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.
In his introduction to Micro, Michael Crichton explains that children today are “cut off from the experience of nature, and from play in the natural world.” Crichton’s purpose, it would seem, is to take the seemingly mundane world and reveal the wonderful details that don’t make it onto Wikipedia and computer models. Crichton had reportedly finished one third of Micro when he passed away, and the novel has since been finished by Richard Preston.
Peter Jansen and his friends were just regular Cambridge students until Nanigen MicroTechnologies came recruiting. One of the recruiters is Peter’s brother Eric, who tries to be discreet about Nanigen’s very cool, but very proprietary, technology while also hinting that the company has invented tools that will lead to a new era of scientific knowledge. Peter does not find a new microscope, but he does discover a miniature plane in Eric’s car. What does Nanigen MicroTechnologies do? The students decide that they will have to travel to Hawaii to find out. However, before they leave, Peter receives a text message from his brother warning him not to come. It is afterward followed by a phone call from the company informing Peter that Eric has disappeared.
Peter decides to investigate. When he confronts Vin Drake, the psychopathic CEO of Nanigen MicroTechnologies rushes Peter and his fellow students into a “safe room” that turns out to be a “Tensor Generator.” The Tensor Generator (which seems like an homage to Star Trek’s transporter) can “dimensionally change” matter. Drake shrinks the students to an inch in height and then attempts to feed them to a snake. No fuss, no muss.
However, Peter and his colleagues escape the lab into the Oahu rainforest, where they are forced to pit their scientific expertise against the ferocity of the “micro world.”
It is tempting to compare Micro to Crichton’s earlier novel Prey, which pitted scientists against sentient swarms of nanotechnology. However, the conflict that Micro offers might actually be more akin to Jurassic Park. Rather than speculating about the eyesight of the Tyrannosaurus, Crichton spends his time outlining the chemical defenses and biological armor of beetles, wasps, and centipedes. Rather than humans fighting against terrible lizards, tiny scientists fight against monstrous insects.
Crichton’s depiction of the insect world is not speculative, and it is here that readers will see why Crichton chose to write about the natural world. It is clear that he finds the natural world fascinating, though brutally violent.
The premise works well, which is important because Micro’s characters are very flat. None of our heroes has as much personality as Dr. Grant from Jurassic Park, Norman Johnson from Sphere, or even Amy, the gorilla in Congo. However, the real weakness of the novel is Vin Drake, the psychopathic villain who madly pursues the microbiologists across Oahu. He doesn’t stroke his mustache, but the gesture would not have been out of place.
Still, the “micro-world” is an exciting place to visit. If Crichton’s goal in Micro was to make his readers see nature in a new way, I think he has succeeded. However, if his goal was to make today’s children to trade in computer models for first hand experience in nature, he may have failed. Yes, the adaptations that allow insects to survive the micro world are amazing, but I suspect that most readers will find the venom sacs of spiders and the mandibles of centipedes just as gross – if not grosser – after finishing the novel as they did when they started reading.