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Onyx reviews: State of Fear by Michael Crichton

State of Fear is a heavy novel, both literally and figuratively. It feels dense in the hand, heavier than its 600 pages should account for. A quick scan through its pages reveals graphs of environmental information and footnotes packed with references to scientific journals. The book contains two appendices followed by a multi-page bibliography.

It's heavy, but it's also heavy handed. Crichton has an agenda: to speak out against the way America has been living in an artificial state of fear for the last century. He argues that governments prefer it when the populace is afraid of something; it's easier to govern. He notes that concerns about a global warming catastrophe started shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, ending the cold war threat. Through his characters, he presents a compelling-albeit one-sided-argument against the fundamental assumption that the planet is facing a series of environmental disasters.

His viewpoint character is Peter Evans, attorney to George Morton, a philanthropist who funds many environmental organizations. Morton is financing a lawsuit against the EPA in which the claimants argue that the agency's failure to take global warming seriously has led to a crisis in Vanutu, a Pacific island which may be obliterated by rising ocean levels.

Peter is dispatched to monitor preparations for the lawsuit. Almost immediately his strongly held beliefs in global warming as conventional wisdom are tested. The claimants know that the defense will present scientific evidence against the theory, so they use Peter as a guinea pig to see how potential jurors might react. Peter's response is to become defensive. Everyone knows the planet is getting warmer because carbon dioxide emissions are rising. It doesn't matter that the average temperatures in many places around the globe have decreased in recent decades.

A fringe group is planning to orchestrate several environmental catastrophes to help raise funding for the lawsuit by validating public fears about global warming. Though he's the viewpoint character-and it takes a while for this to become apparent-Peter isn't the books catalyst, which is a problem. He's the target for Crichton's arguments, but he doesn't drive the book's action. Instead, he's dragged around the globe by Morton's allies, who know everything there is to know about everything. Their attempts to thwart the catastrophes don't rely on Peter--he's just there so they can explain their point of view to the reader through him.

As a novel, State of Fear is not a success. It relies on trite characterization, contrived plotting, a passive protagonist and awkward writing. However, as a cautionary tale against conventional wisdom, Crichton raises several valid questions. While readers may not agree with his conclusions on this specific subject, they will likely go through the same evolution that Peter does. By late in the book, he's no longer so certain of his beliefs, or of his sources of information. If Crichton manages to make people skeptical about media reports of scientific information, that alone makes the novel worth reading.

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