We lost a great mind when Michael Crichton passed away.
What can I say about his novels? They were some of the best parts of my adolescence. Entertaining, detailed, diligently researched. I’ve read and re-read them too many times to count. I still remember my copy of Jurassic Park splitting in two along the spine while reading it during one of my many in-school-suspension stints. And the guy monitoring us wouldn’t let me have any Scotch tape. Which is cruel and unusual punishment, if you ask me.
Yes, Michael Crichton was the Jurassic Park guy, but he was a lot besides. He wrote and directed the 1973 film Westworld (I hear y’all are fans of the contemporary TV show), the 1978 film Coma (which he adapted from the Robin Cook novel and was creepy as hell), and the 1984 film Runaway, with Tom Selleck as the hero and Gene Simmons as the villain (which fits nicely, if you’ve read Peter Criss’ autobiography). There was plenty more of his work on both the big and small screen, too, and not just the adapted stuff. Twister, the long-running TV show ER, The Great Train Robbery.
And there were his novels, each one a deep-dive into science and technology and our interactions with them, exciting action mixed with somewhat accessible techno-babble. And yet, he seems destined to forever be known as the Creator of Jurassic Park. Not a bad legacy, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.
I first came across his stuff in my early teens. It wasn’t easy for me to buy books in those days. The nearest bookstore was around an hour away, and I was still a few years away from driving age. I managed to pick up a bunch of Michael Crichton’s books in paperback, and among the earliest I bought was The Andromeda Strain. The book follows a group of scientists as they try to figure out the nature of the deadly space-sickness that came down on a crashed satellite. They’ve got a few clues and a whole lot of state-of-the-art equipment, but can they solve the mystery before more people die? Well, can they?
They tell me I was a smart kid, and I guess I might’ve been a smart teenager, but there was still plenty in The Andromeda Strain that I didn’t understand. And remember, this was in the days before the internet, before one could simply take out their phone and look up an unfamiliar word or concept. As I got older, re-reading got easier, and like a lot of his books, I would finish The Andromeda Strain feeling smarter than when I started it.
Aside from making my brain bigger, the book also warped my idea of science fiction in general. The idea of bipedal, humanoid (or even vaguely humanoid) sci-fi aliens started to seem absurd, particularly after I learned more on my own about the origins of life here on Earth and the process of evolution. I started to realize that the odds were good that, if we ever discover life out there, it would be completely unlike anything we could imagine. The book itself asserts that humans’ first-contact with extraterrestrial life would most likely be with organisms on a unicellular level. In other words, there’d be none of that actors-wearing-blue-makeup crap that’s so popular among sci-fi movies and TV shows. Of course, given the near-infinite nature of the universe, it’s possible, however unlikely, there is life out there that has, by sheer coincidence, evolved into beings that resemble humans. But wouldn’t it be more fun, as a writer, to dream up something completely new and utterly weird?
The Andromeda Strain was adapted into a movie in 1971, directed by Robert Wise. It’s a pretty good film, and a fairly faithful adaptation. And at the top of my copy of the DVD: “From the Creator of Jurassic Park Michael Crichton.”
The next story I write will be set in space, as humans leave the Earth behind in search of a new home. And it won’t be Star Trek or Star Wars that’ll inspire me. It’ll be books like The Andromeda Strain, the ones that keep the science firmly in the science fiction. Because I think adhering to a bit of scientific rigor can actually spawn more inventive scenarios, stranger lifeforms, and deeper investigations into who we are as a species. Michael Crichton, I think, understood that better than many.
Rest in peace, sir.
As for the rest of you, I’ll see you next time.