Michael Crichton, who died from cancer Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 66, was an outsized figure in almost every possible way, beginning with his height, which is usually listed at 6 ft. 9 in. He was married five times, and divorced four. But it's his polymathic professional achievements that make him an almost implausibly imposing figure. Crichton trained as a doctor at Harvard Medical School. He directed Yul Brinner in Westworld and Sean Connery in The Great Train Robbery. He created ER, one of the most successful TV dramas of all time, and co-wrote the screenplay for the 90s tornado-chasing thriller Twister.
But it's as a novelist that Crichton was best known. He wrote two dozen thrillers, including The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Sphere and Jurassic Park, that collectively sold over 150 million copies. (A new one, its title and subject matter still unannounced, is slated for publication in December.) Crichton was never a literary stylist, but his skills as a storyteller were enormous. His plots have a crystalline perfection that has been much-copied, by The Da Vinci Code's Dan Brown among many others, and his sense of pacing and his ability to weave diverse plot strands into an elegant braided whole are virtually unmatched. His oeuvre is among the most-filmed of any author in history.
Crichton also had an amazing knack for wringing emotional drama from hard science. His novels plunge fearlessly into arcane scientific realms where lesser writers would fear to tread — nanotechnology in Prey, genetics in Next. He courted controversy ardently: he wrote about sexual harassment in Disclosure and the expanding Japanese economic hegemony in Rising Sun (back in 1992 when that was an edgy topic). Most infamously he attacked the theory of global warming in State of Fear.
Crichton's authorial persona paradoxically combined a true nerd's fascination with science and technology — he even dabbled in computer programming — with an extreme cautiousness about their uses. Time and again his novels feature overeager scientific researchers, greedy for cash and knowledge, who evade regulation and supervision to open one Pandora's Box after another, always with fatal consequences. In his world-view the raw chaos and complexity of nature always lead to unforeseen consequences. "Science is a kind of glorified tailoring enterprise," Crichton wrote in Travels, "a method for taking measurements that describe something — reality — that may not be understood at all."
Crichton is best known, of course, for Jurassic Park, his novel about a scientist who clones dinosaurs from their fossilized DNA, with disastrous results. It may be the most effective showcase for Crichton's gifts as a novelist, but even setting that aside, its predictive power remains astonishing to this day. Just this week, Japanese scientists announced that they had successfully cloned mice from tissue that was frozen for 16 years. Can the resurrection of the woolly mammoth be far off? Crichton probably wouldn't have approved, but it's a shame nonetheless that he didn't live to see it.
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