Criticism: Sean Hooks
Revisiting Jurassic Park
Michael Crichton wasn’t so much a genre writer as he was just a legitimately smart guy, a six-foot-nine-inch polymath brimming with audacity. He was a skeptic, an oracle, a Cassandra, a brand, a protean force. His November 2008 obituaries made much of the fact that he was at one point simultaneously responsible for the top-rated television show, the bestselling book, and the number one movie in America. I’ll spare you the biography, though the highlights are impressive and diverse—Harvard Medical, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, taught writing at MIT, published a nonfiction study about the life and work of Jasper Johns—because it is clearly Jurassic Park that is the capstone to his illustrious legacy and truly unique career.
His was an age when writing books could actually be lucrative, when a bestseller was something to aspire to and could be accomplished via a route that didn’t involve teen vampires or children’s lit or shades of gray, a realm dominated by monoliths like Stephen King and John Irving (who seem downright highbrow compared to our present-day agglomeration of Oprah-stamped memoirs, tween fiction, beach reads, and partisan polemics), back when books which could be discussed intelligently across class and political lines literally sold millions of copies. I’m talking, of course, primarily about the eighties and nineties.
I was born in 1976 at the tail end of generation X, and I first read Jurassic Park in high school, right as the movie was coming out, part of a choose-two-books-off-this-list summer reading assignment. The other book I opted to read? Camus’ The Stranger, which will come into play shortly.
During my college years, the spectacle of ER was mandatory Thursday night viewing right after Friends and Seinfeld. Its heyday coincided with the early days of bourgeoning Internet availability, but tech was something Crichton was into long before that. His earliest works, such as The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, still ring true today, in an undated way, evocative of Kubrick films and Vonnegut stories.
Crichton is no great stylist, even by mass market paperback standards. His writing displays an affinity for detail, but he’s not nearly as verbose, baroque, or subject specifically obsessive as Anne Rice or Tom Clancy. Even Jurassic Park’s instances of verbatim ASCII presentation feel less like esoterica and more like avant-garde flourishes. Crichton values plot, as do writers ranging from established shibboleths like Neil Gaiman to New Yorker–approved phenoms like Téa Obreht. Plot sells, whether its origins are literary or not. We could go off on a tangent about the “common reader” and “what is literary fiction?,” and we could even evoke the standby Franzen-Marcus debate (populism versus experimentalism). We could talk about plot’s singular ability to manipulate the reader, to evoke and immerse, but it’s much simpler than that. Crichton was an individual who felt that fiction, that all the arts, had a duty not just to manipulate or to entertain, but also to illuminate, to explore his (and our) fears, especially when it came to science, to medicine, to technology. Why dinosaurs? Because dinosaurs are, for a secular and science-minded smart guy, the equivalent of Gaiman’s gods or Obreht’s ghosts.
A scientific purist but a utilitarian prose man, Crichton was a cinematic scene builder. Jurassic Park’s prologue is undeniably badass and has lost none of its impact. I recently reread the book, twenty years since that first encounter during the latter years of high school. With my tastes now more refined, my literary filter more discerning, my scrutiny honed, my own writing more polished, and my critical aptitude far more incisive, I still have to marvel at the first ten pages (and encourage you to pick up a copy and do the same). Prior to the prologue is an introduction subtitled “The InGen Incident,” which combines the more-popular-than-ever reality blurring favored by so many of today’s edgiest writers with a socially invested moral fiction. It’s half David Shields’ Reality Hunger and half John Gardner, and it’s the lead-in to an idea-driven socially conscious mainstream novel that also plays with form—and with what is real. Reality is a concern throughout, from an early vignette about a thirty-year-old woman obsessed with plastic surgery to a lengthy discussion about whether or not tweaking the cloned dinosaurs’ DNA to domesticize them is ethical.
