The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 9, 2003

After dinos, it’s the nanos’ turn to thrill
Prerana Trehan

by Michael Crichton. Harper Collins.
Pages 367. Rs. 195.

PreyTHERE are deadlines and then there are deadlines. And while reviewing Michael Crichton’s books, they tend to fall in the latter category. After all, you have to make sure the book review comes out before the movie review does! Already topping the bestsellers charts, it is only a matter of time before Crichton’s latest thriller Prey tops the box office charts in its movie avatar, too.

If you are a Michael Crichton fan, Prey might disappoint somewhat, particularly if you are expecting the non-stop, and almost believable, thrill of Jurassic Park. Which is ironic, really, because dinosaurs, as we all know, are history and will never roam the earth again, while nanoparticles, the tiny microscopic robots whose ‘escape’ from a research lab in the Nevada desert gives the plot its drama, are actually being developed in labs in the USA. Science fiction closely rubs shoulders with non-fiction here, and as the story of one harrowing week in Jack Forman’s life unfolds, one can only be thankful that there is still less of science and more of fiction in the events narrated.

The suspense holds till half way through the story after which Crichton just simply gives up all attempt at holding the narrative together and the proceedings careen out of control. A promising beginning is let down by a flat-as-Coke-without-fizz climax. Jack, lately househusband and stay-at-home dad to his three children and formerly team manager with MediaTronics who loses his job, notices wife Julia looking and acting strange, and suspects infidelity to be the reason. Julia, Vice-President at Xymos Technology, a firm engaged in research in nanotechnology, is, indeed, acting strange. Infidelity, at least in the sense you and I understand the term and not in its technically advanced version— yes, there is a difference between the two — is not really to blame. And Julia’s behaviour isn’t the only thing strange. Infant Amanda, the youngest of the Forman children, develops a mysterious rash, which just as mysteriously disappears. Her older brother Eric claims to have been woken up by a "ghost" vacuum-cleaning the apartment.


A chain of events leads to Jack’s employment with Xymos Technology. His task is to rein in a swarm of nanoparticles that have escaped from the company research lab in the Nevada desert. What seems like an innocuous task turns out to be a nightmare for the small group of scientists as the swarm has been programmed to mimic the behaviour of predatory animals. It can learn from past experience, adapt to changed circumstances, is intelligent, self-sustaining and self-reproducing. In short, for all practical purposes, it is alive. Time is running out for the scientists who have to stop the swarm before they become its ‘prey’.

So far so good. The suspense keeps one on the tenterhooks and one can almost feel the tension and desperation of Jack and his colleagues’ race against time. The atmosphere of nerve-racking anxiety that doesn’t let up is typical Crichton. Then comes the let down of the climax, or anti-climax, as it were. The action peters out into a hastily put together and entirely unsatisfactory conclusion that leaves many questions unanswered.

Like Crichton’s past efforts, particularly Jurassic Park and Lost World, Prey, too sounds a cautionary note about the dangers inherent in making indiscriminate technological innovations without a thought to the outcome of doing so. Says Crichton: "The total system we call the biosphere is too complicated. We cannot know in advance the consequences of anything we do. This is why even our most enlightened past efforts have had undesirable outcomes — either because we did not understand enough, or because the ever changing world responded to our actions in unexpected ways."

The book cautions against "the obstinate egotism that is a hallmark of human interaction with the environment." Nanotechnology is the quest to build man-made machinery of extremely small size, on the order of 100 nanometres, or one hundred billionths of a meter. Pundits predict these tiny machines will provide everything from miniaturised computer components and new cancer treatments to new weapons of war. The US government has spent $1 billion on nanotechnology in the last two years.

Detailed explanations of the research on nanotechnlogy undertaken by Xymos and MediaTronics do tend to break the pace of the narrative intermittently but since Prey deals with a live issue, these explanations are unavoidable. The first half of the book, with its tightly woven plot, has been written for those hooked on to the printed word. The second half, with its contrived, melodramatic, almost theatrical climax, is aimed at those who throng cinema halls. One can’t help thinking how good the race against time helped along by futuristic, out-of-the-world gadgetry would look on the screen. By the looks of it the strategy has succeeded. We bought the story (literally and figuratively) and so did Twentieth Century Fox. So the next time you have a lazy afternoon ahead of you, you know what to read, or maybe a few months down the line you could just catch the matinee show!