At the heart of nearly every Michael Crichton novel is the simplest of premises: a protagonist in trouble, losing control of his world, facing forces he can no longer contain. It’s not exactly a sophisticated plot device, but while Crichton could be a complex thinker in terms of subject matter and scientific inquiry, especially later in his career, he was also an utterly facile writer as far as sentence structure and characterization go. He wrote page-turners that aspired for dystopic realism, and because of this, he is still a polarizing figure whose literary legacy remains unsettled. He once said that scientists criticized him for co-opting their theories into fiction, and that book critics ripped him for writing bad prose.
But one might also argue that few writers in modern history have married high-concept ideas and base-level entertainment as well as Crichton did. His books are the ultimate union of the geeky and the pulpy. Which is why one of this summer’s surefire blockbusters, Jurassic World, and one of this fall’s signature HBO series, Westworld, are both based on ideas that originated in the mind of a man who died almost seven years ago.
Start with, say, a handsome doctor lured by a beautiful woman to an island that is actually an experiment in the parameters of human need, run by a shadowy corporation that feeds people a drug that (for reasons unknown) turns their urine a bright and shiny blue. Or start with a vacationing playboy who finds himself trapped at a French villa by a surgeon who wields a scalpel as a weapon, like a James Bond villain. Or start with a heist gone wrong, or a madman wielding nerve gas and threatening to attack the Republican National Convention, or a doctor arrested and thrown in jail on charges of performing an illegal abortion.
Those are a few of the premises of the nine books Crichton wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s under varied pseudonyms, when he wasn’t yet a full-time writer and was still playing around with what kind he’d want to be if and/or when he became one. In a way, these novels are the most fascinating experiments of his career, because they’re windows into his thought process, into his own angst about technology and humanity. They’re the demos and B-sides that eventually led to his first best-selling book, 1969’s The Andromeda Strain, about a microorganism run amok. And The Andromeda Strain eventually led to 1990’s Jurassic Park, the story of the dinosaurs run amok, the story that turned Crichton into one of the most famous writers on the planet.
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The dinosaurs-run-amok franchise shows no sign of losing momentum, as this opening weekend of Jurassic World seems destined to prove. As a result, the genre has become the prototypical Crichton dystopia, the most popular brainstorm of a man who had one of the most unique and eclectic careers of any writer of his generation until his death of cancer in 2008.
The other things that are common knowledge about Crichton are exemplars of his versatility as an entertainment machine: He created the television show ER, cowrote the script for Twister, and directed an adaptation of his own period heist novel, The Great Train Robbery, as well as an adaptation of Robin Cook’s novel, Coma. At one point, he even created a video game based on his work. And soon, one of his older works will also be recycled for a new generation: an HBO series adapted from the film Westworld, a robot-theme-park-gone-wrong fantasia that Crichton wrote and directed in 1973.
“I hate it when people dismiss him as a novelist,” says Marla Warren, the author of a blog called Musings on Michael Crichton. “I think he’s a philosopher who explores ideas and issues through novels.”
Warren’s endorsement may appear to certain stern-faced literary critics as the most generous interpretation imaginable of Crichton’s oeuvre, but how many authors can claim to have as much range of subject matter as Crichton? He was, at the very least, a brilliant polymath, and he paired that with a wariness of conventional wisdom that set him apart from any other popular writer of his era. His central purpose as an entertainer — beyond the entertainment itself — was provocation, an attempt to ransack genre conventions and repurpose them for his own thought experiments. As his career went on, those experiments became increasingly contrarian and increasingly political.
But the roots of Crichton’s worldview actually date back decades, to a man seeking control, a man trapped in a career that he never really wanted in the first place. They began forming in the late 1960s, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a handsome doctor yearning for a way to escape.
Few popular authors have ever possessed the academic résumé of Crichton: Raised on Long Island, he was the first student from his high school to wind up at Harvard, where, after graduating summa cum laude, he went on to Harvard Medical School. The son of a journalist, Crichton dreamed of a career in writing and storytelling since childhood, but he studied to become a doctor, in part because it felt more socially acceptable. Quitting that path to become a writer and an entertainer, he once said, was like vacating the Supreme Court to become a bail bondsman.
It is also difficult to imagine that many writers have ever matched Crichton in height and good looks: He was 6-foot-9, with dark hair and chiseled features, and he briefly played on Harvard’s basketball team before deciding he had better things to do.1 As an undergraduate, he tried to study English but felt stifled by his professors; according to Crichton’s memoir, Travels, he once turned in a George Orwell essay as his own and got back a B-minus. This was one of his first provocations, a way of challenging the conventional wisdom, and it also convinced him that maybe he wasn’t cut out to major in English.
