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Biomedicine in museums

Next — a lost opportunity out of control

By January 5, 2007No Comments

I promised to come back to Michael Crichton’s Next.

I didn’t expect much — but was nevertheless sort of positively surprised. Not because of Crichton’s writing skills. I’ve always been ambiguous about his books (The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Prey, etc.) because their literary value is, in my humble mind, not overwhelming. His characters only seem to have one emotion (in Next they invariably “frown” when they are supposed to express dislike of something).

Crichton reminds me of detective novelist Mickey Spillane who famously considered himself a “writer,” not an “author” (meaning that authors get prizes, while writers sell). Seven of Spillane’s titles are indeed among the ten best selling US books in the 20th century. Likewise Crichton will never get the Booker Prize or the Nobel Prize in literature — but the first print-run of Next is allegedly over one million copies.

And like Spillane, Crichton is a very efficient writer. The flap promises a blend of “fact and fiction into a breathless tale of a new … genetic world” which is “fast, furious, and out of control. Well, Next is furious too — it’s a short-sentenced, dialogue-driven, fast-paced page-turner (it kept me awake until 2.30am) inhabited by dozens of rather unsympathetic, characters and interspersed with a few soft porn scenes.

The book has probably been crafted so it can easily be turned into a film script (if so, it will undoubtedly be sold as the updated sequel to Jurassic Park, the movie). The intro chapter is in fact already the perfect opening scene of Next–the Movie; starting with a keynote speech by a venture capitalist at a biotech conference in Las Vegas and ending 15 pages later with a postdoc who commits suicide in a tight elevator by opening a Dewar flask with stolen transgenic embryos in liquid nitrogen.

This is just one of many substories. There is a hilarious intermittent story about a genetically modified parrot that teaches kids math; there is another, rather sweet one, about an interbred human-chimp who is adopted by his genetic father; yet another one about a scientist who by mistake administers a retrovirus to his brother who then ages disastreously fast; and so on. The intercalating plot structure is somewhat confusing for older readers like me, but for a generation that are used to zap and browse it’s probably no problem at all.

Like George Clooney’s Syriana, Crichton’s Next uses this combination of subordinate plots to tell a more general, and potentially more serious, story — of the interaction between cutting edge university biomedical research, profit-hungry private bioengineering companies, medical ethical concerns, biopatenting and biolaw. Crichton wants to educate us about the impending dangers of biotechnology — and, like in earlier books, he ends with a short statement chapter about biopolicy, and a bibliography about genetics. Probably intended for members of US Congress to read in-flight.

Unfortunately I don’t think this works. True, the science/tech part is rather realistic, and many of Crichton’s invented short stories could in fact take place, either today or in the near future. But he has crammed too much into the book and leaves too many loose ends. A good literary agent would had told him to stick to one story (e.g., that of BioGen company chasing the cytokine-producing anti-cancerogenic cell-line from Frank Burnet and his grandchild).

Crichton’s Next is a great way of spending an evening when you have nothing else to do and is too tired for preparing your lectures. But as a contribution to the public engagement with biomedical science and biotechnology it’s a lost opportunity. It’s almost out of control.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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