Prior to this I have read two Michael Crichton novels and they are not the ones you might expect. He is most famous for creating “ER” for which I will be eternally grateful; but also for “Jurassic Park” (1990) and its sequel (1995); his debut in his own name “The Andromeda Strain” (1969) and “Westworld” (1974). I haven’t read any of these, the two books I have read are “State Of Fear” (2004) a startlingly complex merge of environmental issues and science combined with a gripping, readable thriller which I thoroughly enjoyed and “Timeline” (1999) which grappled with quantum physics and time travel and which unfortunately did not work nearly as well and came across as tosh masquerading as science. It’s the application of science which Crichton specialises in and with “Next” it’s the complex (for my little brain anyway) field of biogenetics.
If like me, your sole knowledge of biogenetics is limited to an awareness of the existence of GM crops, cloned animals (Dolly the sheep) and that nightmarish picture of a mouse with a human ear growing on it then you might think that all this might be a tad too complex for you. Well it is, but that actually doesn’t matter as Crichton guides us along the issues in another very readable novel.
Interestingly, there’s no discernible main character in “Next” which is a little off-putting for those of us who like a central character for relationship dynamics to bounce off and this does mean that there isn’t really the depth of characterisation that a main protagonist and their relationships with others would provide. What is there are a lot of interweaving plot strands, which Crichton keeps good control of. I did find myself having to leaf back a number of times to recall what was happening to certain characters as and when their story was resumed although that often proved to be needless as the author is good at prompting our memories. You can see from this how he could manage long-running television drama with its ongoing story lines. I know some readers balk at this style of writing but here it has been done well.
Basically, it is a novel of ideas with the plot developed to illustrate these. The practice of patenting genes has impeded medical research and has potentially ludicrous legal ramifications when “ownership” of genes, cells and tissues gets called into question. This is an area Crichton is keen to highlight, using real news stories along the way, demonstrating that he is not dealing with fictional flights of fancy here as his ideas are embedded in fact. There’s a couple of genetically-modified animal hybrids including ape/human combinations who can talk and an African-grey parrot who can not only talk like a human but think like one too. At times these plot threads come across as a little “cutesy”, but it’s the way they fit into a tale of medical research so rooted in fact that becomes alarming.
This sits in the middle of the three Crichton novels I have read. It’s not as good as “State Of Fear” which had a stronger element of gripping thriller writing and was the novel which immediately preceded “Next” but it is considerably better than “Timeline”. Michael Crichton died in 2008 yet his 18th novel under this name, the recently discovered “Dragon’s Teeth” was published earlier this year.
Next was published by Harper in the UK in 2006