America loses its moral technologist: Michael Crichton

America loses its moral technologist: Michael Crichton

Summary: Author, Producer and Director Michael Crichton, 1942-2008. Photo: Associated PressWith election week and coverage of other events such as the Microsoft PDC and the latest Windows 7 builds, many of ZDNet's readers may be unaware that one of America's most foremost and successful writers of speculative fiction, Michael Crichton, passed away at the age of 66 this Tuesday, November 4th from a private battle with cancer.

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Author, Producer and Director Michael Crichton, 1942-2008. Photo: Associated Press

With election week and coverage of other events such as the Microsoft PDC and the latest Windows 7 builds, many of ZDNet's readers may be unaware that one of America's most foremost and successful writers of speculative fiction, Michael Crichton, passed away at the age of 66 this Tuesday, November 4th from a private battle with cancer.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Crichton may not be a name that is known to many of ZDNet's younger readers, but his works most definitely are. Educated as a medical doctor at Harvard Medical School, Crichton was the creator of the popular television series ER. However, many will also remember him for his books and movies such as The Andromeda Strain, Coma, Westworld, Jurassic Park, Disclosure, State of Fear, Prey and The Lost World, that utilize a common plot element found in many of his works, which is what happens when science, technology and man's thirst for power and greed mix and go completely awry.

It could be said that Crichton was a very different type of Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction author than the other kinds I tend to read. There's no question that out all of them, he was probably the most financially successful and most widely read -- which doesn't diminish the impact or the importance of his work, but I think defined his target audience. The type of fiction which Crichton wrote was probably more accessible or more readable to the everyman than many hard-core SF writers of his own generation or generations past, and I think that in and of itself is an important accomplishment. Getting 150 million copies of your books read is certainly nothing to scoff at.

A signature Crichton novel is marked by its fast pace and engrossing plot, which is why he was so good at what he did and why his books sold so well. Unlike say, a Tom Clancy tome, which is the sort of best-seller you really have to pick up and put down a few times due to their complex storyline and lots of technical mumbo-jumbo -- I found myself reading Crichton's books in just a sitting or two, because they were so engaging and gripping and I just had to read the next chapter, until I was done. This in itself is notable because his best books were well over 400 pages long.

What made Crichton a great sit-at-the beach and read a book one afternoon on vacation type of novelist was how he interpreted current trends in science and technology and communicate that in a gripping yarn. While Crichton had MD street creds, and researched the technology and science he wrote about, he wasn't the kind of visionary that say, Arthur C. Clarke was, who literally predicted trends and inspired progress that followed decades after he wrote about them. Instead, Crichton chose to write about believable, near-future and bleeding-edge subjects that while certainly fantastic, were still within the realm of the plausible. Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering, Nanotechnology and Cybernetics all were fair game, and their within-our-grasp reality is what made many of them all the more scary as speculative fiction.

If you could sum up Crichton in a nutshell, he was America's moral compass that kept our scientific and technological desires to play God in check.

And for that he will be missed. Talk Back and let me know.

Topics: Hardware, Emerging Tech, Mobility

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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29 comments
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  • Thank You

    Seven years ago I was applying to colleges. A common essay prompt was "Write about a particular work of literature or author who has had an influence on your life and describe that influence."

    I wrote about Michael Crichton. I argued many of the same points brought up in this story, how as a sci-fi writer he was unique. His fiction was grounded. Crichton did his research into the cutting edge of what was available today, and took a very well calculated and plausible imaginative leap.

    A futurist he was but he was much more than that to me, he was an inspiration.

    Since the turn of the century, like clock work, every other Christmas I would sit with my latest hardcover Crichton novel for 12-18 hours of pure personal indulgence. And how much I was looking forward to that this year.

    Never have I read someone whose ideas resonated with me so strongly. Michael Crichton had the remarkable ability to say things that I was thinking but didn't how to say, or even know that I was thinking in some cases.

    I have always admired his brilliance, his thoughtfullness, and his ability to articulate. And I am selfishly saddened that I won't be able to enjoy any more of his work.

    Thank you Michael for entertaining me, thank you for inspiring me, thank you for sparking a tremendous curiosity and imagination.
    eshepard84
    • He has one last published work coming out

      Around May of 2009. The title has not been revealed.
      jperlow
  • RE: America loses its moral technologist: Michael Crichton

    Your column hit the nail on the head for me. I feel exactly
    the same way you do about Michael Crichton's books. I was
    shocked and deeply saddened by the news of his passing.
    Selfishly, I am upset that there will be no more books
    forthcoming, but I also feel for his family. I had no idea he
    was battling lung cancer. He will be missed.
    aburwick
  • Was he really scientific???

    While I agree that he wrote entertaining books, to say he was a moral compass is a bit overreaching. The recurring theme in his books had always been making up the worst case scenario for the scientific flavor of the month for dramatic and entertaining effect. Really he was great at writing basically pulp fiction horror stories.