Coming after the structuralist foreground material of the Introduction, the above-mentioned prologue is a supremely efficient jab of fiction writing, to use the boxing terminology (or a fantastic hook, to use the jargon of journalism). This section went unlensed by the midcareer wunderkind who directed the adaptation that started the franchise, and that will be my last comment regarding the 1993 film and its helmer, who made an enjoyable if cheesy dinosaur movie, but who’d previously directed a truly transcendent shark movie—said director’s greatest filmic achievement, and maybe even a nominee for greatest movie of all time, according to no less than Steven Soderbergh, a Jaws devotee whose highly underrated and misunderstood Contagion shares numerous elements with Crichton’s novel.
Soderbergh’s underlying theme in that picture was social distancing; an auteur expressing a concern, genuinely dubious of where we are headed. Crichton too is not at all averse to agitprop, railing against the rapacious and raptor-like corporate commercialization of genetic innovation, exhorting scientists to regulate instead of patent-seek. Though Crichton earns scorn in some quarters for extending his skepticism to global warming, I refuse to deploy the ridiculous and Holocaust coopting “denier” appellation merely because he had the chutzpah to challenge the environmentalist religiosity of citing a single not-to-be-questioned theory as the unilateral cause of climate change. But back to that prologue, which is dense and dramatic and loaded with appropriate foreboding (later on, the novel does devolve into portentousness at times) via hints and symbols and foreshadowing that only become apparent after having read the whole story, evidence that parts of Jurassic Park are simply a real treat. There is an effortlessness of execution in the best pop entertainments which nowadays seems all too rarely employed, but which can be conjured up in moments leafing through early Malamud or comic Roth, in just about every scene in The Sting or Midnight Run, in a chosen track off Astral Weeks or any given segment of a live Springsteen bootleg. Crichton’s novel seeks to achieve that same quality and largely succeeds, so much so that blurb clichés like “undeniable page-turner” and “blistering pace” suddenly seem accurate and applicable assessments.
Characters, however, admittedly function mostly as placeholders and are often not much more than their profession personified. Complexity, depth, interior narratives: these are not Crichton’s forte. And the crutch of the motley cast of characters is better used in the more metaphysical Sphere. In Jurassic Park, we get the male and female scientists, the black-clad superstar mathematician, the overweight systems analyst, the sleazy lawyer, the great white game hunter, the eccentric mogul—all we’re missing is Gilligan, Ginger, and Mary Ann. Inserting a pair of children to ratchet up the danger (and unnecessarily complicate POV) feels like a real misstep, an unnecessary trick, a second trilogy George Lucas error, if not quite of Jar Jar proportions.
The ominous matter-of-fact depictions of gore now read as overused, and they diminish the impact of violent imagery like authority figures who curse or yell too often. Their approach scares you the first time, but with each reiteration they are sapped of power and effectiveness. The fear of automation also reads as very nineties—that sinister voicemail tree is replacing the live voice, the ATM is supplanting the bank teller, what will we do when midnight strikes on Y2K?
The main characters, though one-dimensional, have a certain forecasting accuracy. Ian Malcolm and his missives about chaos theory anticipate our current economic uncertainties and global governmental rupturings, as well as predict the oeuvre of someone like Nassim Taleb, most notably his landmark book The Black Swan. Attempts to build up a foggy mystique around park creator John Hammond as a flamboyant and eternally precocious Dr. Moreau are a tad long-winded, and the accompanying dialogue is too on-the-nose, but the mixture of a capitalistic, growth-at-all-costs mindset and an unchecked eclecticism is also now much more commonplace. Quasi-protagonists Alan Grant and Ellie Sadler, the paleontologists, are presented as “hot nerds,” which read as forced and idealistic in high school, but now has me strangely reminded of actress-etcetera Olivia Munn (her own sort of polymath), or NBA all-stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, young, handsome, successful African American ballers who dress like hipster Urkels. But in the end, the irksome shortcut character descriptions felt passé even on that first perusal back in my teens, and read as downright atrocious now:
Grant was a professor of paleontology at the University of Denver, and one of the foremost researchers in his field, but he had never been comfortable with social niceties. He saw himself as an outdoor man, and he knew that all the important work in paleontology was done outdoors, with your hands. Grant had little patience for the academics, for the museum curators, for what he called Teacup Dinosaur Hunters. And he took some pains to distance himself in dress and behavior from the Teacup Dinosaur Hunters, even delivering his lectures in jeans and sneakers.
