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 nanotechnology, Crichton's cautionary tale mixes his usual blend of amoral scientists, venture capital and new technology run amock to craft a marginally interesting story set (mostly) in a Mojave research lab. The scientists have combined artificial intelligence, nanotechnology 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 scientists (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 Sun... Congo,... 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 disappointing 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 nanoparticles (well, okay...maybe I was...a little...) but it certainly wasn't good...