    So on the surface, he appeared to be scientific but at the core he was mostly anti-science. It was not surprising that he became a bedfellow with Bush on the issue of global warming.

    Thank goodness this era of anti-reason and blind faith is drawing to a close, perhaps we can get back to learning about our world once again and using that knowledge for the common good. For myself and others, acting on reproduceable data beats the hell out of blindly following someone's commands, no matter how reputable that someone is.
    nothingness
    • Grow up!

      How absolutely pathetic that you would link Dr.Crichton to
      President Bush, disparagingly........ hoping to discredit him.
      Dr.Crichton was in no way anti-science.He was anti-
      ignorance!
      THEJET_z
      • But he did...

        ... state that Global warming wasn't caused by mankind, that it's part of the natural warming and cooling. Bush stated some of the same things.

        Sorry, but even if there is natual warming and cooling, man has DEFINATELY impacted it and done so in a way that is negatively impacting the planet. This argument of Bush and the big C was done so to try to stem current environmental efforts to do things like--- promote alternative fuels for cars, etc.

        I dig some of the guys work. On some things he made some good points. Wrote some books that were entertaining, paving the way for modern Star Trek technobabble. But moral compass? Only if the moral message is that science fails and/or will be abused by the wealthy and the powerful.

        How did the big C influence anything positively other than box office sales with such rhetoric as the global warming crap?
        dellpj@...
    • Do you expect science fiction to always paint a rosy picture?

      I think it's important to look at the worst case scenario, just as any responsible engineer would. You mention global warming, but every last one of our modern environmental problems is an unintended consequence of the technological advances of the last couple of centuries (admittedly, we've also done a great deal to solve the old ones, particularly those dealing with sanitation). Note that Crichton didn't write against scientific research or technological innovation per se, but he did (rightly) condemn the irresponsible use of technology, and instead preached rational self-restraint and a healthy understanding of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

      Part of the mythology of the last two centuries is the belief that "progress" (scientific, technological, and social) is an unalloyed good (no downside). Crichton's writings are important reminders that progress is instead a two-edged sword.

      BTW: You step carefully around the "R" word, but I'll note that Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (arguably one of the first science fiction novels and certainly the earliest example of the sort of scientific horror story Crichton liked to write) was the daughter and wife of atheists, and therefore not likely to have been a religious woman herself. Percy Shelley was, of course, the outspoken bard of progress for it's own sake his entire life, but he almost certainly advised his wife in the writing of Frankenstein and may have written portions of it himself (the monster does seem to speak with Mr. Shelley's voice).
      John L. Ries
  • RE: America loses its moral technologist: Michael Crichton

    In the intro to one of his Jurassic novels, Crichton spoke of the arrogance of mankind to think we can change the planet's environment, be it weather-related, earthquakes, tsunami's, meteor strikes or ice ages, which have come and gone many times over the millenia. Mankind wasn't around to melt the mile-thick ice that covered the Northern hemisphere, yet the ice comes and goes, again and again. George Carlin said it best, recycling your soda can won't stop ice ages, pole reversals, axis recession, or global climate changes. The Earth was around before mankind was a twinkle in pond scum's eye, and will be circling the Sun long after all life on this planet is gone.
    glcanon
  • RIP, Dr. Crichton

    Seems to me we don't have enough pessimistic science fiction (Crichton's specialty). We need to be constantly reminded that great knowledge implies great responsibility and that it's dangerous to employ scientific advances frivolously. Crichton did that better than just about anyone since Mary Shelley.
    John L. Ries
  • Damn It

    Just this week I happened to glance at "Next" sitting on my bookshelf and wondered when the next book was coming out. "Jurassic Park" made me fall in love with reading. A part of my life is gone. He will be sorely missed.
    Reinbeast
  • RE: Michael Crichton's passing

    I am shocked. I did not know he was ill at all. I read "The Andromeda Strain" for a book report many years ago, and felt like I knew each of the characters personally. The way in which Mr. Crichton evoked their evolution through the plot made them so believable. I knew he had developed "ER" and the "Jurassic Park" series, as well as many other books, but 'Andromeda' was my launch point. Rest peacefully, Mr. Crichton.
    pyropakjim@...
  • RE: America loses its moral technologist: Michael Crichton

    Totally shocked, I am going to miss his outlook...
    tkmagoo
  • After seeing "Jurassic Park"...

    ... I read the novel and marked pages having objeccive, factual errors with Post-It notes.

    The book wound up looking like a sandwich stuffed with pieces of pastel American cheese.

    It's hard to consider someone a "moral technologist" who writes a novel attacking the belief that global warming is not due to human behavior.
    GrizzledGeezer
    • "belief"?

      "It's hard to consider someone a "moral technologist" who writes a novel attacking the belief that global warming is not due to human behavior."

