Review: Sphere by Michael Crichton

20 Books of Summer 2022: Book 2

Michael Crichton’s Sphere and Jurassic Park are the oldest books on my shelf. I can’t remember the first time I read them—middle school?—but they’ve survived all the moves and reorganizations of the intervening years. It’s risky to revisit books you loved as a kid, but given how well Jurassic Park held up, I added Sphere to my summer list.

Sphere follows a small team of scientists and Navy personnel into the sea as they investigate a crashed spaceship in 1,000 feet of water. The spaceship is at least 300 years old, and everyone is tense at the possibility of encountering alien life. On board, they find a massive sphere. There’s no indication what the sphere is, what its purpose is, whether it contains something alive, or is itself alive. As they poke around the ship, things get weird. While the pacing and mood of the book is similar to Crichton’s others, the subject is stranger than most, and the ending is fairly polarizing.

The story is told in close third-person narration following Norman Johnson, a psychologist tasked with evaluating the mental health of the team as they investigate. Because of this, there’s more on what characters think/feel and their motivation than in other Crichton books as Norman picks them apart at every opportunity. I wouldn’t say that Norman’s takes are 100% accurate; they seem driven by broad trends in psychology and generic assumptions. He sounds learned in the sense that he can cite studies and experiments, but he doesn’t seem particularly bright when analyzing folks in real time. I can’t tell whether this limitation should be attributed to shortcomings in Crichton’s research, or the fact that he was always a writer with cool ideas more than complex characters.

One other note on characterization: Part of me is irritated that Beth, the biologist and only woman on Norman’s team, falls into some ugly and stereotypical shortcomings as the book progresses—she becomes increasingly illogical, nurses a nasty inferiority complex, and holds some warped views of men and women. It would have made for a more interesting character if her flaws weren’t the usual litany of negative stereotypes. At the end of the day, though, Beth’s characterization doesn’t get under my skin too much because she’s not the only woman in the book (the others are sane and competent). There’s also reason to believe that Norman becomes a less and less reliable narrator as the book progresses.

Like Crichton’s other books, there are plenty of chase and action scenes. This is the main area in which the book comes a little off the rails. It might just be me, but it wasn’t always clear what was where in the habitat. The habitat is composed of cylinders joined by a central hallway (I think) and there’s a lot of running from section to section. I struggled to build a mental image of where people were at given times, which made the stakes of some scenes harder to understand. Additionally, everyone—even the relatively untrained civilians—is able to leave the habitat faster than you’d think possible. At climactic moments, they can don a heated suit, helmet, and air system suspiciously quickly, but this is a minor quibble; whether or not it’s accurate, it fits with the otherwise frenetic pace of the book.

And the ending . . . I understand anyone who says they don’t like it. After so much tension and drama, it wraps up in a simple way. It’s not as bad as “And then they woke up!” but you can sum up the final scene just as briefly, and the solution comes as swiftly as waking. There’s a little complexity because it’s explained how this sequence of events neatly sidesteps a paradox, but there’s no disguising that it’s the “easiest” ending. On the whole, I don’t mind it. Sphere is a quick read, and I don’t think it would have been served by an open ending or a sequel.

Overall: 4.2 (out of 5.0) It’s an entertaining read and one of Crichton’s more memorable books, but I’m not sure it’s his best.

20 Books of Summer 2022

Previously on

  1. A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

Read, review coming soon

  1. The Appointment by Herta Müller
  2. The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
  3. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
  4. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Currently reading

  1. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  2. Dune by Frank Herbert
  3. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Unread, review coming later

  1. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  2. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
  3. The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
  4. Human Acts by Han Kang
  5. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  6. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  7. The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
  8. Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard
  9. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  10. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  11. TBD

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