companies excepted

** Truth AND fiction

Don said...

Hey, EVERY GODDAMNED CAR I've bought, I've bought based to a very large extent on its gas milage. And as for those who shout the loudest, last I heard Ed Begley Jr was driving an electric car. Hell, living in Los Angeles, you can't walk a block without seeing a Prius. There are hypocrites out there, but don't generalize based on a sample of none.

Amol said...

A little too late:D
The mighty US has already started preaching the developing nations about the need to conserve energy, water, the environment and so on; but it's own citizens don't seem to be on any timetable to do the same. Most people still drive those gas-guzzling giants calles SUVs. Arnold "the terminator" has decided to implement strict environmental laws for controlling co2 gas emissions, but seems to have conveniently forgotten his own Hummer. This is the kind of two-faced preaching that has resulted in the developing world not trusting the US when it comes to any type of energy-conservation advice from the developed countries.

Maria said...

It's so trendy to pick on the US. :>)

Let's pick on China instead. They have far worse pollution and a far worse safety record.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I'm enjoying a blog by someone who doubts global warming and who is into alternative medicine and adlerian psychology. Suppose it shows I've got an open mind.

Martin R

Armchair Anarchist said...

I'd respect Crichton's 'well researched' background a lot more if he hadn't been given an exclusive 'award for journalism' by the US petroleum industry. He's a technophobe, and a player on the fears and hopes of the public in the name of selling books.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Mine is that global warming is a reality (backed up with substantial evidence garnered by people with no reason to fabricate it), and that Crichton, as a member of the big money set, knows how to keep the mutually powerful on his side. I must be insane...us leftie green-Earth hippies all are, after all.

James Aach said...

I know some of the scientists Mr. Crichton visited and interviewed during his work feel he misrepresented their views, and from what I've read, the general opinion in the atmospheric science community regarding his book is that it is somewhat of a right-wing polemic. (But perhaps their attitude is one of his points.)

One other thing I'm fairly confident of is that if he wasn't already a successful author, Mr. Crichton would not have gotten this book published. Good or bad, it's got way too much science and technology in it to pass the gatekeepers at literary agencies and fiction houses, regardless of the quality of the writing. I've expanded on this topic at http://www.lablit.com/article/83 , but basically, science and literature are treated as nearly incompatible topics in the fiction publishing world.

My own thriller "Rad Decision", based on my two decades in the US nuclear industry (and the first inside fictional portrait of this controversial subject) has gotten very positive reaction from a variety of readers at my blog site - where it's posted free. But it's received barely a shrug from the mainstream publishing community. I suspect it has "too much" science in it for them to feel comfortable. (One even told me as much.) Pick up the average published techno-thriller today and see how much science is actually in it. Very little. "Science fiction", of course, has mostly given way to fantasy and dragons.

There's been some chatter on literary agent blogs recently about fiction agents only handling subjects they are personally interested in, and then passing them on to editors who are personally interested in the same topic. If that's true on a broad scale, it explains a lot of what I see in bookstores - and also why real science, technology (and likely a number of other worthy subjects) see little in the way of fictional exploration. Too bad.

My thanks to GOB for mentioning my site a number of months ago, and I hope his own web-published novel is going well.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, I fear that listening to Michael Crichton on the environment is a lot like listening to Tom Cruise lecture on the importance of marrying for love.

It means he tells a good 'un, though. Useful for a writer of thrillers.

Paul Ekert said...

I don't have a scientific background, so I'm pretty much at the sway of what I read and what I am given by the media in the way of facts. The fact that the current US administration has said Global Warming "Aint out there" of course makes me automatically think it’s real ;)

I read somewhere the US claimed Sun Spots and shifts in the Earth magnetic field were causing the symptoms we see today, which is half amusing as I seem to remember this being the excellent “Bill & Ted” type explanation they gave many years back for the appearance of UFO's.

But put that aside and look at the problem on its head.

Why wouldn't global warming exist? What reason can there be for the Earths atmosphere soaking up the sudden (since the 1900's) explosion of CO2 emissions? How can an echo system that is millions of years old adapt in the ecological equivalent of a blinking of an eye to the radical development that is Man in the last 100 years?

If you don't like that idea. I have others ;)

What about this then...

Is it so bad that we now have a stick to beat the oil companies and car producers with? A stick called global warming. We used to have a stick called "Pollution" but it wasn't big enough and the two big nasties above could easily ignore it.

Now the stick is bigger and car manufactures want to do things better, so they can make some money from the green vote. Oil companies want to have a good public image, otherwise small share investment might get cold feet and take there money to companies that do want a good image...

All this is a good thing because the oil will run out, probably sooner than we think. When that happens, we will either have developed some forms of green energy, fuel cells for cars, aqua and wind for electricity, or we will have to go nuclear and give up all forms of personal transport.