Yick. Show don’t tell, Michael.
I made few connections between Crichton and Camus back in the mid-nineties summer when I read their best-known books for the first time, but now the parallels are more apparent. All of Crichton’s later novels might as well have been titled The Plague, and in rereading Jurassic Park, there is a retributive streak that I’ve often noticed in the dashing Frenchman as well. In Crichton, it’s “See? This is what happens when the greedy and unscrupulous fuck around with the bioscience of genetic engineering.” In Camus, it’s “See? This is what happens when man comes face-to-face with his own existential ennui.” Whether the beach in question is in Costa Rica, as in Jurassic Park, or French-occupied North Africa, as in The Stranger, bloodshed as comeuppance is a theme. In both tales, people are victimized by naturalistic forces much larger than their vulnerable human selves. And in either circumstance, something pretty damn primordial goes down.
Mersault as predator, the unwitting velociraptor: am I really going there? Well, I could imagine Albert having quite a lot to say about lines like the following from Jurassic Park: “Studies of predator/prey populations in the game parks of Africa and India suggested that, roughly speaking, there was one predatory carnivore for every four hundred herbivores.” In fact, Camus wrote quite eloquently in his own philosophical texts The Rebel and Resistance, Rebellion, and Death about similarly unbalanced population numbers. The predation was French imperialism and the herbivores, of course, were Algeria.
Likewise, Crichton’s leave-well-enough-alone exhortations are certainly applicable to Daru in Camus’ miniature masterpiece “The Guest,” and in Jurassic Park, the author takes an almost gleeful joy in subjecting humanity to the gentle indifference of nature, which Mersault comments on in the famous closing lines of The Stranger. Camus and Crichton, both of agnostic/atheist bent, believed that good intentions deserved more skepticism than outright malevolence. It is arrogance and self-righteous certainty which they deplored, the egotistical and patriarchal impulse.
Jurassic Park’s oft-quoted lines about discovery equating to the rape of the natural world and the trepidations over scientists selling out to corporations seem almost quaint today. Hammond encouraging a Stanford grad to eschew the university in favor of the private corporation is written as an iteration of evil. Now it’s just the day-to-day operations of the Silicon Valley system. Keep in mind that Crichton wrote his novel in the era of modems, pre-Google, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and concurrent with the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union, at a time when the Human Genome Project was in its incipient stages, a full seven years before Dolly the Sheep was first stirring up arguments about the ethics of cloning. There is even a prescient line about the coming service economy from John Arnold, the chain-smoking systems engineer, who opines “that the entire world was increasingly defined by the metaphor of the theme park. ‘Paris is a theme park,’ he once announced, after a vacation, ‘although it’s too expensive, and the park employees are unpleasant and sullen.’” I wonder what Crichton would have to say about modern-day Las Vegas, smart phones, internet porn, hacktivists.
Jurassic Park also predates 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, southeast Asian tsunamis, Japanese earthquakes and a torrent of suicide bombings from the Middle East to London. Reconsidering it puts those events in perspective, reinforcing their truer and more terrifying nature. They are, in the larger picture, expected, commonplace.
