09 June 2012
I wrote the following on the Goodreads website. It's a review for Michael Crichton's last novel, Micro, but it includes how much of an influence he had on me not only as a writer and reader, but a person too.
The day Michael Crichton died I was in my parents' house watching BBC 24 and the news scrolled along the bottom of the screen. My reaction was to shout the F word at the top of my voice and put my hands on my head. This was the man that made me want to be a writer. There had been no word that he was even ill, let alone dying. Memories of the times I spent reading his books as a teenager tumbled, of the day I bought Sphere in WH Smiths and got home and simply could not stop reading, of spending the entire week of a family holiday in Builth Wells engrossed in Jurassic Park, and then Congo. Of reading The Lost World the night before starting my A Levels and Binary when I should have been revising for my first year exams in university. I remembered asking my economics teacher about shady Japanese business practices after reading Rising Sun; and reading his amazing autobiography-cum-travel journal, Travels, whilst working in the video shop during the sunny summer of 1995. I read his books throughout my teens and continued doing so as each new one came out in my twenties, and the joy of sheer imaginative fiction never diminished. Even though I disagreed with what he said about climate change in State of Fear the thrill of the story was just as fresh as ever and, anyway, his point was more about the dangers of politicising science than global warming. He was a constant companion through my life, the only author whose back catalogue I have read in entirety, and he had died the same he way he wrote; matter-of-fact and without fuss.
I was devastated when he died. To me, he is irreplaceable. I mostly read serious books by serious authors these days and new Crichton releases were joyous interludes.
That's not to say Crichton wasn't a serious writer because he was. His novels are head and shoulders above his contemporary techno-thriller authors. He just decided that ideas and excitement should take precedence over finding truths about what it is to be human. His bad guys were pantomime, but brilliantly and deliberately so. How else can you tell such fun stories without fun characters? Even in his final bow, Micro, the villain is gloriously over the top.
Any fan of Michael Crichton knows that each novel is prefaced by a short essay on the scientific subject matter of each book. They reveal the author's opinions on the field and finally, ingeniously, he melts reality and reforms it into the world of the novel by speaking briefly of the events that are about to take place in the book you’re holding as if they actually happened. The essay is present in Micro and I read it and got to the end, but it was truncated, stopping mid-flow followed by the word, unfinished. It really hit hard, reading that. I knew before opening the book that it was going to bring up some emotional feelings but that word unfinished reminded me not only of how I'll miss him just being in the world, but also the stories he never had time to write.
Micro itself is pure Crichton. A cutting edge technology firm has discovered how to shrink people and a hapless group of research students find themselves in battle against the ants, wasps and other bugs of the Hawaiian rain forest.
The way he takes ideas that appeal to the child in us and makes them, however speculatively, real is his greatest skill. There's not a person on the planet who didn't see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and think, that's so cool, not a person that didn’t feel the little chill at the back of the neck when the brachiosaurs first came on screen. Just as Spielberg has never lost his inner child, neither did Crichton. The addition of speculative science justifies our reading such adventures to the adult part of our minds but really, these stories remind us of the people we were before life knocked us into shape. A novel about being chased through a jungle by giant insects is, simply, massively appealing to anyone who remembers the spirit of adventure you feel as a child.
And it pays off too. It wasn't just his death that made me like this book; it is great in its own right. I enjoyed this in the same way I enjoyed the books I read when I was younger. The plot rattles along, the characters are the usual Crichton archetypes that work so well in larger than life stories, and just when you think it can't get any better they start flying around in tiny planes!
Michael Crichton always had a way of perfectly balancing a rollicking plot with lessons about nature, the sort of nature you long to be taught about in school. Here you learn about poisons, bug behaviour, and the weapons insects have to rip tiny humans to shreds. There are some twists and turns and a truly shocking moment towards the end that I totally didn't see coming.
The book was unfinished at the time of his death and brought to completion by Richard Preston, author of the brilliant non-fiction, The Hot Zone. He's done a great job in realising Crichton's vision, as well as capturing his writing style which is so often aped but never matched.
And so Micro is a superb swan song from the creator of the techno-thriller and grand master of the modern adventure story. Inside the cover is an ink drawing of the rainforest in which the novel takes place. If you look very carefully, just near the waterfalls, in type so small you might need a magnifying glass to read it, you find the words, 'Numquam obliviscemur Michaelis Crichtonis' which means Michael Crichton, never forget. I never will. So long Michael, and thanks for the memories.