Reviewed 1/05/2011

State of Fear, by Michael Crichton
Cover art by Will Staehle
Michael Crichton
New York: Avon, July 2004




ISBN-13 978-0-06-101573-1
ISBN-10 0-06-101573-3 672p. SC/GSI $9.99

Trained as a physician,1 the late Michael Crichton (1942-2008) was known as a superb storyteller who skillfully wove science and technology into his tales. His novel The Andromeda Strain was made into an excellent 1971 science fiction motion picture — one which I enjoyed and would rate among the top 20 SF movies. He wrote numerous novels on science fiction, medical and mystery themes, as well as some non-fiction. Several of these became motion pictures, including the widely acclaimed Jurassic Park. He also created the TV series ER. An unnamed "techno-thriller" has yet to be published.

Crichton's 2004 novel State of Fear works well as a story. There is plenty of jeopardy; the main characters are fairly well-drawn, they endure several cliff-hanger escapes, and they get to do in their share of bad guys. The plot does have some holes in it. The worst of these is that the third of four environmental disasters planned by Crichton's "Earth First" analog, the formidable and well-organized NERF, never materializes, neither successfully started nor foiled. And some of the minor characters, notably the actor Ted Bradley2 and the fitness instructor Janis, are stereotypes. Bradley appears to be a foil for Crichton's alter ego John Kenner, the super-knowledgeable and very formidable professor turned secret agent who leads the campaign against NERF.

Also, Crichton leaves some "loose ends" that an organization of NERF's supposed sophistication would never permit. For example, when their team poisons Jonathan Marshall3 after gaining access to his wave-dynamics lab, agent Marisa (who seduced Marshall) simply walks the weakening scientist to a Paris street and dumps him in the Seine. Sure it's done in shadow at midnight, and he's paralyzed by then. But imagine the headlines: "Prominent scientist's body found. Mysterious gap in lab surveillance records." Also, if they are able to enter the lab, do their experiments, and leave no trace, why kill Marshall?

I knew instantly that George Morton, the financier who funded NERF until he learned of their perfidy, then went after them, did not die in the car crash. But the time and manner of his reappearance completely floored me. (I won't be a spoiler by revealing that.) The thing that's wrong with this plot line is that Crichton never explains the identity of the shark-mangled body found washed up at Pismo Beach and assumed to be Morton's. He could have avoided this merely by not introducing a body at all.

What is probably the most harrowing scene in the book occurs when the intrepid Peter Evans and Sarah Jones, Morton's lawyer and assistant respectively, are helping Kenner's team take out NERF's "charge amplification" equipment. This consists of three sites in the Arizona desert, each housing 500 wire-guided rockets. The idea is to set off the rockets ahead of a seemingly innocuous storm, drawing additional lightning strikes and thereby strengthening the storm to create a disastrous flash flood, in the second of NERF's faked-up demonstrations of the global warming threat.4 (NERF has arranged for plenty of picknickers to be at state parks in the area.) But the harrowing part is that Peter and Sarah (and the rest of Kenner's team) are carrying radios that have been gimmicked to attract lightning — which they do with deadly efficiency.5 And there's the lapse of logic: if NERF has this powerful technology, why does it need rockets?

Perhaps I can put these lapses down to the cancer which caused Crichton's untimely death. Others have pointed out plot holes on the forum at Crichton's official site (all threads there end in May 2007.)

But the novel has a glaring defect that dwarfs any plot hole or stereotypical characterization: It preaches, and falsely. This is why I reduced its rating to 3.0.

Here, John Balder is quizzing Peter Evans, George Morton's lawyer, about global warming. Balder heads the team preparing to sue the EPA on behalf of "Vanutu" for not preventing sea-level rise at that island nation.

"In fact, it is not." Balder's tone was crisp, authoritative. "Global warming is the theory—"

"—hardly a theory, anymore—"

No, it is a theory," Balder said. "Believe me, I wish it were otherwise. But in fact, global warming is the theory that increased levels of carbon dioxide and certain other gases are causing an increase in the average temperature of the earth's atmosphere because of the so-called 'greenhouse effect.' "

– Pages 88-9

Yes, global warming is a theory. As such, it ranks with other scientific theories like the theory of relativity. But Crichton, by emphasizing the word in the mouths of Balder and other characters, means to paint it as an idea of doubtful validity. This is an intentional distortion of what "theory" means in science. It is simply wrong. Only in the popular mind is theory equivalent to an unsupported opinion. Also, the "so-called greenhouse effect" was established by physicists over a hundred years ago; it can easily be demonstrated in even a modestly equipped laboratory.

It seems Michael Crichton became convinced that the real-world scientific evidence for global warming was as bogus as any his fictional eco-terrorists NERF came up with, and that it was being manufactured in support of groups with a hidden agenda. (At least he stopped short of accusing real scientists of murder.) There are long, rapid-fire scientific arguments in the manner of Socratic dialogues. And the book has charts of declining temperature readings from various locations; at least 14 pages display them, sometimes to the total exclusion of narrative. At the end there is an Author's Message, two Appendices, and an annotated Bibliography with 172 entries. (In fairness, the entries cover both sides.) There's so much wrong with the science that Crichton presents here that it requires treatment on a separate page, linked below. But in short, this is a polemic masquerading as a novel, and a dangerous polemic at that.6 I don't say it should be avoided; it is a gripping tale, and educational in its way. But be aware that its scientific arguments are mostly deceptive.

1 He earned an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and practiced at Massachusetts General Hospital during the 1960s.
2 The unfortunate Mr. Bradley appears to represent Crichton's view of shallow and self-absorbed actors who espouse causes merely because they are fashionable, and his gruesome death scene (among the most gruesome you are likely to read) probably reflects Crichton's contempt for this shallowness. It occurred to me to guess that his name was meant to suggest the real actor Ed Begley, Jr., perhaps Hollywood's foremost exponent of environmental causes. I supposed it too far-fetched; Begley walks the walk, and he is not shallow. However, it appears my guess was right. Scroll down this review by Dr. Kenneth Green (senior fellow at Reason Foundation and Chief Scientist at Frasier Institute) to find his opinion that the Bradley character is a mixture of Ed Begley, Jr and Martin Sheen. (Dr. Green is a denier; he thinks Crichton has the science right.)
3 I'll give Crichton this: The method of poisoning is clever, and the scene is well-written. Another bit of weirdness is that he has Marisa try the same trick on George Morton, hardly the naive young scientist Marshall was.
4 The first was an attempt to separate a huge block of ice from the West Antarctic Peninsula, an attempt which was foiled by Kenner.
5 It sure is lucky for our side that when Sarah Jones, with one of the gimmicked radios strapped to her waist, suffers a direct hit after several near misses by lightning strikes, she is only knocked out instead of being killed outright — unlike Nat Damon, who was carrying a similarly gimmicked cell phone in Vancouver.
6 Dangerous in and of itself, and being put to dangerous uses.
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