20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 7
In my early teens, I read Michael Crichton’s books over and over, but not Jurassic Park. Instead, I watched the movie 30 times and pounced on the sequel as soon as I knew it existed. Reading Crichton still feels nostalgic. I remember counting down to the release of his final books and being immersed in the possibility of time travel, nanobots, mind-reading spheres, dinosaurs…and all the rest he imagined. Crichton had a unique gift for adding the right amount of science to his fiction. He often began with a contemporary world filled with recognizable characters before tweaking the science to build something fantastic.
Because of the title, and the back cover, and because darn near everyone saw the awesome film adaptation in 1993 (which has held up, btw), there’s not a lot of mystery around Jurassic Park‘s basic plot:
From the back cover:
An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now, one of mankind’s most thrilling fantasies has come true. Creatures extinct for eons now roam Jurassic Park with their awesome presence and profound mystery and all the world can visit them—for a price. Until something goes wrong….
The story is set before the park opens. Dr. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler (who is a 24-year old grad student in the book) are pulled away from their newly discovered raptor skeleton by John Hammond, their patron, to provide a consultation in Costa Rica. Once there, they’re acquainted with a mathematician obsessed by chaos theory (Ian Malcolm), Hammond’s grandkids (Tim and Lex), a host of Jurassic Park employees, and DINOSAURS. (Parts of this book make me regress to a 12-year-old. Sorry.) Unlike the movie, which enjoys making folks run, climb, and hide to avoid hungry, aggressive dinos, Crichton’s story is more technical. The book focusses on the implications of this awesome scientific leap and the danger of resurrecting dinosaurs; the movie, in contrast, is devoted to the dinosaurs’ intense power and dedicates large chunks of screen time as a PSA that dinosaurs are cool and majestic.
Right from the start, it’s clear Crichton’s Jurassic Park is never going to open. When Alan and Ellie arrive and visit their guest suite, they find a room still under construction with subtle clues that something is awry. The lodge differs from the plans Hammond shared with them in a key way:
“But did you notice anything about the rooms, Alan?”
“They changed the plans.”
“I think so, yes.” She moved around the room. “The windows are small,” she said. “And the glass is tempered, set in a steel frame. The doors are steel-clad. That shouldn’t be necessary. And did you see the fence when we came in?”
Grant nodded. The entire lodge was enclosed within a fence, with bars of inch-thick steel. The fence was gracefully landscaped and painted flat black to resemble wrought iron, but no cosmetic effort could disguise the thickness of the metal, or its twelve-foot height. “I don’t think the fence was in the plans, either,” Ellie said. “It looks to me like they’ve turned this place into a fortress.”
Grant looked at his watch. “We’ll be sure to ask why,” he said. (87)
That the resort side of the island was redesigned for greater security tells you the park has learned something about its dinosaurs in the time between hatching the idea and hatching little velociraptors. When you add this to the ominous tone of the opening chapters which suggest small dinosaurs may have escaped and that a park worker has been grievously injured, there’s no point at which the reader takes Jurassic Park’s safety measure and protocols seriously. It’s always a house of cards. And it’s wonderfully intense watching everything fall.
There’s still running from dinosaurs, as in the movie, but Crichton slips in more character development, more scientific questions, and more technical thrills. When I picked up this book, I expected to encounter a wordy screenplay. It never occurred to me that the story would be noticeably different, or that it wouldn’t be as flashy or full of jump scares as the movie. Maybe I was dismissive on some level because, you know, dinosaurs, but the book never breaks into silliness or improbability. It’s gripping, authentic, and takes a stab at legit technological and moral questions.
Reading this book in 2015 (25 years after its writing) presents an interesting angle, but even though the book was written to speak lovingly of 90s tech, it doesn’t feel dated:
“First, InGen shipped three Cray XMPs to Costa Rica. InGen characterized it as a transfer within company divisions, and said they weren’t for resale. But OTT couldn’t imagine why the hell somebody’d need that power in Costa Rica.”
“Three Crays,” Grant said. “Is that a kind of computer?” (39)
Because I was alive and fascinated by computers in the 90s, I remember reading about these:
Happily, Crichton’s description doesn’t involve the size or give specific processing information for the Crays. There’s nothing in his writing to invite mental images of “slow” and bulky 90s tech. When explaining how long it takes to process DNA information, Crichton’s computers still sound impressive. Sure, they take a few minutes to process a chunk of DNA, but when you read this after reading about the incredible complexity of a DNA strand (even a fragment!) your net impression is wonder at the complexity of life, not at the timing of an old computer. You would think a book that makes a plot point out of technological limitations would struggle to feel timeless. The tech alone should plant it firmly in a decade, but Crichton’s energy and focus on the creative, on the larger questions of bioengineering, and DINOSAURS, give the book an unexpected timeless quality. What skill!
(Let’s not talk about the screen caps towards the end! :P)
Translation: Read it!! It’s a quick read—good for a weekend.