Michael Crichton (1942-2008) was a prolific author, screenwriter and director for TV and movies, but it sometimes surprises me that he has become remembered almost entirely for a very short list of accomplishments… specifically, Jurassic Park, Westworld, The Andromeda Strain, and sometimes ER (of which he was creator, writer and executive producer).
But this rare creator not only penned many incredible novels besides the few most people think of, but he was the writer/director of some low-budget movies that so beautifully define him to me, including The Terminal Man, Runaway, and Looker. His bigger-budget movies, such as Sphere, Rising Sun and Disclosure (also based on books), are also high on my list of movies to watch… when you can catch them.
The Andromeda Strain was the first of his novels that I read, followed by The Terminal Man. Both were made into movies, and The Andromeda Strain remains one of the best hard science SF movies ever made, to date. (It was Robert Wise’s directing credit on Andromeda that put him on the short list to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) It was the influence of these books and movies that made sure I was on the lookout for Crichton material on a constant basis.
It’s true that his modus operandi for storytelling was well-known (and often parodied—in this case the sincerest form of flattery); but fewer people realize that he had a second, slightly less popular but equally effective MO. The more popular one was, of course, taking a situation where modern science and technology was used to create something groundbreaking, fascinating, desirable… then to introduce some flaw in the system, either scientific or (most often) human, that rapidly turned everything to Hell.
The Andromeda Strain and Westworld are both good examples of situations where the technology had a (ultimately human-designed) flaw that turned everything sour: In Andromeda, the team investigating a virus from space almost makes a disastrous decision because a teleprinter malfunctioned; and in Westworld, badly-designed security measures locked-out the park’s controllers just as the Delos robots started to malfunction themselves. The landmark Jurassic Park is a great example of the human flaw bringing down the great system, but he also made use of it in his movies Runaway and Looker.
Most people have forgotten Runaway and Looker, mainly because of unbalanced acting and unimpressive cinematography, but each story was very Crichton and very ahead of its time. In Runaway (1984), the spread of robotics into everyday society, including robotic maids and work bots, self-driving cars and flying drones, eventually required a branch of the police force that dealt with “runaway” robots that had malfunctioned and threatened to endanger the populace (mostly in minor ways). But when a terrorist programmer creates and sells ROM chips that can reprogram robots to kill, he must be caught and stopped by the Runaway squad.
Looker (1981) features fashion models that agree to supply their body measurements to a commercial firm pioneering the latest in computer-generated commercials that optimize the ability to sell, including hypno-subliminal messages in the commercial signal… but their doctor (a plastic surgeon) exposes the conspiracy after some of the models turn up dead.
Take another look at those movies’ dates, and consider today’s headlines a moment. Crichton was especially good at looking at emerging trends and creating productions based on very believable (and prescient) projections of the future, then exploiting ways in which things could go wrong. Debate the quality of the productions all you want, but the concepts were strong and ahead of the curve, and about subjects that are regularly discussed today.
The other of Crichton’s MOs was to take a fairly pedestrian dramatic event—a murder case, a corporate conspiracy—and place technology in the central role as a story driver. Airframe, Rising Sun and Disclosure all feature a heavy use of technology by the heroes to suss out the details of the events in question, usually to discover someone using technology inappropriately or deliberately to conceal facts and hide complicity in crimes. (My novel As The Mirror Cracks uses this story method—personal plugging Steve.)
Although the movies simplify the technological detective work and the crime committed to simple and sometimes silly tropes—usually due to a movies’ inherent time constraints and the apparent assumption by studios that moviegoers have the intelligence of laconic ants—the novels of all three of those movies remain powerful examples of the use of modern technology in modern stories.
Throughout, Crichton has demonstrated a better understanding of the interaction between people and technology in today’s society than most SF authors, who prefer to work in timelines a few decades, centuries or millennia in the future. Stephen King is quoted to have admired Crichton’s ability to convince his audience that technological ideas of the future weren’t “…just over the horizon but possible tomorrow. Maybe today.”
This ability to create stories that feel real in today’s world makes Michael Crichton one of my favorite authors, whose work I wish I could emulate, and whose talent I will dearly miss.
“There is no one in the wings that will ever take his place.”
—Steven Spielberg on Michael Crichton’s death