Prey – Michael Crichton

After reading ten of Michael Crichton’s books over the years, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that his reach exceeds his grasp.

Prey is no exception.

Set in the new scientific frontier of nano-technology, Crichton cautionary tale mixes his usual blend of amoral scientests, venture capital and new technology run amuck to craft a marginally interesting story set (mostly) in a Mojave research lab. The scientests have combined artificial intelligence, nano-technology and emergent behavior to create a new type of life form – a swarm of miniscule, molecule-sized machines that rapidly evolve their own purpose and direction, potentially threatening not only the scientests (and the intrepid “good guy” who must work with them to shut it down) within the lab, but the future of life on Earth.

The problem with the book doesn’t come from the ideas – Crichton is great with ideas – and not from the science – again, an area that Crichton manages to pull together reasonably well (albeit somewhat dull to read for page after page) – but from the simple fact that his books almost all tend to be shallow, relatively characterless and, quite bluntly, not that original in their take on the ideas and concepts he spins out. Indeed several of his books (most notably Jurassic Park, Timeline, Rising SunCongo,… well okay, almost all of them…) seem to more concept treatments then real novels, written as Hollywood screenplay pitches rather then as fully evolved stories. When I think about what the ideas he has developed could be in the hands of a pure science fiction writer, I get chills, I get excited….but not over what Crichton has written.

Prey is particularly disapointing in this vein. The characters are mostly lacking any clear motivation or distinguishing features (beyond such attributes as race, gender, age or general appearance), the dialogue is light (and mostly clunky) and the plot situation is such that I found myself predicting (with a fair amount of exactitude) the ending. In truth, I didn’t really care by the time the book ended what happened to the characters. It wasn’t so bad that I was cheering on the vicious and destructive nano-particles (well, okay…maybe I was…a little…) but it certainly wasn’t good…

For a better (and far more fascinating) read on nano-technology set far in the future, check out Walter Jon Williams’ book Aristoi.

Read physicist Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk that kick-started the nanotechnology concept here and some additional background info on nanotechnology here and here.

Here’s an article on the potential dangers of nanotechnology that makes Crichton’s book look like a gentle walk in the park….be afraid, be very afraid.

Here’s another Crichton for you….

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