Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: Micro

(Warning: The following is filled with spoilers.)

I have a long history with Michael Crichton. When I was in second grade, I read Jurassic Park and loved it (though the film still terrified me a year later).  He had a knack for taking unbelievable future tech and plopping it down in the here and now, and somehow it turned out believable. In great part this was due to his research and attention to detail, and to his memorable characters. Ian Malcom, for example, one of the doomed protagonists of Jurassic Park, was brought back to life for The Lost World despite dying mid exposition in the original. And, ultimately, the villains seldom turned out to be truly evil. They were more often victims of greed or folly. John Hammond, for example, was a doting grandfather and otherwise generally benign eccentric who stood a little high on the shoulders of giants, and ended up falling hard for it (though his death was redacted in the film version). It's true that Crichton loved to write morality tales about human folly, whether that be in harnessing nature for profit (Next, Jurassic Park, The Lost World), technological fallibility (Timeline, Prey), the limits of human mental ability when faced with the unknown (Sphere, Congo), or simply pointing out our overall vulnerability as a species (Andromeda Strain). But since I came to expect morality tales as part and parcel of the Crichton enterprise, and since the novels were always so well written and well premised, the moral aspect was rendered almost mythical. Take Jurassic Park, again. The morality tale was that these humans expected they could control natural processes, that they would have the wisdom to make that step despite lacking total understanding. It's a modern retelling of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. This simplified moral dilemma makes a better story. So, the moral aspect never really bothered me.

Well, I shouldn't say never. Among the many Crichton novels there was one stinker, State of Fear, the /only/ one I was unable to finish. It was overall a poorly researched work with one too many author avatars, a platform for Crichton's opinions on global climate change. I questioned his sanity after that one, though he did go on to write Next which was, if not as good as Timeline, at least was better than State of Fear. Fans of Crichton note a decline in quality near the end of his life, Next and Prey not nearly as memorable as Andromeda Strain and Congo.

When I heard recently that his last novel, part finished at the time of his death, had just been published with the help of Richard Preston, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. Richard Preston (not to be confused with his brother, Douglas Preston, also a great writer) is the author of The Hot Zone, a non-fiction collection of stories about the origins and discoveries of several different types of hemorrhagic fevers, including Ebola virus. So I knew that he could handle stories with a heavy scientific component, and was generally optimistic about this final Crichton novel, Micro.

Simply, the premise is a combination of harnessing nature for profit paired with technological fallibility, which brings to light human vulnerability in primal ways. A company based in Honolulu, Hawai'i, has developed high strength tensor magnetic field technology, which surprisingly has the ability to shrink living and non-living things down to microscopic size. This is the equivalent phlebotinum to Jurassic Park's cloning dinosaur DNA. You may be thinking "remake of Honey I Shrunk the Kids", but unlike that comedic plot device, the company starts shrinking down people to do micro-bioprospecting. Thus leading to a massive outpouring of new research, including basic natural history work all the way to medical applications. Of course, muckety muck, the CEO is a greedy sociopath, and along with all this great stuff the company is making micro-scale assassination drones (you knew it couldn't be that simple), and people are getting offed. There's also this pesky issue of people dying from "micro-bends" after spending too much time shrunk, with an ongoing investigation of people who "disappeared" into the micro world. Did I mention the protagonists are all biology graduate students, including entomologists? Did I mention, that the setting is O'ahu, mainly in the Manoa Valley and the slopes of Tantalus? I've been there, twice, and while species poor (it's fiction so tweaking the diversity is alright) is a great location. So, overall, the wild yet interesting premise of biology graduate students ending up trapped in the world of insects, in Hawai'i, with loads of insect natural history thrown in...that sounds like the set up to my favorite Crichton novel.

Unfortunately, what started with such a beautiful premise and could have had me gripped to a chair until I turned the last page, did not live up to my expectations. And the failure wasn't the premise but execution: one-dimensional characters that felt like cardboard, lengthy out-of place expositions (which sometimes had wrong information!), rushed writing, gory death scenes, one of those "boy gets the girl" stereotypical endings; in short, mediocre and disappointing.

Part of what makes the earlier Crichton books so believable is his ability to take these wild ideas and run with them, and at the same time get other basic details right. Cloning Velociraptor DNA from 65+ million year old amber trapped mosquitoes and inserting them into ostrich eggs may have been completely unbelievable, but it worked because he used the best information we had about dinosaur biology and ecology at the time. I was able to suspend disbelief because those creatures actually looked and acted like what I read by Robert Bakker and Jack Horner. And insects are that much easier to get right since they are still around, and there is copious literature about insect morphology, physiology, behavior, etc. Maybe it's just a pet peeve of mine, but when I'm trying to read a novel and the author gets one of the basics of insect physiology wrong not once but twice, and in ways important to the plot at the time, I start to cringe.

There were several instances of this, but the worst was the "breathing". For those of you not familiar, insects do not inhale and exhale as we do. They have a series of tubes called tracheae running from openings (spiracles) on the insect cuticle to deep inside the body cavity, narrowing as they go. Oxygen enters the air in these tubes by passive diffusion down gradient, and the cells pick this oxygen up at the narrowest parts (the tracheoles), which are filled with fluid. Carbon dioxide, the waste product of respiration, takes a different path; it passes out into the fluid filled cavity of the insect and dissolves in the hemolymph, the "blood" of the insect. Over time it dissipates out through the cuticle. As you can see, there's no breathing, no inhaling and exhaling, involved. Insects do ventilate at times, rapidly flexing and relaxing the abdomen, and there are a small number of insects that have discontinuous gas exchange, but never is this like vertebrate respiration. The basics of how insects respire is not some esoteric tidbit. It's often taught in undergrad biology 101 courses. So when either Crichton or Preston (whoever wrote these passages) get such a basic fact of insect physiology wrong, when they say the characters can hear the hissing of air entering and exiting the spiracles, slowing as the insect dies or increasing as it gets excited, I completely loose my suspension of disbelief. [This section is embarresingly off base. See for work on insect active respiration. It's clear that probably most insects respire with aid of tracheole compression and dialation, at least in the head and thorax. This is what should be taught in schools, not passive diffusion. I've been served.]

