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State of Fear

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In his latest thriller, Michael Crichton abandons the reincarnated dinosaurs and other esoteric alien threats of his prior books but maintains a consistency of theme. As in his earlier tales of man’s willingness to tamper with things we barely comprehend, State of Fear explores the potential dark side of the environmental movement: the danger that even in our haste to “preserve” the earth as we supposedly found it, we really don’t have a clue what we’re doing.

Crichton – the author of Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, Disclosure, and The Adromeda Strain, the creator of ER and the director of such films as Westworld – has crafted a frantic, wide-ranging, and occasionally didactic thriller which challenges our basic assumptions about scientific “knowledge” of such things as global warming, sustainable growth, and many other components of the modern environmental movement.

The book tracks the adventures of a disparate group, nominally led by a mysterious MIT scientist named John Kenner (Dr. Kenner also appears to have some role as a quasi-government agent charged with preventing environmentally-based terrorist attacks). As our story opens, millionaire philanthropist George Morton is about to donate $10 million to the National Environmental Resource Fund in order to help defray the expenses associated with a landmark lawsuit NERF intended to file on behalf of the Pacific island of Vanutu. The eight thousand residents of this tiny island intended to sue the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States, alleging that global warming had contributed to sea conditions that imperiled their existence (primarily due to rising sea levels which increased the risk of flooding). Since the U.S. has the largest economy in the world, the theory goes, it is the largest source of carbon dioxide and therefore the largest culprit and principal cause of global warming.

But before he makes the bequest, Morton receives word that something may well be rotten in Denmark. Dr. Kenner is tracking a shadowy environmental terrorist organization that may have received financial assistance from NERF, and his suspicions are enough to give Morton pause. Even as Nicholas Drake, the head of NERF, lobbies for Morton to honor his donation, Morton has his lawyer, Peter Evans, quietly begin investigating both NERF and the Vanutu lawsuit. The evening of NERF’s party in honor of Morton (their “man of the year”), Morton denounces NERF and leaves in what appears to be a drunken stupor. His car is later found smashed near the edge of a cliff; his body could not be located.

Evans and Morton’s personal assistant, Sarah Jones, end up in the crosshairs of a group that seems to think they possess some information given to them by Morton. All they have to go on are some vague clues and the considerable assistance of Kenner and his crew of agents as they slowly unearth the truth: somebody is trying to create environmental disasters. As Kenner, Evans, Jones, and others race to prevent untold death and devastation, the real question remains: what can be gained by ecological terrorism, and is there truly much justification for our “State of Fear?”

Crichton isn’t a best-selling novelist for nothing: State of Fear moves well, with players and pieces constantly moving across (and off) the board. His characters move quickly from California to Antarctica to Arizona to the South Pacific; somebody certainly racked up the frequent flyer miles. And he backs up his assault on “conventional wisdom” with an extensively documented series of endnotes. But while his characters attempt to prevent this well-funded group of radical environmentalists from creating the world’s biggest iceberg, or artificially seeding storms and creating flash floods, or (in one of those uncomfortable “ripped from the headlines” kind of moments) manufacturing a tsunami to rock the Pacific coastline of California, they also do one other thing. They preach.

I suppose that’s not a terrible thing. After all, environmentalists are prone to preaching as well. But two wrongs don’t make a right – or a truly compelling novel. There are too many instances in State of Fear where the narrative comes crashing to a complete stop so that Crichton can speak through his characters about something – be it the ecological disaster of man’s efforts to “preserve” Yellowstone or the absurdity of asserting that Sequoias are “sentinels and guardians” of the planet with a “message for mankind.” As one character notes, Sequoias are trees. “Big trees. They have about as much of a message for mankind as an eggplant.”

Crichton makes certain we (the reader) get the point, however, by inserting stories within the story: in this case, for example, a several page narrative lecture (what else can you call it?) about the history of California’s Yosemite Valley over the past twenty thousand years. The Sequoias weren’t there to begin with. At first, there were just some tall grasses and arctic tundra. After a while, there were lodgepole pines, then Douglas firs, then only more recently the Sequoias we so lovingly refer to as the “primeval forest.”

Ultimately, what Crichton is driving at is a relatively simple point: that man’s vision, either past or forward, is remarkably short-sighted. We live on a planet that has existed for what we’re told is at least several billions of years (estimates keep changing, so I keep my options open) and we’ve been able to keep accurate track of weather and atmospheric conditions for only a relatively short period of time. For Crichton, the warning is this: from the relative uncertainty of human knowledge, we should develop ironclad convictions about the nature of such things as “global warming?”

Again, I think that’s an interesting argument, especially for a scientific treatise. But Crichton is writing a novel, and all these stops and starts in order to reveal additional holes in conventional wisdom start to become somewhat wearing. Once he exhausts Peter Evans as a foil for his more knowledgeable environmental gurus, he even introduces another character who can receive lectures about the true state of the environment. Arguably, that is the character’s only role: to be the foil for Crichton’s critique of the modern environmental movement.

I have to admit that this tendency toward soapbox delivery bothered me. At the same time, I can’t fault Crichton for the strength of his convictions or his sense of narrative pace: but for this complaint, the book rockets along its charted path. It’s a largely engaging scientific roller coaster that may well challenge one’s assumptions about what a “love of the environment” really means.

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About Bill Wallo

  • Excellent and balanced review, Bill. It sounds as though Crichton is tipping the balance a bit far toward his political beliefs and away from his bread-and-butter: telling a fast-paced, plot-driven story.

    I read an interesting article in Slate (I think) a while back that speculates that Crichton may be the victim of his own success. He was a doctor and a bunch of other things before turning to writing. He may have just gotten plain board with the conventions of the techno-sci-fi-thriller.

    This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places at Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.