Crichton does sermonize in this novel, usually through the mouthpiece of the Heinz Pagels–inspired Ian Malcolm, whose rants read like the Virginia Woolf of fractals. When he gets to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, I can’t help but be reminded of pop culture gargantua Breaking Bad. Though Vince Gilligan’s series may not be quite as intellectually satisfying as some of the other “great shows” (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men), it is ruthlessly proficient storytelling. It works because of the sheer force of its narrative thrust, a dynamic, propulsive, plot-driven entity stripped down to its minimalist essence, fortified by combustible scenarios and grounded in the astonishingly consistent lead performance of Bryan Cranston as Walter White. But back over in the written form, Crichton pauses the momentum he accrues in order to mount his soapbox, and I am torn about the efficacy of these pauses. They’re sometimes didactic and speechy, but others are pretty damn on-point. Exposing the notion of specialization as the bane of “thintelligence,” the fallacy of mistaking a narrow worldview for focus. Noting that Western ideology is quickly becoming archaic, that attempting to engineer an über-rational civilization is merely repeating the mistakes of the decline of the medieval era. Analogizing scientific power and inherited wealth. It all makes me want to mandate this book as reading for investment bankers, real estate agents, and cardiologists.
But the question I want to conclude with is this: did I enjoy my rereading of the novel? Two decades ago, I liked that Jurassic Park wasn’t PG, that it wasn’t boring, that it seemed written for intelligent people with a variety of interests and concerns. I could already tell that it didn’t have the purely artful merit of high literature, but I dug it the way I dug The Lord of the Rings: “Damn, the person who wrote this has a hell of an imagination!” It was well-executed and it straight-up had something to say. My teenage self appreciated its ambition, scope, and social commentary. I recommended it wholeheartedly as an example of how books could be cool, as I had a certain youthful desire to spread the joy of reading to those friends and classmates who preferred movies and video games.
Reading it now as an adult, there is something decidedly unchildlike about the book, a moribund and clinical aspect. Despite being about dinosaurs, there’s not a lot of awe and wonder. Menace rumbles and reverberates beneath almost every scene. It unswervingly privileges the Dionysian over the Apollonian. It is always more Lovecraft than Asimov. Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells are tangible influences as well, but even their most desolate portraits (“There Will Come Soft Rains” or “The Star”) feel more benign than Crichton’s. Jurassic Park is about humanity’s fanfaronade of hubris. The people in this book are presented as erratic, self-destructive, and unable to process the counterintuitive. There is a tone of relentless systemic entropy, of pervasive nihilism and inexorable determinism.
At one point, Crichton’s narrative hypothesizes that children are fascinated by dinosaurs because of their size and their inaccessibility, because they loom like parents. Memorizing a bunch of obscure and lengthy dinosaur names is a way of trying to access, and exert some measure of control over, the powerful adult forces which govern a child’s world. Crichton’s bit of pediatric psychology, though well-conceived, does not diminish the bleakness of his worldview. As a writer, he does not have King’s literary aspirations, Irving’s natural storytelling chops, Obreht’s linguistic grace, or Gaiman’s genre-hopping ability. Nor does he possess Tolkien’s capacious ability to manifest a fictive world or Camus’ innate humanitarian impulse. There is an alarmism in this novel, a dire “it’s all breaking down, and you fools don’t realize it” component. There is that godhead perspective, as if the author is telling us that he’s seen the computer simulations, and he knows it’s not going to end well; the human beings shall not triumph. I am reminded of the opening lines of a song, a crescendoing dirge, the title track off If Children, the 2007 debut album by contemporary two-piece nu-gaze outfit Wye Oak:
If children were wishes
My mother spent hers on impossible things
My brother was money
My sister was love
And I was world peace
My brother he spent it
My sister got pregnant
And all that I’m worth
Will only come true
When there are no more of us left on this earth
For Crichton, that’s where we’re headed. Extinction. The harsh justice of an unpeopled planet. Camus said that no cause justified the death of the innocent, but that all greatness is rooted in risk. Jurassic Park implies that because of the risks we are taking, the death of the innocent is all but a foregone conclusion.
Sean Hooks was born and raised in New Jersey. He has a BA in liberal arts from Drew University; an MFA in fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and an MA in English from Loyola Marymount University. Currently residing in Los Angeles, he teaches at the University of California, Riverside. Recent publications include Superstition Review, SubStance, FORTH Magazine, Intellectual Refuge, The Journal, and Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written a novel and is actively seeking representation/publication. He is also working on a new book and a film project.