Friday, December 23, 2011

Review of "Micro" by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston

  I think I have read almost all of Michael Crichton's "science thriller adventure" novels, and seen most of the movies based on them -- "The Andromeda Strain" (the original) and "Jurassic Park" being the best, or at least most enjoyable, in my opinion.

   It's my great hope that "Micro", Crichton's last book (finished after his death by Richard Preston) never gets adapted into a movie… although in a time when stupid ideas get made into huge, stupid movies, it probably will.

  "Micro" begins somewhat promisingly, with the mysterious deaths of several men, killed with a succession of tiny cuts inflicted by unseen forces.

   And then it goes downhill.

   No, that's too mild -- it CAREENS downhill.

   We're introduced to seven graduate students from Massachusetts -- none of them at all memorable as characters -- who are induced to come to Hawaii to work with a new company called Nanigen. Within a short time of their arrival, they are lured into a room where a big machine shrinks them down to roughly one-half an inch tall… and a chapter or so later, they are struggling to survive in the Hawaiian jungle, fighting for their lives against insects and other creatures, as well as natural phenomena which are now potentially fatal at their vastly reduced size.

  Now, that's a premise which could have been a lot of fun. I'm a big fan of stories of people being shrunk down and having to deal with life at a tiny size -- "The Incredible Shrinking Man" is one of my favorite movies. It's a scenario filled with opportunities for wonder, excitement and peril.

   Of course, it helps -- no, it's NECESSARY -- to support such a ludicrous premise with consistent logic, and people it with characters you can care about. "Micro" succeeds on neither of these counts.

   The story really begins to fall apart with the hasty exposition explaining the "science" behind the "tensor generator" which shrinks the students down to that one-half inch height. The "science" amounts to this -- very strong magnetic fields causes things to shrink.


  This is a great example of the "less is more" approach. If you have to do something which is, essentially, theoretically impossible, DON'T try to explain it in a way which is CLEARLY nonsensical to anyone with half a brain. Just briefly make up something about the technology behind your magic device, and move on.

   So we have these seven people -- eight, actually, because one of the Nanigen technicians is accidentally shrunken down with the group -- now roughly the size of sugar cubes. (The rationale for the evil head of Nanigen doing this has something to do with a lame sublpot about the brother of one of the students learning the shocking truth about Nanigen, and said student finding out something about the complicity of the evil head of Nanigen in the death -- or APPARENT death -- of said brother.) Obviously -- and it is made obvious in the bad dialogue attendant to this scene -- the evil head of Nanigen has shrunken the students to get rid of them.

   And here's his plan: He's going to feed them to one of the many snakes in Nanigen's laboratory. But the first snake the students are offered to doesn't eat them, due to some convenient repellent insect chemicals one of the students is carrying. (But the evil head of Nanigen doesn't realize that, and instead thinks the snake must just not be that hungry.) So then, instead of offering the students to the NEXT snake, and maybe the next one after that, he allows his somewhat reluctant (and obviously somewhat soft-hearted) associate to let the students go… into the jungle. At night. With no supplies or weapons with which to defend themselves from all the predators now extremely dangerous to them at their reduced size. Better than being fed to a snake, I guess, but not by much.

  Now, in the hands of a good writer, the following chapters could have been a thrilling series of adventures as these sugar cube-sized students struggle to survive in this now-alien landscape, using their wits and their scientific knowledge to keep themselves alive and somehow get back to their former stature. But Richard Preston is not that kind of writer. Many of his concepts and dialogue choices are simply embarrassingly dopey. Here's one -- it's from the thoughts running through the head of the aforementioned reluctant associate of the evil head of Nanigen, referring to her relationship with same:

   "… (he) had been incredibly good to her, advanced her career, paid her unlimited amounts of money…"

   Really? The evil head of Nanigen has paid her an infinite amount of money? Huh? Was this book even proofread?

