Wednesday, December 7, 2011

It's not a masterpiece, but it's fine airplane reading

by Michael Crichton & Richard Preston

I was, and am, a huge fan of Michael Crichton's work. I never had very high expectations for this final novel, but that's no reflection on the choice of Richard Preston to complete the work. In any case, for better or worse, Micro lived up to my tempered expectations.

Like several of Crichton's earlier novels, Micro has a high concept hook. Most nanotech companies fabricate on a nano scale, but Nanigen MicroTechnologies has developed revolutionary shrinking technology. Not only can they reduce machines and robots, they can reduce living beings and then return them to full size. I won't get into all the details of the novel's set-up, but seven graduate students learn about this technology the hard way once they become a threat to Nanigen's president. Seven against one is much easier to manage when the seven (and one unlucky Nanigen employee) are half an inch tall. Before they can be dispatched quickly, however, the students escape into Hawaii's verdant "micro world."

Crichton's strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller remain consistent. His primary characters are more archetypes than individuals. Rather than Rick, Erika, Amar, and Karen, these students quickly show themselves to be the Leader, the Warrior, the Know It All, the Weasel, and so forth. Each has an assigned role to fulfill. Some barely live long enough to become typecast, because the micro world is treacherous. When you're half an inch tall, a beetle is not unlike a rhinoceros. Luckily, these students are unusually well prepared to survive their hostile surroundings--or unusually well informed about the danger they're in--depending on how you look at it. Among them there are experts in insects and arachnids, poisons and venoms, and the chemical defenses of plants and animals.

Crichton is great about translating the wonder of science. His amazing shrinking technology won't send me running to the textbooks this time around, but there's still plenty of gee whiz science to be enjoyed in Micro's pages. More than that, he effectively shows the beauty as well as the horror of the situation his characters are in. As for the horror, I have to admit that I found it especially disturbing this time out. I have no special fear of dinosaurs, but I am absolutely phobic about spiders and insects. There are scenes that I definitely could have done without reading, and if this is an issue for you as well, be forewarned.

Much like Jurassic Park, Micro has a picaresque quality, with its protagonists leaping from one threat to another. I hate to say it, but the plotting was pretty by the book. There was a police procedural subplot that never really went anywhere, and true surprises were few and far between. Despite this, I read the novel easily in a day (instead of saving it for my Thanksgiving flight like I was supposed to). Once I started, I didn't want to stop reading, and the pages flew past swiftly.

Preston appears to have done a good job finishing what Crichton left behind. There is no feeling that this is the work of another author. Still, I do find myself wondering how the novel would have differed had Crichton written it all. Alas, we'll never know. If you're a hard-core Crichton fan like me, by all means read this novel. Just don't expect this final work to be the man's masterpiece. And even if you're not a hard-core fan, if the premise sounds fun to you, you could do a lot worse for airplane reading.


  1. I think I'm ok with a fine airplane read. I was hoping I'd start this one this week, but maybe this weekend. Slight delay -- I'm so looking forward to it, though. I still have Pirate Latitudes in my TBR as well.

  2. So I started it yesterday and am 3/4 through now. You're absolutely right, it's a great airplane read. Or, in my case, a respite from a stressful few weeks. How many times did you think, "Honey, I shrunk the kids!" during this one, though?

  3. You know, I never saw that movie, but I get what you're saying. :-)

    I'm glad you're finding Micro to be fluffy entertainment as I did, because there have been a lot of scathing reviews. I'm not going to argue that it's a great book, but I've read far worse.