Michael Crichton: A Devout and Honest Skeptic
Imagine this situation: you're a relatively new novelist who has just won an Edgar Award, the Emmy or Oscar of mystery writing. Should be pretty exciting, shouldn't it?
But what if you wrote it under a carefully protected pen name? And the novel used real people, thinly disguised, but obvious to anyone who knew who the author really was? And you have to accept the award in person?
And then imagine the real people are faculty and staff at Harvard Medical School. Where you wrote your Edgar-Award-winning novel. In your spare time.
Of course, your suspension of disbelief has now utterly collapsed. Spare time? In medical school?
But it's a true story; the medical student involved was writing thrillers under the pen names Jeffrey Hudson and John Lange, the latter a reference to his unusual six-foot-nine-inch height. The medical student's name: (John) Michael Crichton. Crichton died on November 4 at the age of 66.
He hadn't been a very successful medical student -- he never overcame the problem that he grew faint at the sight of needles and when drawing blood. Not that this is necessarily a disqualifier in medicine -- it's an old medical school joke that a psychiatrist is just a surgeon who can't stand the sight of blood.
Crichton, though, had started out to be a writer; he'd just transferred to anthropology when he grew dissatisfied with the English department at Harvard. (He'd submitted one of George Orwell's essays as his own; not only had the professor not recognized it, but he'd only given the essay a B-.) From reading his autobiographical essays, you get the idea that he'd not felt he'd been all that successful as a Harvard undergraduate either, having only managed to eke out a degree in anthropology summa cum laude and a visiting lectureship at Oxford, before deciding on medical school.
By the time he'd completed his M.D. degree, he had six books published -- three in 1969 alone -- including The Andromeda Strain, which promptly became a New York Times bestseller. He'd also had an apparent demyelinization episode, a hint that he might well have multiple sclerosis.
He never practiced as a physician; his multiple sclerosis, if that's what it was, never recurred. He became a full-time writer and after The Andromeda Strain became a successful movie, he set out to become a director. He started with Pursuit (a.k.a. Binary), a filmed version of one of his "John Lange" novels, and moved on to direct eight more movies, including Westworld, Coma, and The Great Train Robbery. He also created the hit TV series ER, still running after 15 seasons.
Crichton was often accused, I think unfairly, of being a bit of a Luddite: his novels often drew conflict from experiments or technology gone wrong. The Andromeda Strain was based on the idea of a deadly plague from space, probably sparked by the initial concern about the Apollo 11 crew possibly bringing back alien diseases from the Moon; Andromeda Strain was actually released the same week as the first moon landing. Westworld, a "robot revolt" in which malfunctioning robots in a fictional amusement park turn on the park guests; Jurassic Park, of course, based on bioengineered recreations of dinosaurs who get loose in another theme park; and Prey, built around the "grey goo" scenarios of nanotechnology speculation, all were based around this notion of the undesirable side effects of technology caused by human error.
I think the Luddite charge, however, is unfair. Crichton himself saw science and technology as essentially good. In his speech "Aliens Cause Global Warming," he says explicitly, "even as a child I believed that science represented the best and greatest hope for mankind."
What Crichton saw instead was that new situations lead to new problems, not just in technology but socially. Rising Sun is built around the conflict between Japanese and American culture; Disclosure, around the unexpected effects of changing ideas of what is appropriate at work. He had the brilliant fiction writer's eye for the essential conflicts, and he built his fiction around them.
Instead, I think Crichton was a devout and honest skeptic. In Travels, his collection of short autobiographical essays, he describes going to a professional psychic; he goes in with an open mind but determined to not fall for a "cold reading," and left impressed. Even though it contradicted his worldview, he had to admit the experience was convincing.
One of those areas in which Crichton was a notable skeptic was in the area of global warming. In several speeches, and eventually in testimony to the Senate, he examined the actual data behind theories of anthropogenic -- "human caused" -- global warming, and he found them wanting. This led to his being denounced as a "denialist" -- but he honestly evaluated the evidence, and honestly gave his opinion.
He never seemed to think of himself as anything but an entertainer; in Ronald Bailey's own obituary of Crichton, he quotes Crichton as being honestly surprised that his skeptical take on technological or scientific topics might have any effect other than whiling away a few hours. More important, I think, was that Crichton never saw problems as insoluble or humanity as impotent in the face of them. In his movies and novels, humans overcome the unexpected bad effects of new technologies, one way or another.
Humans survive. So too, I think, will Crichton's work.