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Onyx reviews: Next by Michael Crichton

If readers have any doubt about whether Michael Crichton had an agenda in writing Next, they need only turn to the Author's Note at the back of the book. Here, in straightforward, no-nonsense language he lists five recommendations for gene research and the politics that surrounds it.

In the four hundred pages that precede this note, Crichton presents a number of case studies to support his conclusions. Unfortunately, the book lacks a single protagonist for readers to identify with. Characters appear, say their lines and vanish in a series of unrelated plots and subplots that thread their way through the pages in a structure imitative of modern, experimental movies like Crash. Promising storylines peter out without resolution. What happened to the frozen embryo predicament from the prologue, for example?

Crichton's recent books, including State of Fear, show an author increasingly strident about issues he considers important. In the past, he relied more on story and at least a passing attempt at characterization as vehicles for his opinions. Now, plot and characterization take a back seat to social commentary. His characters are never given the opportunity to reveal themselves through their actions. Upon their introduction, the author tells readers everything they need to know about them. A character is an alcoholic because the omniscient narrator tells us she's in AA. Since another character is only required on-screen long enough to deliver a critical verdict near the end of the book, he is introduced as an "internationally renowned primate anatomist," thus providing all the bona fides the reader needs.

Next is cluttered with scientific facts and opinions, and so many characters that readers would do well to take notes. Though Crichton does allow some to take stances at odds with his own, these characters are sufficiently unsympathetic that readers are unlikely to listen to what they have to say. The scientific facts and opinions can take care of themselves.

Many of Crichton's issues have nothing to do with the potential for misuse of genetic science, but rather with the ethics and laws that are being enacted or decided using outdated and inappropriate analogies. His range of targets is broad: judges, politicians, venture capitalists, editors of scientific journals, university researchers and the staff of biotech and pharmaceutical firms. "This novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren't," the epigraph says, which makes one wonder about the nature of a cameo appearance by Senator Diane Feinstein and Representative Henry Waxman.

Readers may not agree with the author's stance on every—or any—issue. However, anyone interested in the future of gene research, gene therapy or transgenic experimentation should come away from Next feeling like some apparently obvious scientific tenets are not as clear as they seem. Do scientists agree about something as fundamental as the notion of what a gene is? Not according to Crichton. How easy is it to replace aberrant genes with corrected versions? Nigh unto impossible at present, and it may remain so for decades. Is there a gene for every human attribute? That's what we've been led to believe, but Crichton states that even attributes as simple as eye color or diseases as well understood as diabetes aren't associated with a single gene. And correcting diseases like this requires more than simply replacing the faulty gene—an entire, complex, and incompletely understood set of genetic activators must also be properly modified.

If you're looking for a mindless romp decorated with the occasional tidbit of trivia or piece of research, Next isn't for you. There are pages and pages of sophisticated biochemical discussion between characters, which may leave non-technical readers somewhat adrift.

To make up for this, Crichton has created two "characters" guaranteed to delight—a transgenic chimpanzee and a mathematically inclined, movie-quoting, privacy-invading parrot with a British accent and an ironic sense of humor. In fact, it says a lot about Crichton's writing skills that his most attractive and entertaining characters aren't human.

What makes Next a more challenging read is its lack of focus. The book has been described elsewhere as a literary "mash-up," which is an astute observation. Various plots drift along at unrelated rates: the tale of a man who carries a gene that is apparently no longer his own property, having been patented by a biotech company in an extension of eminent domain that boggles the mind; the hunt for an orangutan who swears at tourists in several different languages; the exploits of a researcher whose drug-addled brother inhales experimental genetic material and becomes cured of his addiction but experiences an unanticipated side effect; a rather pointless story about a man accused of genetically modifying tortoises to turn them into walking advertisements. A series of real or imaginary news clipping punctuate the book, in case a reader misses any of the various points Crichton is trying to make. When the plots finally all do merge, it seems a little contrived, like Crichton realized late in the game that it would be a good idea to bring everyone onstage together.

Next has entertaining moments, but it serves better as a launching pad for discussion of issues that will become increasingly important in society in years to come.

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