The same is true of when characters, especially the protagonists, act like stereotypes and do it robotically. Take the introduction of our intrepid grad students. Our current main character, Peter (later a sacrificial lamb), walks around his lab talking to his fellow lab mates, asking them what they are doing. Now, of course, he supposedly knows what they are working on, being in the same lab with them day in and out, going to lab meetings, talking in free time, etc. Therefore, their answers should be just enough information to satisfy our curiosity about the characters, while at the same time not make Peter look like a completely unaware idiot. What we get instead is a lengthy exposition out of each of the lab mate's mouths, with copious jargon spoken in straight monotone, which is how all the later expositions sounded. Or at least I thought of it as monotone, because for most of the book the emotional status of each character feels like a poorly acted melodramatic soap. Heres an example from Peter's brother Eric (who didn't actually die at the beginning; spoilers!) after he finds out about Peter's death.

"Eric gasped as if he'd been punched. "No," he said. He closed his eyes. "No," he said again. he made a fist and slammed it on the dresser. "No!" He turned around and pounded the bed with both fists, and picked up a chair and threw it against the wall, and sand down on the bed and buried his face in his hands. "Peter...oh, Peter...God damn you Drake [ed.: the sociopathic CEO]...God damn you." [ellipses not mine]  --pg. 363

At other times, particularly following the gruesome, gory deaths of their lab mates at the hand of an arthropod, they seem to show no reaction at all. But it's a survival situation, you may exclaim, surely they should keep the hell going! Except, these aren't survival experts. These aren't Alan Grant and Ellie Sadler, who spent years in the badlands before heading into Jurassic Park. These are /grad students/ for goodness sakes! The most wildlands survival experience they've had is one of them once went to Puerto Rico on a trip , and another was a rape victim. I'm not trying to play down the horrors of rape, but it's hardly sufficient to prepare her for seeing an acquaintance torn in half by big headed ants the size of dogs.

Did I mention the gore? It's definitely overplayed in this one. I recall the death of John Hammond in Jurassic Park, who fell down the hill and got chomped by a herd of chicken sized dinosaurs. But the death and gore was carefully spliced out. You /knew/ he got eaten, but it was implied, not explicit. The amount of gore in Micro reminds me of the film Final Destination 5. My best friend and I decided it would be funny to watch, remembering the "spooky wind" stuff of the prequels. But we stopped halfway through because the goryness of the death scenes was completely unnecessary and over the top. It was frankly disgusting, which is about how I felt when one of the shrunk-down stooges out to get the protagonists gets "ebola-fied" by a spider. Preston used his experience to write it, I'm sure, and it was probably all correct, yet still completely unnecessary and a gigantic turn off.

I was going to expand on the stereotypes that each of the protagonists played up until their unfortunate demises, but I just realized that this is more typical of Crichton's mold. The difference is that Alan Grant made a believable conservative, workaholic paleontologist, while Danny (from Micro) was an unbelievable post-modernist, tweed wearing Haaaavard boy. The same with Rick the ethnobotanist environmentalist hippy. Strawmen abound.

Which brings me to the romantic element. Out of the blue, Rick (the environmentalist hippy) and Karen (the arachnologist rape victim) fall for each other in the midst of the carnage, and as the only survivors end up sitting on the beach together at the end like something out of a Clive Cussler novel. This nearly sappy ending didn't happen in any other Crichton novel I can remember (or maybe I remember poorly). Either Crichton has fallen a long way, or Preston really pushed the lowest common denominator. Even in Jurassic Park, where is was implied that Alan and Ellie were in a relationship throughout, there was no happy end scene. There was a epilogue scene at a hotel, following the escape from Isla Nublar, but it was played cool.

And then there's the villain, Vincent Drake, the sociopathic CEO who can't hide his greed. Yes, I know, I've called him that at least three times since the start of this review, but that is literally the total depth of his character. As soon as Peter gets an idea that his brother might have been murdered, Drake shrinks ALL the grad students down and tries to murder them all in succession, including one of his own employees. And then tries to murder them again. And a third time. This Dr. Evil will not negotiate. Which makes him completely unbelievable as a businessman and villain. Plus, part of the enjoyment in most Crichton villains is that they are at least partially sympathetic. When Drake died to his own micromachines it was more like putting down a rabies infected dog than a triumph.

The only two interesting characters in the book were the detective Dan Watanabe, and the microed employee who went native, Dan Rourke. But unfortunately only one of those had any airtime. The latter is killed off shortly after we meet him. Even Watanabe is a generously stereotyped Hawaiian, enjoying his spam sushi, using Hawaiian terms, but at least he doesn't feel like a cardboard cutout like the rest of the cast.

Overall, it took me two months to finish Micro, setting it down when I became disinterested and picking it back up again when I knew I had to finish, if only to return the book and write this review. And though the length was no shorter than Jurassic Park (421 versus 420 pages), the prose felt particularly rushed. It's almost as if Preston and The John Michael Crichton Trust were trying to get this out as quickly as possible. If that's the case, Micro suffered for it. I certainly suffered through it, despite my entomological inclinations. It's not clear who to blame for it, Crichton or Preston, since we have no indication how much was written at the time of Michael's death. The introduction was left unfinished. So I blame no one, or maybe just myself for setting my hopes too high.