Onyx reviews: Next by Michael
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decided using outdated and inappropriate analogies.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
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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