If a Global Warming stick can help achieve this and create a world where pollution drops, children have less asthma and cars are very quiet... Then who really cares if it is real or not.

Brandon said...

I loved State of Fear. Like all of Crichton's books, it was thought-provoking. I've long taken global warming for granted--when you're as bombarded by statistics that "prove" global warming is dangerous, I guess you start believe the reports--but Crichton's book has made me question the whole deal. The earth is a pretty resilient rock, and despite humans' inflated egos, I don't think there's much we can do to destroy the planet. Nature fights back--the deforestation in Africa has brought hosts of nasty viruses, like AIDS and Ebola, out of hiding. The global warming debate seems like more of a moral debate than a scientific debate. Crichton doesn't question global warming, he questions the effects of global warming. Crichton is saying that global is probably occurring, but it's not enough to significantly change the planet. In one instance, Crichton points out that many scientists neglect to mention that sea levels will rise several inches--over a period of a thousand years. Crichton present many different viewpoints in State of Fear, but what I gained most from reading the book is that the global warming debate doesn't do anything but incite emotions and moral posturing. It doesn't seem like we're being told the truth--we're being told what environmentalists want us to hear.

Anonymous said...

As Martin R said, "I can't believe I'm enjoying a blog by someone who doubts global warming and who is into alternative medicine and adlerian psychology."

Yes indeed. Though when the GOB starts on Holocaust denial, that's when I might call it quits.

redchurch said...

How much of warming is natural, vs. human caused?

I really wish pop coverage of the topic would address that. And the fact that nobody ever seems to address that is deeply suspect.

It bothers me that global warming topic has become more like religion. Either you believe or you don't believe.

It also amazes how often people will argue how 'real' the threat of global warming based on consensus. "Virtually every scientist agrees."

What does that mean? Has anyone here read every single scientific paper on it? Do they all agree, in all aspects? I find that unbelievable, and preposterous to even make such a claim. Science does not advance by grand strokes of consensus. There are always disagreements, and such disagreements often fuel new research and new discoveries.

To say all the scientists in the world agree on global warming is to say that the studies are over, the books have been closed, all the facts have been determined, and there is nothing new to learn on the subject.

I'm sure that's what some would like you to believe. But again, this is not about belief.

We need, perhaps, less emotional appeals and more of the facts. And along with that, maybe allow people to decide for themselves without the presence of weepy celebrities, fallacies of authority or consensus?

To me it is not a question of whether or not global warming exists. Of course the planet gets warmer in certain places, at certain times. What I want to know is *exactly* how much of that is natural and exactly how much is human-caused.

Those who 'believe' will say that ALL of it is human-caused. And there is no doubt that *some* of it surely is. But exactly how much?

Of course I realize that even daring to ask such a question puts me in the 'heathen' camp. Such a question undermines the alarm, and the call to arms. So be it. Believing isn't enough for me. If you want religion, I'm sure there's a church nearby. I don't need to join an 'environmentalist religion.'

To me it's not about passion or compassion. Those things have nothing to do with the facts...

I've yet to find anyone who can calmly, rationally discuss the topic without getting worked up about it.

And no, I'm not looking for a "There is no warming" answer. It just seems obvious that nature has as much (if not a bigger) role to play than the vanity of human influence. And so far the global warming debate only ever focuses on human influence. Nature's part in warming is mysteriously absent from the debate.

Don't you find that odd?

Anonymous said...

"And no, I'm not looking for a "There is no warming" answer. It just seems obvious that nature has as much (if not a bigger) role to play than the vanity of human influence. And so far the global warming debate only ever focuses on human influence. Nature's part in warming is mysteriously absent from the debate."

That's true if you only read newspapers or watch telly. Read some pop science publications ('New Scientist', for starters) for plenty of the sort of discussion I think you're after.

"To say all the scientists in the world agree on global warming is to say that the studies are over, the books have been closed, all the facts have been determined, and there is nothing new to learn on the subject."

Well, all the scientists agree about gravity, too, but there's still plenty of research being done. Doesn't mean that the basic facts are in dispute, though.

Anonymous said...

Crichton shouldn't be listened to because he received some money from big - bad - oil.

Yet scientific grants passed out by those with agendas are what?

Modern Eugenics anyone? In 100 years they probably won't be talking about this either.

If your gonna base your politics on what people are doing in L.A. (electric cars, et. al.) then God help you (whoops! Am I member of the radical right? Better discount everything I say...)

Oil is running out! The world will end! We'll all be stranded in our suburbs starving! We won't have any transportation!

Yikes! - Less than 150 years ago people walked to California for the Gold Rush - we're doomed!

Make good sustainable choices everyone! Sounds like I'm in the 5th grade of the failing public school system.

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