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A Reason for Robbery

"Things develop in the course of work. I woke up one night when The Great Train Robbery was almost completed, and thought that what the book’s really about is repression, and that’s what the whole Victorian period means. And the idea of criminals going against society made them the least repressed. That’s what the book is about, and this came totally after the fact. At the time, I was just writing a story."

http://www.michaelcrichton.com/the-great-train-robbery/

 

Before anything else I say, let me underscore that The Great Train Robbery is a fun book to read. Crichton uses the slang of the times in an authentic but understandable way, and as usual, we care about his characters and can picture them vividly. He builds the suspense of his plot in a way that keeps us turning the pages. This book is an easy one to like and to read just for the story.

 

That being said, Michael Crichton's unintentional theme for The Great Train Robbery sounds loud and clear through an exciting and interesting puzzle of a story. On the first reading, my attention stayed on how exactly Edward Pierce would manage to crack the safes containing the army payroll for the Crimean War, and I wanted him to get away with the money. I didn't really stop to think about why I felt that way.

 

After thinking about the quote above, I thought about why the idea of repression occurred to Michael Crichton late in the writing. I saw that he had become fascinated with the history of the actual robbery, which took place much as described, but that he had changed names and other details to free himself from the constraints of the historical action. I can think of one reason why.

 

In reading the court transcripts and the newspaper coverage of the time, Crichton must have been impressed by the masterminds of the robbery, whose names he combined into Edward Pierce (after William Pierce and Edward Agar; Agar in the story is demoted from his nearly equal role in real life). These men showed in their planning their intelligence, patience, logic, daring, energy, devotion, and ingenuity. The traits they employ in the commission of this crime should have made them wealthy, respected men in any business they chose. Surely they were able to do honest work, right?

 

And here we meet the theme of repression. We meet the easy assumption of those in power that those who lack power also lack the other good qualities that enable the ruling class to hold it. Those easy assumptions flowed from people who accepted the idea that genetic heritage mattered. Your family, your blood, and your breeding made you who you were in a way that training and education could alter only a little.

 

So the assumptions of those in power let them believe that they and their children forever deserved that power in a way that those out of power did not. They assumed that those who do not hold regular jobs must lack ability and self-control. Those who do not attend good schools must lack intelligence and enthusiasm. Those who do not own material wealth must lack initiative and style.

 

Easy assumptions.

 

What is not so easy is being at the bottom of a rigidly stratified society. What is not so easy is seeing that the hard work and brains and guts that you pour into your work will not pay off in any meaningful way, no matter how much you pour. What is not so hard is knowing that you are at the bottom for no other reason than the fact that society put you there.

 

Crichton underscores this point in the character of the train guard, Burgess, the impoverished guard on the train. The first time we meet Burgess, we learn that he and his wife together earn fifty-five pounds a year for their family of four. Burgess has done time in prison. He has no family wealth, no opportunity for advancement. Crichton lists ways similarly poor Victorians supplement their incomes: extra work, tips, and a child in industry. Burgess can do none of these. His options are limited. Pierce offers him two hundred pounds - almost four years' salary - just to look the other way. We feel the desperation and hope Burgess feels before he agrees.

 

Pierce is no angel and no Robin Hood. Ultimately, only he and his mistress profit from the heist of the century. Burgess dies in prison, where Pierce promised him he would not go. But we have a hard time blaming poor, desperate Burgess for seizing the only opportunity he could see to get ahead.

 

Is crime wrong? Of course it is. Should we glorify criminals? Of course not. These are easy questions with easy answers.

 

Here is a harder one. An empire props up a war created by its allies and enemies, sending the sons of the empire to fight and die. The empire has no stake in the outcome of the war. Yet gold pours from the empire to the war effort, where the soldiers there will spend it on what joy they can find before they die in the cold mud. Is the empire just to divert its wealth to a gentleman's duel on a massive scale while its own citizens starve and freeze and die of disease?

 

When I was a girl, the people around me thought fondly of the Victorian era. It was moral and pure and godly. Even the legs of the furniture were covered for modesty. How shocked I was to learn later of the poverty and filth just below the surface. The same society that praised Wilberforce spawned Jack the Ripper. The same people who created the Great Exhibition with its modern wonders profited by child labor and subjected millions of people in developing countries to the practical enslavement of colonialism.

 

We may think we have grown. After all, we Americans have no inherited aristocracy, no rigid social strata anymore. But we have put other evils in its place. Racial privilege. Corporate involvement in politics. Prioritizing the rights of the many over the rights of the individual. Turning a blind eye to the poisoning of the earth. There are many more.

 

When we see a person of impressive natural gifts choose a life of crime, we must ask ourselves why. And we must look closely at the way we structure our society with a willingness to see whether those at the bottom of society find a ladder or a boot heel above them.

 

When people revolt against society, we are wise when we ask whether they have a reason to revolt.

