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Overheated Imaginations

Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page BW02


By Michael Crichton. HarperCollins. 603 pp. $27.95

Michael Crichton's new book will appeal to your inner techie. It has footnotes! Graphs, too, along with charts, photos taken by satellite, appendices and a 20-page annotated bibliography. As you read it, you may find yourself reaching for a yellow highlight pen and wondering, How much of this is going to be on the final?

Excitement based on science has always been Crichton's forte, and even when he has played fast and loose with the possibilities, the reader hardly stopped to quibble if the tale was worth the telling. (Who cared that real-life scientists ruled out generating dinosaurs from DNA preserved in amber, as Crichton postulated in Jurassic Park? The payoff seemed so tantalizing that you gleefully swallowed the premise and went joyriding along.) But the presence of so much scholarly paraphernalia in State of Fear indicates that Crichton isn't fooling around anymore. He's determined to make a point here: Science, especially mainstream environmental science, has gone off the rails.

Crichton's bête noir is the campaign against global warming, a phenomenon he regards as slight and perhaps part of a natural trend, with no hard evidence, no unbiased studies, linking it to the burning of fossil fuels. In other words (and I'm not making the error of imputing the characters' views to their author -- Crichton spells all this out in yet another attachment, a five-page Author's Message that comes after the text, just before the two appendices and the bibliography), a more accurate term for the greenhouse effect would be "the greenhouse figment."

Naturally, Crichton's debunking will provoke environmentalists, whose organizations he accuses of scaremongering (hence the book's title) and bad faith, and who would do well to get cracking on a point-by-point refutation of his claims. The question of more moment for fiction readers, however, can be answered without doing research or staring at x and y axes. How well has Crichton blended his two purposes: entertaining us and causing us to re-examine everything we thought we knew about environmental preservation?

The basic story is promising. Philanthropist George Morton has been pouring money into environmental causes for years. His latest pledge is to fund a lawsuit against the United States by the island nation of Vanutu, which alleges that it is in danger of being swamped by rising seas caused by global warming. (As fans of "Survivor" know, there is an island nation called Vanuatu, not quite the same spelling. But Crichton may have borrowed more pointedly from Tuvalu, recently described in the New York Times as "a 15-foot-high nation of wave-pounded atolls halfway between Australia and Hawaii." Although Tuvalu has threatened to sue the United States in the International Court of Justice, so far it has not filed the papers.) Much like his creator, however, Morton has come to doubt whether the brouhaha over global warming has scientific creds. To keep him in line -- and give the rest of the world a jolt as well -- Nick Drake, head of the enviro group preparing the lawsuit, decides to stage the kind of effects that global warming would produce if only it behaved as a decent imminent catastrophe should.

These include some potential humdingers: setting off explosions in Antarctica in order to calve a mammoth iceberg (this in the face of an overall cooling trend in the southernmost continent, which Crichton attests to in footnotes); whipping up gargantuan storms over the western United States; and launching the mother of all tsunamis across the South Pacific. The best parts of the novel sketch the technologies behind these attempts and narrate the good guys' efforts to thwart them.

One problem with State of Fear -- and it's endemic to Crichton -- is its flatline prose. Book after book, the man succeeds in writing style-free English, with nary a memorable image or a surprising word. Here is a typical passage: "They went inside. Morton's living room looked out on the garden in back of the house. The room was decorated with Asian antiques, including a large stone head from Cambodia. Sitting erectly on the couch were two men. One was an American of middle height, with short gray hair and glasses. The other was very dark, compact, and very handsome despite the thin scar that ran down the left side of his face in front of his ear. They were dressed in cotton slacks and lightweight sport coats. Both men sat on the edge of the couch, very alert, as if they might spring up at any moment."

Are you still awake? If so, it is my unpleasant duty to tell you that Crichton's characters are strictly from Woodville. I had trouble telling apart the beautiful young women -- the Jennifers and Sarahs -- who flit in and out of the main good guy's life. He, by the way, is called Peter Evans, he is a lawyer, and if he has any other traits, I missed them. He's simply a generic hero -- nondescript until called upon to do great things, at which time he just, you know, does them.

Now in a novel with footnotes and back matter, one would think that the sensible approach would be to relegate the polemics to those outer reaches while reserving the main text for a seamless story. Alas, this is not the Crichton way. Time and again, the action slams to a halt while someone smart and skeptical (a stand-in for the author) grills someone smug and ill- prepared on the state of his or her environmental knowledge, then supplies the correct answers at length. Which means we get not just footnotes but also screeds. One recurrent victim of this exposing process is Ted Bradley, an alcoholic movie star whose ignorance of the environmental issues for which he crusades is abysmal. Pontificating film and rock stars are easy pickings these days, and Crichton pounds away at Bradley so relentlessly that you start to feel sorry for the guy, especially when the cannibalistic Vanutuans threaten to treat this piece of eye-candy as mouth candy.

As for the footnotes and other impedimenta, now and then the author wields them arrestingly. He assembles graphs of temperature trends to show that while big U.S. cities have been getting warmer over the past seven decades, smaller ones -- Albany, N.Y.; Charleston, S.C.; and Boulder, Colo. -- have either stayed the same or cooled off some. This should be no surprise, we are told, considering that big cities are heat traps. "How do you know," a Crichton surrogate asks, "that the dramatic increase in temperature in New York [City] is caused by global warming, and not just from an excess of concrete and skyscrapers?" To drive the point home, her companion, Peter Evans himself, offers this superfluous wrap-up: "Those graphs of temperatures . . . raise obvious questions about the validity of global warming."

State of Fear reminds me of another thriller-writer, Wilkie Collins, the very man who invented the genre. After producing four superb novels in the 1860s -- The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale and The Moonstone -- Collins donned an advocate's hat and devoted his later fiction to inveighing against such outrages as Britain's rigid marriage laws, vivisection and the cult of physical fitness. This decline prompted the poet Algernon Swinburne to frame a wicked couplet: "What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition?/ Some demon whispered, 'Wilkie! have a mission.' " Although Michael Crichton is no genius, in the past he has been a clever entertainer. In State of Fear, however, he neglects his readers for the sake of his mission. •

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor, and the mysteries editor, of Book World.

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