Michael Crichton

My father is a hairdresser, and had a salon in an affluent suburb of Pittsburgh for nearly 25 years. He would get all manner of Christmas gifts from his clients, mostly booze but other, more interesting things as well.

When I was 10 years old, I was searching the bookshelves for something to read, and found a book that Dad had received the previous Christmas. I sat down with it, and after a few hours when I was called to dinner I was halfway through it. I finished the second half later that evening.

The book was The Andromeda Strain, written by a then 27-year-old Harvard-educated physician named Michael Crichton.

This was the first of many popular novels, movies, TV series, computer games, lectures, and essays that Crichton would write, produce, and/or direct over a 40-plus year career that ended today with his death from cancer.

Crichton was prolific, extremely intelligent, highly productive and versatile, and committed to his craft. As seems common with so many like him, he was married and divorced numerous times.

What I loved about Crichton’s books was how the subject matter was as much the star of the books as the characters or the story line. Like Tom Clancy later on, the latest technological advance became weaved into the plot with a fairly intricate description and a bibliography to show that this was real science, and the author wanted you to know it.

An even more attractive recurring theme, at least to me, was how over-ambitious humans attempted to utilize or exploit the technology, often with disastrous results. Crichton explored this theme repeatedly in many of his books.

The relationships between computer technology and medicine were well-explored, some would say with clairvoyance, in The Terminal Man. The moral of this story, despite all of the techno whiz-bang dialogue and suspense, is a simple truth; garbage in, garbage out.

The exploration of chaos theory, and its’ disastrous demonstration in Jurassic Park, cemented for me back in 1990 the essential tenet that the more complex a system, the greater its’ probability for catastrophic failure.

Strangely enough, Evan and I wanted to watch the film version this past Sunday. One of my favorite quotes of any movie is here, as spoken by Jeff Goldblum playing the mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm. Crichton also wrote the screenplay for the film:

I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here: it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility… for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now [pounds table with fists] you’re selling it, [pounds table again] you want to sell it!

Crichton’s books didn’t always work for me. When he substituted malevolent human beings for misused technology in Rising Sun and Disclosure, something got lost.

Crichton was a controversial figure in several ways. He attempted to debunk global warming theory in his novel State of Fear, which made him the target of environmental groups around the world. He responded in a lecture with the postulation that environmentalism is more of a religion than a scientific movement, since many of the assumptions that environmentalists use to defend their beliefs are based more on faith than scientific fact or empirical research.

Crichton also predicted in an article in Wired 15 years ago that the mass media as we know it would go the way of the dinosaurs, thanks in large measure to Internet-based technology that would, as he described it, be “artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page”. It sounds like he described most feed readers and news bots. As Slate pointed out earlier this year, Crichton’s prediction is starting to pan out.

Michael Crichton was about as close to a renaissance man as one can get in modern times. The most important thing he did, in my opinion, was to inspire and motivate an adolescent boy in the 60’s and 70’s to find out more about why the world ticked, and the consequences of messing around with things that you don’t fully understand.

He will be missed and remembered for a long time to come.

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