I finished reading Congo a few days ago. It uses as its message a warning that Michael Crichton repeats in quite a few of his books: we don't know everything, and when we act like we do, we have no one but ourselves to blame for the trouble that will surely find us. Crichton sounds this same warning in a lot of his nature/technology books, like Jurassic Park, The Lost World, The Andromeda Strain, Prey, and Micro. (I'm sure I'm leaving out a few; these are the examples that sprang to mind.)
The book opens with a field team from a Houston company called ERTS (Earth Resources Technology Service) being attacked and killed. Fragmented video coverage seems to show a gorilla attacking the team.
So the head of ERTS, Travis, deputizes a mathematician, Ross, to form a team of her own, sneak across the border into the Congo, and continue the mission of the original team: to find naturally boron-laced Type IIb diamonds for a technology company to use as computer components. Similar European and Japanese companies have formed a consortium to find the diamonds first, and ERTS must race the consortium to the diamond mines.
Because the video footage of the first team shows a gorilla in the last moments, Ross includes a gorilla expert, Elliot, to help her team face danger from the wild. Elliot is under pressure to free the gorilla he has raised and studied for seven years, Amy. He takes Amy with him. Ross includes other experts who must leave before the adventure starts, as well as Munro, a guide and hunter who navigates the Congo jungle for her. Munro hires a band of native porters to join the group for defense and transportation of goods.
Munro and Ross plan to save time by parachuting onto the mountain near which they expect to find the ruins of the lost city of Zinj. When their plane takes rocket fire, they parachute into the jungle far from the mountain and then must trek there. In the jungle, the group battles the terrain and hides from a dangerous cannibal tribe and the equally dangerous army troops sent to destroy the cannibals. They do befriend a group of pygmies.
After crossing the jungle and hiking the mountain, the group finds the lost city of Zinj. They decode paintings showing the diamond trade and the life of the former inhabitants, and they puzzle over the lack of security guards depicted in the paintings. They find a gorilla statue in a building they name a temple, as well as a number of cages, and they discover crescent-shaped rock paddles. When one of their group is attacked, the survivors find that the paddles match his injuries exactly.
Soon the group discovers (spoiler alert) that the ancient inhabitants of Zinj bred a unique primate, a cross between a gorilla and either a chimpanzee or a human, to act as their guards. They trained the primates to guard the nearby diamond mines and to use the rock paddles as their weapons. Long after the inhabitants left or died, the guards remained, passing down their training to each new generation.
The group fights the primate guards over several nights while they search for the mines. Meanwhile, Elliot studies the primates and tries to understand their primitive language. Amy translates a few words of the language, which Elliot then records in preparation for the next attack. When the camp seems overrun, Elliot manages to play his recording of a female primate from the guard's tribe telling the guards to go away. Remarkably, this device works, and the guards leave.
Shortly afterward, the group finds the diamond mine, which is richer than they had imagined. Unfortunately, the mountain near the city, which is a volcano, erupts just then, burying the city and the mines under miles of new rock. The group leaves with nothing (except for Munro, who had pocketed a few diamonds) and narrowly escapes a tribe of cannibals using a hot-air balloon that they find in a crashed plane. The epilogue makes plain the fact that no one ultimately benefits from the expedition.
According to Michael Crichton's website, he intended to make a modern version of King Solomon's Mines, the genre-spawning lost world epic by H. Rider Haggard. With this origin came necessary evils, though. Crichton had to work hard to avoid the stench of colonialism, an attempt which was not entirely successful.
In lost world epics, the native land, along with its treasures and people, seems to belong to the white powers that invade it. The story is about the stranger, not the native, and so the reader mostly cares about the stranger's safety and survival. Therefore, the accidents and death of the natives seem secondary, less important. In Congo, the deaths of the porters one by one serve only to advance the plot; readers don't even know the men's names until close to or after their deaths.
Also disturbing is the sliding scale that seems to establish itself in the narrative as to what is human and what is primate. We have animals, which we first encounter in the friendly gorillas Amy meets, and then we have Amy herself, who stands apart from the animal gorillas because of her learned sign language, human habits, and ability to dream.
Above Amy but below the scientists and hunters of the party are the Africans. The different tribes and groups seem less human than the whites because of their culture and diet (pygmies and cannibals) or violent natures (cannibals and African army troops). As people of a different era (Crichton was born in 1942 and died in 2008), his readers may feel shame at viewing fellow human beings as less than human, slightly animal. The world of the novel feels like one that has, thankfully, passed away.
Perhaps Crichton wanted to evoke those feelings. Perhaps he wanted to establish this sliding scale for the very purpose of making us question it. From a solely utilitarian perspective, he shows potential imperialists as unsuccessful. His plot says, "You can come to the place you don't know and try to rob it, but you will almost surely not succeed, even if you do barely escape with your life."
Because of the ideas that Crichton communicates in his other books, I do think that he intended to point out the flaws in the lost world genre. I do think that he intended to show the modern world the shortcomings in the way first-world people view the third world. However, it is disturbing that only one porter has a semi-developed personality and eventually survives. Crichton would have made his point better by investing more deeply in his minor characters, changing the ethnicity of one or more of his protagonists, or killing off one or more of the main group.
Crichton also comes at this question of what is human from the perspective of a doctor and a scientist. I am sure I am not alone in picturing the author from time to time in the place of Peter Elliot, the gorilla researcher who trained Amy. As a scientist, Crichton knows the thin line separating human DNA from that of primates. As a doctor, he sees differences and similarities in bone and muscle and skin. Perhaps part of the reason for the sliding scale is to show those who see themselves at the top of it their close kinship to those at the bottom.
After all, when the scientist and researchers find the primate guards at home, the humans see that these primates live in large numbers unimaginable for average gorillas. These numbers indicate a human quality; humans live in large numbers close together. And the guards show intelligence and strategy in their attacks on the camp, using tools, bridges, and distraction against the humans, who almost don't survive, despite their superior firepower. If the question of who is superior is one of the survival of the fittest, humans can see that claim perish in Congo.
Of course, this question of race and humanity is not the only one in Congo, and it does not erase the wonderful qualities that all Crichton books share. Crichton draws me in and makes me think. The sheer volume of research he shows in the notes at the end of every book always intimidate me. I care about his characters, and I think about them after I put one of his books down. Crichton's plots are exciting. There are reasons upon reasons why he is a best-selling author; he deserves to be.
The discomfort I feel is from the genre. I feel uncomfortable with the easy assumptions of colonialism. I feel ashamed at the abuses of fellow humans made possible by that worldview. Perhaps the lost world genre is one that will go by the wayside. Or maybe someone will flip it on its head.
Imagine this: a vastly advanced civilization like the one in Contact - one that sculpts tunnels from black holes and engineers galaxies as humans do subdivisions - needs something we have in abundance, something like nitrogen or oxygen or carbon dioxide. They observe us and discover our cavalier attitude toward each other's welfare and the condition of our planet and decide that we need them to take over. They're using us, but benevolently, as far as they're concerned, and they view any resistance we offer as illogical, useless, and ineffectual.
I have yet to see a book written from that perspective, one wholly sympathetic to the advanced civilization. Maybe such a book would make the defenders of colonialism (including those of European ancestry living outside Europe) think in a new way about the story of mankind on this planet. Maybe not. Either way, Crichton did the best he could with a flawed genre, and the result is definitely engaging.