White Collars and Grey Morals


By Michael Crichton.

HarperCollins, 431 pp. $27.95 hardcover

I have decided that Michael Crichton is an ironist. Only someone steeped in satire could write a novel like Next–a passionate defense of the humanity of man–and people it entirely with cardboard humans. In fact, the most engaging characters in Next aren’t even fully human–Davy the Half-Chimpanzee and Gerard the Half-Parrot have more life in them than any of the awkwardly posed figurines that pass for characters in this novel.

I’m not even sure you can call this a novel. A novel usually involves a plot. With characters. I couldn’t discern much of either one in this screed. Crichton, who made a fortune describing the arrogance of genetic experimentation in Jurassic Park, returns to that theme with even more passion and fury. Unfortunately, there’s no sense of order behind this passion and fury. The “plot” reads as though someone had shuffled together the script pages from several movies; Crichton’s story leaps from a courtroom scene with one set of characters defending a man’s right to own his own genes, to a transgenetic parrot in France, to a shady coroner harvesting bones and tissue from the dead for resale to the transplant industry. Trying to keep track of these multiple strands of story is like trying to read by strobe light.

Some of his scenes are so heavy handed they read like a small town preacher’s sermon: in one scene, a woman is trying to find out what her daughter has been injecting herself with. She boils over in frustration as she meets one legal roadblock after another, designed to safeguard her teenage offspring’s privacy. It’s an interesting and delicate area of family law, but Crichton writes the scene with the light hand of an axe murderer. It screams “propaganda”, regardless of how one stands on the issue. And that’s the heart of the problem with this book–the feeling that Crichton does not care if his audience enjoys itself, that he’s going to force-feed us this information for our own good. No one likes polemics for breakfast.

It’s nearly impossible to keep the characters straight when they are all so much alike–professionals with white collars and grey morals. Their names are pointless; I had to give them titles. There’s the Heartless Venture Capitalist, the Plucky Underdog Lawyer, the Crackpot Environmentalist, the Amoral Greedy Researcher, etc. As I mentioned, the only really interesting and believable characters in this book weren’t the humans. Not even Charles Bukowski was this much of a misanthrope.

There’s no question that Crichton’s done his research; it would take an entire department of biology to go through the multi-page bibliography at the end of the book. He appends an “Author’s Note” which amounts to an essay summarizing the themes of the book. He shows great respect for the science behind the novel, while attacking the morals of the people who misuse it. All well and good, and certainly deserves consideration as a non-fiction editorial in Nature or some general-audience magazine. But what Next is definitely not, is a good story.

Review Copyright 2007 by Sarah Stegall