He also married five women over the course of his life. “It’s like living with a body and Michael is somewhere else,” his fourth wife, Anne-Marie Martin, once said, referring to Crichton’s obsession with his work.
The way Crichton tells it in Travels, he began writing James Bond–style thrillers as a way of paying for medical school. In retrospect, this seems like a rather insane plan to support oneself, but Crichton was focused enough to make it happen: His first book, Odds On, was a heist novel set in France that is raw and stylish and occasionally nonsensical in terms of plot. His father-in-law knew someone at Doubleday, and they took it, and Crichton signed with an agent and began publishing under the name John Lange. Crichton worked on the books on weekends and during vacations; he wrote one of them, Scratch One, in less than two weeks. They span genres from spy to adventure to the nascent stirrings of the science-infused dystopias that would soon make him famous. They’re also silly and pulpy and full of cheap thrills, some of the last of the great dime-store paperbacks that allowed so many authors to develop their voices in the mid-20th century. “They’re beach reading,” says Laurent Bouzereau, a filmmaker who now serves as a creative consultant to Crichton’s estate. “They’re books we all love to have on the next flight to wherever. Michael saw these books as his training ground.”
This was Crichton trying to fight his way out of convention. This was Crichton writing about sex and drugs and the counterculture, subjects that his future publisher Charles Ardai noted were not what “guys who wore neckties and went to Harvard med school did. That was the hippies. He was going to be the fair-haired golden boy, and maybe part of him wanted to write about sex and drugs. For him to do it was probably a little bit of a leap into the dark underbelly.”
Crichton once told The New York Times that his competition when writing the Lange novels was indeed the in-flight movie, and what you get out of them, besides a pure sense of pulpy bliss, is that the author is seeking a way out, seeking to gain control of his own life in the best way he can. Scratch One, for instance, is kind of a mess, but there may be no better window into Crichton’s psyche than the obvious trapped-in-med-school analogue of a young man named Roger Carr, who’s imprisoned in a villa by a doctor named Liseau.
“How long will I be kept here?” Carr asks, and the doctor replies, “You had best let me decide that.”
Eventually, Crichton wrote in Travels, the writing became more interesting to him than medicine, where the subconscious misery got so bad that Crichton’s symptoms began to manifest themselves physically. He developed numbness in his hands, and he worried he was getting multiple sclerosis.
Under the pseudonym Jeffery Hudson,2 Crichton wrote a book called A Case of Need, about a doctor who investigates the matter of a girl who dies following an illegal abortion. The book supports abortion rights, but it’s also a dark and cynical indictment of the Boston medical community in particular and the medical profession in general. “It is natural to expect innovation from the young, but in medicine this has not been easy,” he writes at one point, “for the old doctors train the young ones, and too often the students become carbon copies of their teachers.”
Crichton borrowed the name, with an altered spelling, from a court dwarf in 17th-century England, an ironic nod to his own height.
When A Case of Need won the Edgar Award for the best mystery of 1968, Crichton was outed. The one thing that worked to his advantage was that the medical community so looked down on the literary community that no one really noticed, or cared about, what Crichton had written. When a scriptwriter adapted the novel and wanted to fly Crichton out to Hollywood for the weekend, Crichton asked for a day off, and the school’s chief of service presumed he was lying about the reason. Only after The Andromeda Strain came out, and Hollywood came calling in a major way, did people start paying attention. By then, Crichton was several years into his medical-school career; despite wanting to quit, he was talked into staying, in part thanks to the mentorship of a professor named Howard Hiatt.
“I told him, ‘You’ve already come so far along that it will be worth finishing,’” Hiatt says. “‘You never know how that M.D. might be useful.’ His level of intelligence was just amazing. He was really quite self-effacing, he didn’t look for credit himself. He and I did sometimes joke about the people who were critical of him [in medical school, about his writing career]. But he was also a good deal more clever, in the best sense, than most of the competition.”
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Years later, in 2004, Charles Ardai started a publishing company called Hard Case Crime, which began reprinting pulp novels with racy period-inflected covers. Ardai had picked up a couple of the John Lange novels as a kid, but he had no idea they were written by Crichton until he began researching. He sent a message to Stephen King, who loved Hard Case’s ethos so much that he volunteered to write a brand-new novel for them (and has since written another); King said to tell Crichton that he should allow the Lange books to be reprinted. So Crichton and Hard Case put out a book called Grave Descend, about a diver hired to investigate the wreck of a luxury yacht; then they reprinted Zero Cool, a Hitchockian tale about a radiologist trapped in the crossfire between opposing gangs.
