Michael Crichton, the master of the Fun Read, is dead at 66 after a long bout with cancer. The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, The Lost World — like Ira Levin, the man certainly left his mark on mass culture.
Though Crichton appeared on the bestseller lists with clockwork regularity, it seems strange to call him a writer. He didn’t really do dialogue: his characters delivered shots of exposition the way paintball players deliver bursts of pigment. He didn’t create characters as such: try to remember a single character from a Michael Crichton novel and you’ll inevitably think of the actor who played him in the inevitable film version. Crichton did gimmicks — one per novel. When he was sparking, the gimmick made you stop and think That’s cooooool! Fortunately, Crichton sparked more than he sputtered.
In his literary career, Crichton pulled off the difficult trick of writing pop-Sci Fi without getting exiled to the literary ghetto where many better writers spent their careers. The secret was probably the essential tameness of his conceptualizing. Where serious SF writers would think through all the implications of their ideas, Crichton cooked up gimmicks and kept them penned into conventional treatments. Westworld, his first feature film, is built around a diverting idea: an amusement park with zones that recreate medieval Europe, pre-Christian Rome and the American Wild West, stocked with lifelike robots that visitors can command, fight, screw and even kill with complete impunity. A true SF writer would feel duty-bound to explore the society capable of producing such a technological wonder, along with the implications of an amusement park catering to the homicidal and sexual impulses of men (it’s hard to imagine women finding much to like about the place), and the result would be a feast of speculation and social commentary. Crichton just wants to set up an ooga-booga chase story. His books, like his movies, were always just clever enough to be entertaining, but never clever enough to be really frightening or thought-provoking.
As John Scalzi notes, Crichton’s main mode was alarmism. Space germs gonna gitcha! Guys with hotwired brains gonna gitcha! Genetically engineered dinosaurs gonna gitcha! Nanobugs gonna gitcha! Female executives in power suits gonna gitcha! The Japanese gonna gitcha! Environmentalists gonna gitcha! The irony was that Crichton himself was utterly fearless in tackling new subjects and technology, and he presented his conclusions with the bossy certitude of one of Robert A. Heinlein’s authorial mouthpieces. The flip side of this admirable confidence can be found in the novels Disclosure, Rising Sun and State of Fear — museum-quality demonstrations of how an obviously smart man can believe and write some unbelievably stupid stuff — and a late-blooming tendency toward odious crankery.
Boiled down to its essence, the Crichton writing voice was that of the Maria Ouspenskaya character in any given Universal monster movie: Dere Are Zum Tings Man Vass Not Meant To Know! He was good at what he did, and he made a pile of money doing it. When he was on his game, Crichton could write stuff that would keep you glued to the book until you turned the last page. That kind of skill is a rare thing, and Crichton had it in abundance.