Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
Prey cover Prey by Michael Crichton

Harper Collins – copyright 2002
364 pages

Book read in December 2002

Rating: 6/10  (Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

      There are certain writers whom publishers refuse to categorize within the science fiction genre, even when what they write is indisputably science fiction.  Michael Crichton is an obvious example.  Crichton has enjoyed success with suspense stories set in the corporate world (Rising Sun, Disclosure), historical fiction (The Great Train Robbery, Eaters of the Dead), and medical dramas (Five Patients, the original script for ER), but throughout his career science fiction has been his bread and butter.  Among other SF premises, Crichton has given us a deadly disease brought back by astronauts from outer space (The Andromeda Strain), berserk robots (the film Westworld), an alien spaceship found on the ocean floor (Sphere), cloned dinosaurs (Jurassic Park, Lost World), and a time travel story (Timeline).

       Crichton's latest novel, Prey, is another example.  It shows the creation of a new and dangerous form of life made up of artificial microscopic machines, constructed by shortsighted human beings using nanotechnology that does not exist today but may in the near future.  The novel is set in the present day, but don't be fooled – this is a hard science fiction story, very similar to Greg Bear's landmark 1985 SF novel Blood Music.  Rest assured, however, that you will not find Prey in the science fiction section of your local bookstore, where Blood Music is shelved.  Crichton writes science fiction, but according to his publisher he is not a science fiction writer.

       I try to resist my instinctive reverse snobbery against such outsiders – and I have enjoyed reading Crichton in the past – but sometimes their ignorance of and failure to learn from the generations of SF authors who preceded them make for painful reading.

       Case in point: One of the tricks of the SF trade is to provide the reader all of the necessary background information unobtrusively.  Any competent SF author today knows to avoid the tedious "infodump" that was typical in Golden Age and pre-Golden Age SF.  You know the kind I mean, where it feels like the author is pulling you out of the story and walking you to a blackboard for a science lesson.  It is almost always preferable to weave the information into the narrative, without disrupting the flow of the story.

       Michael Crichton benefited from none of this experience in writing Prey.  By the end of the novel, his blackboard is worn thin from overuse.  He backs the reader out of the story repeatedly to provide scientific background, often in a context that makes no sense within the framework of the story.  These passages are repetitive and detailed, in several cases unnecessarily citing to real world studies.  Crichton credits the reader with no knowledge at the outset, explaining at length even rudimentary principles, but then goes into a level of depth that could not possibly be of interest to a reader without at least a basic grounding in biology or programming.

       The novel begins with the most awkward infodump I have ever encountered.  Not only does Crichton try to tell us everything we need to know about nanotechnology at one time (most of which he could safely assume his readers already knew, if he were writing for an SF audience), he does it in a way that makes absolutely no sense in the context of the novel.  Early on our protagonist Jack Forman sits down with his wife and she explains her nanotech work to him, starting with the simplest basics.  She must have been focused on this breakthrough project for years, yet her husband appears to have no idea at all that she is even working with nanotechnology.  Coincidentally, he headed the team of computer programmers who programmed the nanomachines' instructions, yet somehow he was entirely unaware that he was doing that.  It doesn't seem to strike him as odd that his wife never mentioned to him that she was using one of his programs as the underpinning for her multimillion-dollar project.  (He again seems unfazed when he later learns that she hired many of the former members of his team to come work for her.)  This is bloody bizarre, and so jarring at the very outset of the novel that for the rest of the book it is difficult to enter into the suspension of disbelief so critical to enjoying fantastic literature.

       If you can keep the infodumps from distracting you, however, this book offers much of interest.

       Jack's Silicon Valley programming team designed cutting edge "artificial distributed intelligence" programs.  These are modeled after biological systems, using multiple agents that follow very simple instructions to achieve a goal.  The idea is that through interaction, the agents can achieve results far beyond their individual capacities, just as mindless termites following basic rules can together build a huge (by their scale) and elaborate mound.

       Jack is currently out of work, blackballed after he caught his superiors defrauding the company – a little gratuitous Crichton jab at the moral failings of the corporate world.  So while his wife Julia supports the family, Jack has become a stay-at-home dad.  Crichton shows some of the dilemmas that stay-at-home dads face, particularly that they begin to seem less powerful, and consequently less attractive, to their wives and other women, who should know better but don't.  In one amusing scene, Jack is discussing different brands of diapers with another dad in the grocery store, when they realize women in the store are overhearing them, and abruptly shift to, "How 'bout those Giants?"

       The story of Prey takes place in a single week.  As the week begins, Julia is very busy and her behavior is becoming erratic.  Jack catches her in several lies, and begins to suspect her of having an affair.  There is a series of bizarre and alarming incidents, beginning with their baby becoming violently ill and turning bright red, until her ailment vanishes as she is undergoing an MRI exam.  Jack takes the whole series of strange occurrences pretty much in stride, but the reader has little doubt that it all relates ominously to Julia's work.

       As Jack learns (!) early in the novel, Julia's company Xymos is combining nanotechnology with biotechnology, and using Jack's team's distributed intelligence methods to program the resulting nanomachines.  For some unexplained reason, Xymos has made the disastrous choice of a program modeled on predator-prey relationships in nature.

       After Julia is injured in an auto crash, Jack's former employer asks him to serve as a consultant to Xymos.  Jack travels to Xymos's manufacturing facility in Nevada.  Once there, Jack finds that the Xymos plant has leaked nanomachines into the surrounding desert, which have formed organized swarms.

       Most of the book's action centers on Jack's encounters with these swarms.  It is urgent for him to bring the swarms under control quickly, because they can reproduce and they are evolving new patterns of behavior very rapidly.

       The strength of this novel is Crichton's vision of how nanotechnology could be made potent in the near future by integrating it with biotechnology and current programming trends.  Crichton chooses to focus on the dangers this presents, rather than the potential benefits, but what else did you expect?  The programming techniques Crichton describes, and speculation of how they could literally come alive in programmed nanoparticles, are fascinating.  It's unfortunate that he does not manage to integrate these ideas into his story more effectively.

       Even setting aside Crichton's cumbersome handling of scientific detail, this novel does not hold together well as a suspense story.  Crichton does not trust the reader to appreciate the importance of small clues about what's really going on, so now and then he throws in obvious giveaways.  He then has to tell us that Jack is prone to slipping into denial to explain his failure to make the connections.  But it is very difficult to get the reader absorbed in a suspense story told through the eyes of someone so blind.  For example, Jack watches through a window as the nano-swarms pursue and kill a rabbit, then calmly explains to his colleagues why the swarms are in fact harmless and goes outside to investigate.

       For most of this book, the nanobeasties behave as clouds of tiny particles, harmless individually but deadly as a group.  Unfortunately, despite all of Crichton's cutting edge concepts, this means that most of the story reads like a tired rehash of one of those 1970s thrillers about killer bees.  (This is reinforced by Crichton's unfortunate choice to call the nano-clouds "swarms.")  Later in the story, the nanobeasties act in ways that transcend anything a swarm of bees could manage, but ironically, after all those detailed infodumps, Crichton utterly fails to explain how the swarms could act the way they do toward the end of the book.

       I can't help but wonder whether it would not have been preferable for Crichton to write a non-fiction popular science book on the intriguing scientific and technological topics underlying this book, since the story does not do justice to them.
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Copyright 2002 Aaron Hughes

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Links to webpages about Michael Crichton, and related topics:
Michael Crichton - Wikipedia
Michael Crichton's Official Site
Review: Prey by Michael Crichton | Books | The Guardian

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

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