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Michael Crichton, dead at 66

November 5, 2008 |  1:25 pm

Andromedastrain_1105

Author Michael Crichton has died at age 66 after "a private battle with cancer." Crichton's career was probably one of a kind: After training as a doctor at Harvard and working as a fellow  at the Jonas Salk Institute, he became a bestselling author, then a successful screenwriter, award-winning movie director and TV producer. The move "Jurassic Park," based on his book and on which he shared screenwriting credit, is the No. 10 top grossing film of all time.

Crichton first reached the bestseller lists in 1969 with his book "The Andromeda Strain." "This book recounts the five-day history of a major American scientific crisis," the acknowledgments page begins. It seems to chronicle an actual event, including "real" scientific documents and transcribed communications of a crisis of Earth's contamination by an extraterrestrial  microorganism.

A man with binoculars. That is how it began: with a man standing by the side of the road, on a crest overlooking a small Arizona town, on a winter night.

Lieutenant Roger Shawn must have found the binoculars difficult. The metal would be cold, and he would be clumsy in his fur parka and heavy gloves. His breath, hissing out into the moonlit air, would have fogged the lenses. He would be forced to pause to wipe them frequently, using a stubby gloved finger.

He could not have known the futility of this action. Binoculars were worthless to see into that town and uncover its secrets. He would have been astonished to learn that the men who finally succeed used instruments a million times more powerful than binoculars.

There is something sad, foolish, and human in the image of Shawn leaning against a boulder, propping his arms on it, and holding the binoculars to his eyes. Though cumbersome, the binoculars would at least feel comfortable and familiar in his hands. It would be one of the last familiar sensations before his death.

In my 1970 Dell paperback, that's the end of Page 1. Pow! He sets the reader up, gets you right into Shawn's place in that cold night, holding binoculars and leaning on that boulder, then he kills him. All at once you want to know more: What killed him? What happened? Who's telling this story, and how does he know all this? And as he gets these questions going, he implies to the reader that they're like Shawn in another way: This book is going to feel unfamiliar. But the storytelling voice has enough confidence (the storyteller survived, and knows all) that you're reassured that you're in good hands.

Crichton liked to put his characters in a scientifically manipulated peril. He did it again in the film "Westworld," in which lifelike human robots in an amusement park run amok. In "Jurassic Park" too; there, re-vivified dinosaurs in an amusement park run amok. Then there was "Congo," in which scientists on an expedition are attacked by strange gorillas; "Prey," in which nanotechnology goes wrong; and "Next," in which genetic engineering goes wrong.

In 2004, Crichton stirred controversy by questioning global warming in his book "State of Fear" and making statements such as "I'm saying that environmental organizations are fomenting false fears in order to promote agendas and make money."

But controversy didn't affect his popularity; as of this writing, his official website has been swamped; there's a memorial page there, if you can get the site to load.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo from "The Andromeda Strain" by Universal Studios

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