by Michael Crichton
I’ve been on a big Jurassic Park kick of late, yada yada yada, I found myself reading Prey. I’d only ever read the one Crichton book, but I knew his schtick: use whatever science/technology has been making advances lately, embellish a little but not so much that it seems unrealistic, and then write a thriller that scares the shit out of people. Not a bad formula. It certainly worked for Park. Instead of genetic manipulation and dinosaurs, however, Prey gives us the convergence of nanotechnology, computer science, and emergent intelligence to create swarms of nanoparticles that evolve predatory behavior towards humans.
Here’s the thing: nanoparticle swarms aren’t dinosaurs. In my opinion, Park has two main things going for it: the simplicity of the (admittedly dubious) science and the audience’s familiarity with dinosaurs. With Prey, Crichton has to pretty much start from scratch explaining the technology and why we should be afraid. Sure, I’m familiar with nanoparticles and I know what an algorithm is, but Crichton spends a lot of time describing the various technologies that he incorporates into Prey. It’s as if he constantly needs to convince us that this menace is legitimate, and not some pseudo-scientific nonsense. It’d be kind of like showing you the t-rex, and then explaining exactly what its teeth would do to you and how unlikely it’d be that you’d escape, and then politely returning you to the story. Since there’s nothing viscerally terrifying about the swarms, Crichton tries to explain to us why they should be logically terrifying.
That said, the book is still a hell of a thriller. People use the phrase “page-turner” these days as a backhanded compliment- the first book to come to mind when I hear it is The Da Vinci Code, which everyone read, enjoyed, and now pretends to hate- but some books just grab you, and that’s a good thing. The first third or so introduces Jack, a stay-at-home-dad who’s having some career and family issues, as he slowly becomes entangled in some mysterious goings-on. He ends up flying out to the Nevada desert- Prey‘s Isla Nublar, for Park fans- to work as a contractor for his wife’s company, which apparently needs help debugging some of his old computer code. The whole thing turns into a big shit show as soon as he gets there, and by this point I was hooked.
Of course, the book isn’t perfect. You know that horror cliché of people in movie theaters yelling at the screen, “Don’t go in there! The one-armed killer clown is in there!” No? Whatever, I don’t watch a lot of horror movies. Jack does a lot of dumb shit in this book, is my point. Pretty soon after he gets to Nevada, they establish that the nanoswarms are hostile and lethal, but that everyone will be safe as long as they stay inside their hermetically sealed lab. But Jack keeps fucking going outside! First, it’s to check out a dead animal that the swarms just killed. “Good idea, that. You just watched a swarm take down this rabbit, but whatever, go check it out.” Jack survives. “Good. Oh, you’re going back outside, even though you barely survived that last outing.” Miraculous escape. “Oh, going out again. Alrighty.” I just wanted to have a heart-to-heart with Jack, and find out whether he’s got a death wish or he’s just a moron. But I guess that’s what puts the thrill in thriller.
The moral of the story: don’t fuck with science. Now, I’m a little unclear on whether Crichton thinks that humanity itself isn’t great at handling discovery, or if corporations are uniquely arrogant. It doesn’t matter much, but I’m inclined to believe the latter, given that Crichton’s scientists always work for companies with names like Xymos, InGen and MoloDyne (Crichton’s ability to come up with terribly dystopian conglomerates is key to his success). Nobody called Xymos is up to anything good. These corporations, whose only goal is profit, embody our collective greed. They’re ideal antagonists for stories about our rush to discovery outpacing our humility and ethics.
But I don’t think that really matters. Sure, it’s a cautionary tale, but only in the same way that Avatar‘s a cautionary tale. As in, “I get your point, but this is too silly to take seriously.” I can get behind the idea that corporations cut corners sometimes, and that diffusion of responsibility can lead to ethical lapses, but these ideas aren’t really fleshed out, making them almost a distraction in Prey. This is a thriller about tiny robots that are smart, indestructible, and hate people, and that’s all we really need.
Prey was tight. It’s basically Jurassic Park with nanotechnology rather than genetics, but it doesn’t quite live up to the earlier novel’s standard. Still, if you’re into thrillers, you’d probably enjoy.