Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What's Next

I'm reading Michael Crichton's book NEXT. Crichton always takes some scientific "news" and then asks the question that Stephen King advises writers to start with, that is "what if...". What comes after the what if of course is up to the author and makes or breaks the book. In this one Crichton asks - what if genetic "advances" got out of control, or are they already out of control. What if a genetic "advance" was accidentally found which allowed humans to modify violent or unreliable behaviour such as addiction and was exploited by various interests and what if other genetic experiments allowed transgenic modification of primates such as chimps or parrots which allowed them to learn human language and other "human" skills. And along the way we learn about theft of body parts, strange genetic diseases, patenting of human genomes, stem cell research and other concerns of the biotech business.

I always enjoy Crichton's books and this one is no exception. I always learn so much. The reader reviews for this one weren't all that good; fans were disappointed and said it didn't live up to previous efforts, others said it was too segmented, jumping around from character to character, following different storylines which then intersect, so they found it hard to follow. Some called it "middling" Crichton.

I am just over half way through and I might agree that this isn't his best book but the quality is not so low that I would not recommend it if you like this kind of book. The author does jump around a lot and I usually don't like that but perhaps I am getting used to it as a technique, or maybe it just suits the kind of story he is trying to tell. The book is punctuated with seemingly true excerpts from various media - print, internet etc.- about various biotech research results. One for example- supposedly from the BBC- reports on experts in Germany who suggest that blondes will become extinct by 2022. " Scientists say too few people now carry the gene for blondes to last much longer." Another of these pseudo reports is about transgenic species - a cactus which grows hair, or a butterfly with two different wings - displayed by artists as art or genetically modifed fluorescing fish marketed under the brand name " glofish" as a pet . All too believeable given the proximity these items are to what we read in our morning newspapers or in Discover magazine. It is hard in fact to distinguish which parts are true and which are fiction. As one reviewer said:

It’s tempting to stop and look up each of the genetic, legal and ethical aberrations described here in order to see how wild a strain of science fiction is afoot. Save a step. Just believe this: Oddity after oddity in “Next” checks out, and many are replays of real events. “This novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren’t,” Mr. Crichton writes, greatly understating the book’s scary legitimacy.

And he's right because I did want to bring the book down to my computer and look up some of these things, to check which of these startling scientific practices are really of the present rather than the future.

Yes, the characters are a bit one dimensional and not very lovable (except for Gerard the telltale parrot) but I do want to find out how they end up.

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Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)