I’ve been a Michael Crichton fan since I was in the eighth grade and read Jurassic Park for the first time. The experience was, to my thirteen-year-old self, life-changing. I never knew there could be books like this in the world, and Crichton’s inventiveness, plausibility, and capacity to generate thrills were addictive. I went on to read many of his other novels, enjoying them to similar effect—Sphere and Airframe, Eaters of the Dead and Prey. With that in mind, you’ll appreciate some context, and disappointment, behind my claim that State of Fear is the worst Michael Crichton novel I have ever read.
But not for the reasons you might think.
State of Fear is a novel about global warming—put succinctly, it is about a conspiracy of left-wing environmentalists who attempt to orchestrate a series of environmental disasters in order to bolster their position as global warming advocates. Catastrophic weather events are timed to coincide with global warming announcements so that people will ‘wake up’ to the looming danger of climate change. The novel contains many of the hallmarks of Crichton’s style—mysterious, business-like characters with unclear motives, stooges who die out of ignorance, a scientific ‘feel’ including diagrams, research, and charts, and so forth. However, it is seriously hindered by a farfetched plot, ham-fisted dialogue, and the strange interplay of Crichton-esque science-fiction and what appears to be his underlying message of suspicion about global warming. The main character is a man who begins as a full global warming supporter, is brought to question these convictions, and concludes as a sceptic. A main mechanism for this transition is a series of conversations that Crichton arranges between advocates and sceptics. Advocates, having drunk the global warming Kool-Aid, are universally foolish. They spout speeches about the need for saving the planet, all the while quoting dreamily from half-baked sources and displaying, overall, great ignorance of the real data about the natural world. Counterpoint to such figures, Crichton’s sceptics have wised up to the global warming façade. They preach (with footnotes) data-driven contradictions to the ill-reflected global warming rhetoric. Every single one of these conversations feels forced, and one gets the feeling that they exist as an excuse for Crichton to tell us what he thinks. They are artlessly executed. For these reasons it can be an infuriating book to read.
If you were to read some reviews of the novel you would quickly discover two camps of critics. On one side stands a group who love the book, and they love it chiefly for its suspicion of global warming. These readers are excited that someone as esteemed as Crichton would stand up publicly and publish such an unmasked critique of the global warming movement. On the other side stand the group who hate it for precisely the same reason. How dare Crichton, such an esteemed novelist, publish something so backward, regressive, and ignorant? (Very ironically, some of these critical reviews sound a great deal like the ignorant characters in Crichton’s novel. Do they prove his point?) Unfortunately, both groups are wrong, but not for that reason.
State of Fear is a bad novel because it is ham-fisted, awkward, far-fetched, and obvious. State of Fear is bad because it lacks the finesse, the tension, and the characterization that makes other Crichton novels great reads. State of Fear is bad because Crichton’s agenda—to raise questions about the role of climate change science in public policy—is so poorly executed that it interferes terminally in the telling of his story.
However, within this bad novel Crichton has a good point to make, and he makes this good point most effectively in the two afterwords that follow the book. The first, consisting of a series of bullet points, articulates clearly Crichton’s concerns about both the ways that we as a culture are using science, and about the limits of our capacity to make judgments about said science. His broad point, put tersely, is that we just don’t know enough. The second afterword, titled “Why Politicized Science is Dangerous,” highlights the well-accepted role of eugenics some 100 years ago. Crichton notes how it was ‘accepted science,’ how it formed national policy, and indeed how it lead to extraordinary horrors. He also notes, with interest, how we conveniently neglect to mention this part of our history. In other words, about 100 years ago something that was considered ‘accepted science’ (which now nobody believes) was utilized to generate public policy. However, upon reflection, the science was wrong, and consequently the policies were detrimental—if not damning (eugenics formed a basis for Nazi extermination of ‘undesirables’).
These are points worth sitting with. (It is also, we should note, a point which runs through much of Crichton’s oeuvre.) Recently I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, a absolutely marvellous little book of scientific history. One of the keystone points of the entire book, however, centred on the limits of our human knowledge. Bryson points out again and again—to brilliant humorous effect—just how little we know. For example, we didn’t know about plate tectonics until about sixty years ago. Think about that—a generation of people alive today were taught in school that earthquakes are caused by volcanoes. A hundred years ago, we thought we knew pretty much everything there was to know about human origins. Again and again, we think we’ve got a great deal figured out, but in the grand scheme of things we’re still pretty much pea-brains. We could do, in our scientific pronouncements, with a good deal more humility.
However you may feel about global warming, Crichton’s State of Fear contains a really good point couched in an unfortunately bad novel: we don’t know enough, we deceive ourselves if we think we’ve got it all figured out, and we should be really suspicious of those things we don’t know when they are turned into issues of public policy. With that message, I find I am in full and complete agreement.