Monday, July 11, 2016

Microreview [book]: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Never put Newman in charge of your computer systems.

I spent last summer with my nephews, one of whom is hardcore into dinosaurs, kaiju--all that good stuff. Our daily "who would win in a fight" conversations convinced me to re-explore that territory as an adult. So I decided to finally sit down and read Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.

On the surface, Jurassic Park is about dinosaurs and cloning. Billionaire John Hammond has created an island theme park off Costa Rica that features living, breathing dinosaurs. But with reports of strange lizards attacking children on the mainland, and the park behind schedule, Hammond decides he needs to demonstrate that his venture is both safe and ready to open. So he invites a group of observers to the island: paleontologists, Alan Grant and Ellie Satler, chaos mathematician Ian Malcolm, lawyer Donald Gennaro (who represents the islands chief investors) and his niece and nephew, Tim and Lex Murphy. Only there's a problem with the computer systems, and the guy he's hired to fix things--Newman from Seinfeld--has his own agenda. What could possibly go wrong?

In short, just about everything. And it all starts with Newman and his nefarious scheming, which causes a power outage that, in turn, lowers the electrical barriers between the island's different dinosaur pens.

Consequently, much of the rest of the novel is basically made up of people running from and/or getting predated by the island's two giant Tyrannosaurs and pack of mid-sized Velociraptors. And as a horror/technothriller mashup, Jurassic Park works brilliantly. Crichton is not an artful writer, but he is a master at building tension. The prose is lean, the dialogue snappy and the book manages to be quite scary at times. I could not put it down, and felt thoroughly enmeshed in the world of the dinosaur park.

Unfortunately, as science fiction, Jurassic Park works rather less well. Very little of the dinosaur science is actually correct--even by the standards of 1990, when the book was written. For example, Velociraptors in the book are (1) reptilian; (2) human sized; (3) super fast; and (4) highly intelligent pack hunters. While fast, real Velociraptors were also feathered and about the size of a small turkey. And there is no evidence of either intelligence or pack hunting behavior. Of course, some have argued that Crichton merely used the name Velociraptor to describe Deinonychus--a larger cousin. But that only solves the size issue. And paleontologists do not believe that Deinonychus shared Velociraptor's speed. So yeah...the science? Still not so good.

Then there's the T-Rex, who ignores the island's many herbivores in order to chase three humans around the park. Given the dietary requirements of a large body, and the lack of protein and fat on a human body, this makes zero sense.

Thankfully, Jurassic Park does a better job with chaos theory than with dinosaur paleobiology. You may recall that chaos theory had achieved a certain cultural cachet in the late 80s/early 90s, commonly shorthanded through the metaphor of the butterfly effect (which holds that a butterfly flapping its wings can affect global weather patterns at the aggregate). While not literally so, researchers across the physical and social sciences have demonstrated the broader truth of the butterfly effect--namely, that small changes to a nonlinear system can have deep, abiding and unpredictable effects.

In Jurassic Park, chaos theory serves as the explanans for why everything goes wrong with the park. Malcolm, the chaos mathematician, serves as the book's Cassandra. He doesn't know what, exactly, will fail; he just knows that you can't clone dinosaurs with added frog DNA and hope to keep them safely in a theme park. Of course, you don't really need chaos theory to figure that out. And the fact that Malcolm's argument against the park basically boils down to "this park is going to fail because...chaos" make the scenes he shares with Hammond increasingly tedious as the book goes on.

In the end, though, you aren't here for mathematical theories or dinosaur science. You're here for bone-crunching thrills, and in that respect, Jurassic Park does not disappoint. Issues aside, it's a hell of an airport novel.

Chomp chomp.    

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for chomp chomp; +1 crunch crunch.

Penalties: -1 for all the dinosaur science being wrong; -1 for one too many "...because chaos" soliloquies from Malcolm.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."

REFERENCE: Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park [Knopf, 1990].

Our scoring system demystified.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.