From the Archives

They're Back!

Reviewed by By Greg Bear
Sunday, November 11, 1990


By Michael Crichton

Knopf | 400 pp. $19.95

A FEW years ago, rumors in scientific circles hinted that massive thigh bones of a large sauropod dinosaur had been found, incompletely fossilized, with organic material lurking in an inner cavity . . . Perhaps even broken chains of DNA. The implications were obvious. Perhaps someday -- in a few decades or less -- at least one kind of dinosaur could be reconstructed with the aid of genetic engineering. To my knowledge, the rumors have not been confirmed.

Michael Crichton has beaten the rest of us to this wonderful notion with Jurassic Park, a high-tech thriller brimming with Crichton's usual virtues: heavy research, entertaining and educational lumps of information and scientific savvy galore.

Crichton is a hyphenate, a writer-director-producer with substantial credits in books and movies. His early training was in medicine.

Borrowing a page from his motion picture and novel Westworld, Crichton places his reconstructed dinosaurs in a monumental "theme" park on a jungle island near Colombia. He peoples the island with an obsessed entrepreneur, John Hammond, Hammond's two grandchildren visiting before the park's opening, two dinosaur diggers, a great white hunter hired as an adviser (largely ignored), a nefarious computer programmer, the park's main designer, a talkative Cassandra-like mathematician who specializes in chaos theory and a variety of others. Many of them of course are destined to become dino chow.

There are also some 300 dinosaurs, of all shapes and sizes. They are not reconstructed from incompletely fossilized bones; that would not allow much variety. Without giving away one of the more interesting ideas in Jurassic Park, suffice it to say that amber is involved. Lots and lots of amber. Crichton works extra hard on these underpinnings, and I suspect even the scientists will shake their heads, smile and suspend disbelief.

From the novel's beginning, dinosaurs (small ones -- procompsognathus) have escaped to nibble on mainland babies and other hapless victims. Things fall apart quickly even before the park opens to the public. The visitors -- guests of a confident John Hammond and his confident crew -- are soon caught up in wholesale . . . well, chaos. And mathematician Ian Malcolm is there to say "I told you so" at some length, a kind of Greek chorus to the mayhem.

It is Malcolm's job to explain why Jurassic Park doesn't and can't work. Pity nobody listens to him until it's too late; but then, there wouldn't be much of a novel if they did, and therein lies the major problem with Jurassic Park. As a high-tech thriller, it must function at a breakneck pace, ideas smoothly alternating with action and a passing nod at character to evoke sympathetic responses in the reader when the dinosaurs really start to dance, about halfway through the book. The characterizations are adequate, even at times deliciously quirky; but the alternation is very lurching. We must put up with extended philosophizing, mostly through Ian Malcolm, who at least has the excuse of being delirious from a Tyrannosaurus nibble-and-toss. Long before Malcolm has his say, this reader, at least, was hoping for some more dinosaurs to put him out of his misery.

Crichton has a point to make in Jurassic Park, and it could be a very interesting point about hubris and human limitations. But he stacks the deck so thoroughly that the point is lost in incredulity. The park is in fact badly designed; electrified fences are all that separate dinosaurs from human meals in some areas, power and computer control are centralized, few weapons are allowed on the island because Hammond does not want his babies to be hurt. If Crichton had in fact designed the park well, there might be no story; and yet it is Ian Malcolm's job to convince us that the park cannot work for mathematical -- read, metaphysical -- reasons. Plot requirements conflict with message, at times to a ludicrous degree.

There are other peculiarities. To match frail humans against powerful beasts, Crichton handicaps the dinosaurs with amphibian visual traits. They can't see something unless it moves. Then he describes the dreaded velociraptors -- compact, vicious dinosaurs -- as having the intelligence of chimpanzees. I can't bring myself to believe that a creature that can only see moving objects could have such high intelligence. Abstract thought would be terribly difficult for such a creature, or at the very least, incredibly alien. Crichton makes the velociraptors interesting and menacing and alien, but he doesn't overcome this objection.

Still, there is excitement in large quantities, and the thrill of seeing many types of dinosaurs brought to life in interesting and imaginative ways. Crichton is at his best in biology and medicine, and he views the dinosaurs with a loving if baleful eye. The powerful juxtaposition of children and real, live, hungry dinosaurs, vivid settings and technological fillups, make for a worthwhile evening's reading.

It'll make a terrific movie. Steven Spielberg is working through the logistics right now. There are even discussions about creating a park.

A theme park. And should giant robots prove too expensive, maybe there are some other, cleverer ways to make dinosaurs . . .

Greg Bear, a science fiction writer, is the author of "Blood Music," "Eon" and "Queen of Angels."

© 1990 The Washington Post Company