Thursday, November 06, 2008

Let's Clone Michael Crichton!

Michael Crichton died yesterday. That means it should be possible to harvest his DNA still in excellent condition. With virtually complete Crichton DNA strands available, we won't have to resort to primate substitutes for missing segments. I foresee viable cloned embryos within a few years, so theme park planning and design should start immediately.

I don't know what Michael Crichton considered his greatest achievement. The Andromeda Strain? ER? His M.D.? Westworld? (OK, probably not that.) But I do know what he will be remembered for, without a doubt, long after his other books, films, television projects, and ideas have been forgotten: Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park the novel had an enormous impact on me. I read the paperback on a plane returning from a business trip. It instantly rekindled the interest in paleontology that I'd had for much of my life, but that had been dormant in early adulthood after law school and related pursuits. I moved immediately to Robert Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies and other contemporary scientific accounts of the modern understanding of dinosaurs. Within a short time I was a member, then a contributing author, and finally an editor for The Dinosaur Society, a paleontology advocacy, education, and fundraising group founded by Don Lessem.

I have never looked forward to a movie as eagerly as I did the first Jurassic Park flick in 1993. The Dinosaur Society was even thanked in the credits at the end of the film! Later that same summer we took a family vacation to Alberta, Canada, to visit Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Royal Tyrrell Museum. It was a dinosaur summer for millions around the world, ultimately thanks to Crichton.

Although JP the movie was a fabulous blockbuster, it was neither as frightening nor as scientifically compelling as Crichton's novel. But both works shared the truly ingenious premise about DNA-based resurrection. Kudos to Crichton for crafting a storyline that was merely extremely improbable, rather than absolutely impossible (i.e., outright prohibited by physical laws as we now understand them). I never expected to find an account of dinosaurs eating people that turned out to be hard SF. The stupendous commercial success of the novel, the movie, and their sequels partially obscured the remarkable fact that Crichton produced visionary science fiction that actually could be tested, not merely consumed. I still have my 1993 VHS tape of NOVA's The Real Jurassic Park two-hour TV documentary, which took Crichton's ideas very seriously indeed.

JP the book also had a great sense of mystery in the beginning -- something that was mostly absent from the movie version -- and wonderful, ceaseless suspense. However, reading other Crichton novels, such as the JP-clone Timeline (time travel instead of dinosaurs), makes it clear that he had a highly formulaic procedure for achieving these effects. For example, ending short chapters with narration along the lines of, "She screamed as he raised the axe," goes a long way toward creating the desired "page-turner" quality.

Despite his scientific ingenuity, cleverness, and skill as a thrill merchant, Crichton was prone to including lamebrained philosophy and speechifying in his novels, particularly the later ones. In Jurassic Park that plague was kept under reasonable control, and mostly took the form of Crichton's flawed discussion of chaos theory through the mouthpiece of Dr. Ian Malcolm. (Dr. Malcolm died in the book, so he can be forgiven some near-death ravings.)

1. Crichton basically asserted in JP that because chaos theory reveals that complex systems cannot be fully predicted or controlled, complete disaster must follow. In the other words, he thought chaos theory means, at the macro level we experience, that actual chaos is inevitable. But making system collapse a certainty wrongly negates chaos theory's emphasis on unpredictability. Crichton didn't seem to understand that, or he didn't care because he was too obsessed with arguing that there are some things "man was not meant to know" (or do).

2. Crichton was wrong to imply that the dinosaur park in JP was inherently unsafe and could not be improved. There were two obvious avenues of improvement: (a) prevent sabotage, and (b) use passive rather than active dino barriers.
(a) The park failed because the evil computer nerd, Dennis Nedry, sabotaged it out of greed. That need not be a routine occurrence. The fact that bank officers sometimes embezzle millions of dollars, and that banks sometimes fail spectacularly, doesn't mean that banks are a hopelessly bad idea and should be abandoned as economic institutions.
(b) Huge electric fences are obviously a dumb idea as a barrier against giant animals, because of the high probability of an eventual power failure. Passive barriers, such as enormous moats and walls, are much better. They are not always perfect if designed poorly, but they're clearly more reliable than fences that need to be plugged in.

3. There's no reason to conclude that the dinosaur park was a total catastrophe simply because animals escaped and some people got killed. (This was even truer in the movie version of JP, because the death toll was lower.) People have been killed by animals at zoos and circuses for as long as these attractions have existed, yet we haven't banned them. Yes, animals can be dangerous. Yes, bigger animals are more dangerous. All that means is that a dinosaur park will have significant risks, not that such a park must be avoided at all costs.

Whatever his faults as a writer, there was a time when Crichton rivaled Stephen King as the most prolific and successful one-man idea factory in the entertainment world. You could count on his novels to become bestsellers, the bestsellers to become movies, and the movies to become hits. And for a short while 15 years ago, when Steven Spielberg & Co. brought the author's vivid speculations to the widest possible audience, Crichton was probably the most influential thinker on Earth. Yes, certainly worth cloning.

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