Hard Case did this with Crichton’s stipulation that he not be identified as the author anywhere, even though a simple search would have revealed, as it did to Ardai, that Crichton was the author of the Lange books. Crichton, who was heavily involved in choosing the cover artwork, didn’t want anyone to think these were new books.
Only after Crichton’s death in 2008 did Hard Case wind up publishing all eight of the John Lange books with Crichton’s name on the cover. And while Ardai says Crichton thought about updating some of the books for modern day, the only new material he ever provided Ardai was a brief introduction and epilogue to Zero Cool, in which a grandson films his grandfather launching into a far-fetched story about an American radiologist being chased in Spain. In the end, the grandfather is condemned as a liar and a fool.
Some of Crichton’s later novels don’t hold up particularly well to harsh scrutiny, and given the already musty themes of a few of them — Rising Sun,3 Disclosure,4 and most notably State of Fear, the global-warming-as-hoax novel that led to a meeting with George W. Bush and a blistering critique from The New Republic’s Michael Crowley, among others — some will likely seem more anachronistic as time goes on. Still, even a little bit of temporal distance from those books also makes it more understandable to see what Crichton was aiming for in terms of pure contrarianism; it makes sense that as Crichton grew increasingly powerful within Hollywood and gained stature within the publishing industry that he would attempt to address weightier subjects. And with fame, his books became more cynical, and his worldview became more jaundiced; even Jurassic Park, the novel, is a much darker story than Jurassic Park, the family-friendly Spielberg franchise. But the larger point — that we should question institutions and technology, that we should fight for control of our own lives however we can — still holds up. “His novels don’t so much provide the answers,” Warren says, “as provide the questions.”
A paranoid murder mystery about the clash of American and Japanese cultures.
About a male executive falsely accused of sexual harassment.
The best of his tales are paranoid dystopias of the most intriguing kind, which is why Hollywood will most likely continue to recycle and reboot them. And that’s why the early Crichton novels — the pseudonymous ones written by a man still exploring his own identity — are actually some of his best work: They feel like they were the product of a brilliant thinker who was desperately seeking a creative outlet, and they’re not weighted down with cynicism. They’re fun as hell, and the sex scenes are awesomely cringeworthy,5 and yet every so often you read something that makes you think, That feels hauntingly contemporary. They’re playing around with ideas that Crichton would later explore in more stern tales, but they foreshadow everything that was to come — the obsession with artificial intelligence and corporate malfeasance and the ubiquity of computers and all the cultural angst that has carried over to the 21st century — without the burden of taking themselves too seriously.
“There were very extensive sex scenes in Odds On, and I found I didn’t like that,” Warren says. “Not out of any sense of prudishness, but because it really slowed the pace down. It’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got to stop for three pages so these people can have sex.’”
In a way, the fact that Crichton wasn’t a great writer actually worked in his favor. His books were about story, anyway. He didn’t need to adhere to recurring characters or a single voice the way that so many legendary genre authors do. He was, Ardai said, more like a movie studio head than a traditional writer, veering from one radical idea to the next based entirely on his whims.
“How many writers are there who could show you so many different ways of a good time?” Ardai says. “I can see how it might seem like damning him with faint praise, but to call him an entertainer seems like his crowning achievement. Michael’s ambition was to entertain, and he would do anything to accomplish that.”
My favorite of the John Lange books is Drug of Choice, a trippy little book involving that inexplicable blue urine and models and an illusory island; it ends with a lecture about the power of corporations. “Do you want to live in a certain neighborhood?” a villain named Harvey Blood (seriously) declares. “Do you find certain food tasty? Do you prefer certain climates, clothes, cars, paintings, movies, books, films, toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, singers? Don’t you see your preferences are all conditioned? Don’t you see you are manipulated every minute of your life? You’re manipulated by Procter and Gamble, by Ford, by MGM, by Random House, by Brooks, by Bergdorf, by Revlon, by Upjohn—’’
There’s an essential irony to this, since Crichton became a franchise unto himself and wound up conditioning and shaping so much of the genre fiction we now consume. But he knew this. In the epilogue to Zero Cool, the grandson who’s been filming his grandfather as he spins this absurd yarn about Spanish counts and stolen emeralds ups and calls bullshit on him. “I can’t believe that,” the grandson says. “It makes you look silly.” And I think Crichton understood that, as much as he might strive for realism, he was ultimately an entertainer, and that as much as his stories were about the dangers of manipulation, he was toying with us, too.
Michael Weinreb (@MichaelWeinreb) is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.
This article was updated to correctly identify the John Lange books republished by Hard Case Crime before Crichton’s death.