   And this howler comes from later on in the book (page 202, to be precise) in one of the many clunky scenes in which everything stops so that some bit of biological science can be tediously explained. This is a character named Rick talking about the ingredient he needs to cook up some curare, a poison he hopes to use to defend them against the creatures who might want to eat them:

  "That whiff of bitter almonds… can you smell it? Cyanide -- a universal poison, it'll kill anything, and fast. Cyanide -- a favorite of Cold War spies."

   And here's another bizarre one from page 244, when one of the characters is being attacked by a wasp which is laying eggs in him:

   "The wasp was… burying her stinger in his shoulder. And he felt nothing. His arm had gone dead.

"No!" he screamed, and grabbed the stinger in both hands, and tried to pull it out."

   Now, maybe I'm missing a key element here, but… if one of your arms has "gone dead", how do you then grab something with BOTH hands?

  One more -- on page 302, a police detective interviewing the evil head of Nanigen notices the smell of the cigar the evil head of Nanigen is smoking:

  "The air had a pleasant aroma of cigar. Given the pleasance of the aroma, Watanabe concluded that the cigar had cost more than ten dollars."

  When I first read that second line, I thought "Did the author just invent a word? 'Pleasance'? I've never heard that word before."

  I asked my wife -- who had her laptop open -- to do a quick search for the word, and -- to my surprise -- it IS in fact a real word. Here's what had to say about it:

"pleas·ance   [plez-uhns]
1. a place laid out as a pleasure  garden or promenade.
2. Archaic . pleasure."

  So the author has chosen to use the archaic meaning of an uncommon word, for no particularly good reason… the mark of someone who writes with a thesaurus open at his side.

   I came very close to abandoning "Micro" without finishing it… but I am loathe to do that with any book I've started reading, so I toughed it out and made it to the end. It wasn't easy. This is one of those rare books which was almost painful to read, and not because it includes troubling or disturbing concepts. It's just a terrible waste of trees. I wish I'd followed my earlier impulse and dumped it in the recycling bin.

   Michael Crichton had a real knack for taking a premise which was slightly ludicrous and turning it into a compelling story, with just enough real science mixed in to keep up the suspension of disbelief. Richard Preston does not have that ability, if this book is any indication. -- PL


Adam Riches said...

I'm really glad I saw this review, because "Micro" was high on my "books to read" list. I really enjoyed "Jurassic Park" (having read it many years after seeing the film) and hearing that Michael's final, unfinished work was going to be released posthumously piqued my interest. It would seem Richard Preston was not the correct choice to carry out the completion though, so at your recommendation I think I'll avoid this one.

I am curious though, at the point Michael stopped his writing if perhaps he hadn't fully realized what ended up published, as he hadn't had a change to go back and edit the work? I suppose we'll never really know.

Have a great Christmas, Peter!

PL said...

Adam, I am happy to be of service, and save you a few bucks and some hours wasted.

I have never read anything else by Richard Preston, though I have come close once or twice ("The Hot Zone" looked pretty intriguing). But he was clearly the wrong choice to finish this particular book. I wonder what someone like Dan Simmons could have done with it?

Actually, I am really curious exactly how much Crichton had finished before he passed away. I'm not sure if it is possible to find that out. -- PL

Sarah The Anime Librarian said...

I read a few reviews of this that pretty much said the same Peter, in various library journals. I actually had a librarian friend in Boston say it was almost as bad as Twilight, which I think says a lot!

Anonymous said...

In case you're still curious I read in a seperate review that Preston wrote two-thirds of Micro. Given the overall, umm... 'quality' of the work, I was not surprised (though, perhaps a little saddened).

Anonymous said...

I think you've really over-analyzed this to be frank. Fair enough there was those sentences or two in there that weren't grammatically correct, but that's not the end of the world.
I found out a lot about things I never even knew existed because of this book. All proven in one way or another throughout the book. Apart from the Tesla Generator of course, but that's not the be-all and end-all.

I enjoyed the book. There seemed a little too many things going on throughout the book as a whole but it was a good read to find about about all these micro-organisms and threats these guys faced. I'd give it a solid 5.5-6/10.