      The use of the word "belief" here demonstrates precisely the problem with the pro- and anti-Global Warming gangs - for far too many people, Global Warming is a matter of dogmatic, almost religious belief, not a scientific understanding of facts. And the first thing that real scientists do is to understand what they do and don't know. Could Global Warming be caused by human intervention. Sure, could be - there are plenty of models that suggest it. Is it a proven fact? No, because we really don't understand the global climate model well enough to say definitively - without a shred of doubt - because we also know that the global temperature goes up and down all by itself.

      What we do know is that we are pumping more carbon into the atmosphere than can be cleaned naturally, mostly 'deep carbon' from subsurface fossil fuels. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to wonder what effect that this prolonged alteration of the atmospheric composition will have.

      But Dr. Crichton's contribution is really to point out that dogmatic belief is just as bad when labelled as 'science' as it is when labelled as 'anti-science'. While the theory that Global Warming is man-made might well be true, what is really certain is that mankind will manage to screw it up even worse in trying to solve the problem, because we don't understand the global climate model anywhere close to what we should.

      Don't believe me? In the 70s, there was a great push to reduce particulate matter as air pollution. On the surface of things, this would appear to be a good idea, since particulates in the air cause lung damage. However, we reduced the particulates without reducing the greenhouse gases. When we reduced the particulates, we reduced the albedo (reflectiveness) of the atmosphere, which causes more sunlight to penetrate to the earth's surface. Just think! We could have tolerated more greenhouse gases with no global temperature variation if we hadn't have reduced the particulate air pollution - oops!

      As other posters here have noted, Dr. Crichton was not anti-scientific; he was more the "be careful what you wish for..." because few people ever understand the full ramifications of new technology until too late...

      Bill
      mccalpin
    • Belief Two

      What is interesting to me is that Micheal's book was better documented than Al Gore's book and vastly more entertaining. In fact, there are several YouTubes of the internetskeptic which use only the information within Gore's book to completely demolish Gore's central thesis about Global Warming.
      We need to understand the science before we legislate the masses. Otherwise we will make things worse.
      casey.elliott@...
  • RE: America loses its moral technologist: Michael Crichton

    I think you've forgotten that in a fairly recent book Michael Crichton irresponsibly planted and encouraged denial that Global Climate Change is both real and man-made. To my mind that greatly lessens his status as a "moral" anything.

    jdh
    jhencken
    • Did you look at the references he cited ...

      or are you just blindly believing Al Gore and the rest of the "respected scientists" who are willing to say global warming is real as long as there is a paycheck in it for them? Perhaps you should go back and re-read his book or read the IPCC report with an objective eye like Dr. Crichton did.
      rpwillia0@...
    • Crichton's Global Warming Book

      Maybe you should read the book.
      Micheal referenced his work of fiction much better than any news article I have ever read. The quality of his framework of citations was nearly on a par with a master's thesis.
      The referenced material is well supported in the scientific community and, as a body of work, tells us to study the science and understand what we are doing before trying to regulate or legislate the natural world.
      casey.elliott@...
  • RE: America loses its moral technologist: Michael Crichton

    People don't have to agree with his science per some of the notes here. I believe the underlying messages were on target. Well written. Thank you Jason for giving this coverage.

    Dave
    davejaworski
  • RE: Michael Crichton - what few people knew.

    Some of the best Science Fiction writers have one thing in common. Mr. Chrichton was no exception to this. That is, they each had some aspect of the bigger picture touch them personally. I???m not talking science or religion, but spirit instead; not necessarily reproducible; but definitely far more than blind faith or the understanding of any particular belief system.

    Here are a couple of examples that come to mind. Whitley Strieber, who authored Wolfen, Communion, Transformation and Breakthrough, among others, was an alien abductee. Phillip K. Dick, THE most well read sci-fi author, outside the U.S., had beings of light visit him also. Being touched by aspects of the larger reality must have helped each of these individuals with their imaginative musings.

    Michael, instead of being an abductee, or a contactee, like the two authors that I mention, instead, had dark spirit attachments. Specifically, he had four. Instead of his home being invaded, his body was that which was penetrated.

    His possession, or rather his exorcism (or rather I should say his attempted exorcism; as we don???t know if it was successful or not), with a hypnotherapist, was duly noted in the last chapter (entitled "An Entity") of his autobiography ???Travels.??? You can read a portion of that chapter at my web page at http://www.profoundstates.com/entity.htm.

    Aside from the two movies, ???The Exorcist??? and ???The Sixth Sense,??? both based on true stories, Michael???s attachments are some of the most well known.

    I was hoping to interview him regarding these attachments on a radio show. The world could use a great deal of enlightening regarding this very misunderstood subject.

    I still wonder if anyone ever spoke to him, publicly, regarding this issue.

    Since I can???t interview him in his body, I wonder what he would say if I interviewed him from the other side? Now that might get people???s attention; wouldn???t you say?

    Sincerely;

    Mike Beaver CHt.
    http://www.profoundstates.com
    http://www.profoundstates.com/book.htm
    yoda226us