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crighton

The Compass, the Boat, and the End of the World As We Know It

The only sequel Michael Crichton ever wrote, The Lost World, came into being after fans asked for it (http://www.michaelcrichton.com/the-lost-world/).  The writing must have been very different for Crichton, who usually followed his own vast intellectual curiosity to find his next topic. Some critics tore the book apart, claiming that it wasn't up to his usual standards. However, the book sold well, as did tickets to the movie. The fans were happy. They were happy to see, too, that Crichton brought back one main character, Ian Malcolm, from the dead to provide the useful function of telling the readers how and why everything was going to go wrong (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lost_World_%28Crichton_novel%29).

 

We all know and like Malcolm, the Cassandra figure from Jurassic Park. His opposite figure on the trek to the island is the engineer, Thorne, who creates all of the technology that eventually saves everyone who makes it off the island. For all the ways Malcolm predicts that things will go sideways, Thorne invents a way to survive a little longer.

 

The two kids who sneak onto the island inside the RV are originally attached to Levine, whom they know through his science tutoring at their school. Between Malcolm and Thorne, they seem to gravitate most to Thorne. It's hard to love a pessimist.

 

Beyond all the raptor scares and T-Rex panic, The Lost World is about extinction. Levine is so interested in finding a lost world because of what it can tell him about the process of extinction - why it happens and how humans might be able to avoid it or put it off a little while at least. Malcolm considers the quest useless. He knows, though he won't say anything, that there is no lost world - only a misguidedly created one whose ruins should be left alone.

 

Thorne exists outside this disagreement between Levine and Malcolm. He excels at building incredibly durable field equipment that stands up to stress and wear and other forces that destroy other equipment. His planning and attention to detail, which spring from a thorough knowledge of engineering and physical science, allow the people who worry about meta questions to go and worry about them while staying alive (which is a plus if you ever intend to publish).

 

Thorne pays attention to the present, to what is right in front of him, and he works well in a team. He is the one, when velociraptors attack and everyone else is yelling at Kelly to figure the computer out, who holds a refrigerator against the door to keep the raptors out.

 

I feel like Thorne represents Crichton's optimism and love for humanity and the world, while Malcolm represents Crichton's scientific, philosophical, and medical intellect. Thorne and Malcolm are friends and colleagues. They don't hate each other; they just see the world differently. Sometimes the dialogue feels like Crichton is arguing with himself.

 

I especially feel this way at the very end. Tragedy lies behind everyone; they're in a boat on their way home. Malcolm returns to the theme of extinction. He and Levine and Sarah Harding have found that the dinosaurs will die of a disease introduced by eating diseased sheep. Malcolm says that the question of extinction should remain a mystery. Then he says that humans may cause the next extinction.

 

"Human beings are so destructive...I sometimes think we're a kind of plague, that will scrub the earth clean. We destroy things so well that I sometimes think, maybe that's our function. Maybe every few eons, some animal comes along that kills off the rest of the world, clears the decks, and lets evolution proceed to its next phase."

 

Thorne disagrees. He tells Kelly, who seemed upset by Malcolm's prediction, that a lot of human ideas, even scientific ideas, are fictions we tell ourselves because we don't know the truth. He directs her instead to the present and the world around her.

 

"And meanwhile, you feel the way the boat moves? That's the sea. That's real. You smell the salt in the air? You feel the sunlight on your skin? That's all real. You see all of us together? That's real. Life is wonderful. It's a gift to be alive, to see the sun and breathe the air. And there isn't really anything else. Now look at that compass, and tell me where south is. I want to go to Puerto Cortes. It's time for us all to go home."

 

Crichton gives Thorne the last word for a reason. The problem of extinction, if it happens, is something that no one alive today will see, in all likelihood. Because man is a thinking being, he can bring fears that are not present to life in front of him. Those fears can paralyze him, robbing him of the joy that does exist in reality all around him. 

 

Thorne's reminder sounds especially welcome to me because the fears and questions that plagued me growing up were religious ones, and they were just as potent and unknowable as any scientific conundrum. I can remember feeling doomed and terrified by the rapture, demons, the tribulation, and Satanists sacrificing kids and bunnies in day-care centers. Later I feared atheists, political liberals, and public schools for much the same reason. I couldn't see these vast destructive forces at work until someone showed them to me, but the possibility of what they could do if they existed as I had been taught and if they suddenly had full power to do what they intended made my knees knock.

 

What mankind can do by making monsters out of abstract ideas and real people destroy's man's peace and happiness. We tear to pieces the very real safety and joy and fellowship around us when we obsess over what may lie beyond the light of our psychic campfires. We can convince ourselves so easily that the world is dark and getting darker, ignoring all the light we can see.

 

The only rational response to an obsession with fear is grounding in reality. For me, I might have dealt with my fear of political liberals by listening to one instead of letting extremist conservatives tell me what liberals were like. I might have dealt with my fear of atheists by listening to one instead of letting radical religious figures tell me what atheists were like. I might have dealt with my fear of the future (in the form of religious doctrine) by focusing on the present. 

 

By the way, this is exactly what I did. And it worked.

