Congo by Michael Crichton
[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Michael Crichton’s Congo (1980) is an adventure story that should recall Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) and Henry Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885).
However, although the formula has been used so many times as to become almost archetypal, the little details have been updated for a contemporary audience. In place of dinosaurs, Crichton offers an unusual breed of gorilla that threatens our band of scientists, and he trades in mines and lost explorers for flawed diamonds that can be used for cutting-edge communications technologies.
And our lost city (Zinj) is located in the rainforests of the Congo.
Congo is one of Crichton’s earlier techno-thrillers, but it is clear that by this time he had begun to smooth out the wrinkles in his writing. His characterization is still a little transparent – our tragic hero Karen Ross’ fatal flaw is revealed on a computer printout – but Crichton’s reliance on computers makes a rather obvious ploy feel novel. Ross’ psychological profile warns that although she is driven and intelligent, her youth and ambition could endanger her life and the lives of her team.
The adventure stories that were written near the turn of the century were often infatuated with exploration and discovery, an infatuation that Crichton clearly shares. Throughout Congo, Crichton showcases unusual academic advances, tweaked just enough to feel like science fiction. For example, Peter Elliot has trained a gorilla, Amy, to communicate using sign language. Our local guide in Africa, a shadowy mercenary named Munro, plans the route into the jungle relying on computer models. And how about those automated weapons systems? There is a sense of mystery and grandeur to these advances that is rivaled only by the lost city of Zinj, its crumbling ruins, and its violent protectors.
However, although Crichton clearly revels in the novelty of invention, discovery and progress, his purpose is actually conservative. What happens to a society that hands over its responsibilities to automated systems? Although Crichton is often dismissed for his lackluster styling, his fusion of the adventure story with science fiction still feels fresh today, and his juxtaposition of the ancient with the futuristic allows him to suggest that there is wisdom to be found in the past that can shape the decisions we make about our future.
Congo is not Crichton’s best work, but that is only because he would take the setting, character and theme of this novel and refine (or upgrade) all of them in later works like Sphere and Jurassic Park. Regardless, readers looking for an intelligent fusion of science fiction and adventure could hardly do better than Michael Crichton’s Congo.