 

Life is wonderful. The earth is a beautiful place, and we're lucky to live here. The ordinary people who live here are just like us in all the important ways, and they deserve kindness and respect and friendship in almost every case. Feel the sun or the rain on your face - whatever is really out there right now - and experience it for what it is.

 

Remember that in this boat of your life, you hold the compass. You are in charge of where you go. As Crichton reminds us, the only dangerous extinction that matters in this moment is the extinction of your hope, your reason, and your gratitude for being in the boat at all.

The Lost World by Michael Crighton

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Well, I'll Be a Monkey's Uncle

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.

Congo by Michale Crighton

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State of Ambivalence on State of Fear

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I just couldn't make myself do it.

 

One of the things I like and appreciate most about Michael Crichton is his profound and restless intelligence. He gets curious about something, researches the heck out of it, and presents us all with his incredible stockpile of knowledge packaged in a thrilling story packed with relatable characters.

 

But with State of Fear,  I got only the research and the plot. I did not care about any of the characters, which made what would have been a thrilling plot seem much less so. And let me say up front that I know it sounds cold to say that I didn't care about any of the characters, but I just didn't. Can't help it. Sorry about that.

 

Here's the plot in a nutshell. Peter Evans is a lawyer who works for a firm representing George Morton, an extremely rich guy who supports environmental charities. Nicholas Drake heads one of those charities. A former lawyer, Drake is suing the EPA on behalf of the made-up country of Vanutu, which is supposedly drowning because of American pollution contributing to global warming and increased sea levels.

 

Meanwhile, operatives from the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) are buying rare, expensive equipment to cause a series of apparent natural disasters that will all occur close to a global warming conference that Nicholas Drake is holding to promote climate change awareness (and awareness = dollars).

 

George Morton finds out that Nicholas Drake has mishandled some of his money in one of these ELF purchases. Then after a visit from Kenner, the representative from a shadow US government agency, Morton disappears for a couple of weeks. He returns in time for a banquet Drake is holding to honor him for his donations, and he dies in a drunk driving crash on his way home.

 

After Morton's death, Peter Evans has to follow a series of clues and Kenner's instructions to stop the eco-terrorists of ELF from causing the natural disasters they have planned: a huge glacier calving from Antarctica, a flash flood with massive casualties in the Southwest, and a tsunami starting in the Solomon Islands and washing over California. He partners in this effort with George's assistant, Sarah, and with Kenner and his assistant, Sanjong.

 

Along the way, Kenner and Sanjong educate Evans about the truth behind climate change science. Evans occasionally pops back into his former life in California and does things like answer questions for the legal team behind the Vanutu lawsuit that seem a little mundane after the life-or-death emergencies he's just faced. He also sleeps with his incredibly dim and two-dimensional fitness instructor that he doesn't really like while he's pining alternately for Sarah and a lawyer he meets, Jennifer.

 

Jennifer joins the last adventure for no good reason other than that she turns out to be Kenner's niece, and everyone goes to the Solomon Islands, where they are promptly captured by cannibal rebels. Almost everyone escapes except a throwaway movie star nobody likes, and then they have to stop the machines that are going to start the tsunami. They sort of succeed, enough so that the wave peters out over the Pacific instead of destroying Los Angeles.

 

It turns out that (spoiler alert!) George Morton is alive and tracking the ELF in the Solomon Islands, and he helps rescue everyone. Then he gets to go back home where he is somehow no longer afraid for his life. Apparently, there was a bigger villain that we only meet in the very last act, and his removal makes George safe. So then George can found his own environmental organization and make Peter and Sarah, who apparently get together, the heads of it. The End.

 

Parts of the plot seem exciting, although it would seem more realistic if Kenner, Sarah, and Peter stayed in the field instead of coming back to California, where they lose a lot of momentum. But we really can't care much about them, because they don't seem to be real people. They all seem like excuses to spout research.

 

The whole Vanutu lawsuit and the character of Jennifer both exist just to show Peter, and us the readers, a lot of charts and make us listen to a lot of data. Kenner and Sanjong are combinations of Wikipedia and the Terminator. Sarah's character exists fully in the phrase: female athlete. And Peter seems whiny, wishy-washy, and flat.

 

The pacing of the plot is off. The characters are cardboard cutouts. The ending is a deus-ex-machina disaster. I read on his website that Crichton didn't want to write this book, that he did it because he didn't want to be an intellectual coward (http://www.michaelcrichton.com/state-of-fear/).  

 

I really hate writing this review. I like Crichton, and I'll keep reading him. But this book was a miss for me. Did I learn something? Sure I did. I always learn something when I read Michael Crichton. Does he make some good and valid points? Absolutely. I even agree with several of them (http://www.michaelcrichton.com/state-of-fear-authors-message/). But I wish he'd written a non-fiction treatment of this subject.

 

When you write fiction, you have a message, and the art of your story is your messenger. If you ruin your messenger, you lose your message. A non-fiction book just lets you say what you need to say for yourself with no messy characters in the way. Crichton should have just told us plainly, "You guys don't need to be afraid, and here's why," instead of creating a less-than-plausible State of Fear.

State of Fear

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