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Onyx reviews: Prey by Michael Crichton

No one has ever accused Michael Crichton of being skillful at characterization. His forte is creating compelling and suspenseful plots, cutting edge thrillers that simultaneously educate, entertain and elucidate. Prey, however, starts with an intriguing character. Jack Nelson, a computer programmer, lost his job when he started asking uncomfortable questions about his employers' shady activities. Branded as a loose cannon, he's been blacklisted from any job he's qualified for in Silicon Valley.

When readers first meet Jack, he's buying place mats at Crate and Barrel. He's become "Mr. Mom," cooking meals, managing the household and chauffeuring his children to their extracurricular activities. He discusses the merits of particular brands of diapers with a friend in the line at the grocery store.

Beyond his domestic duties, Jack has other concerns. Primary among these is the increasingly distant and worrisome behavior of Julia, his wife of twelve years. She misses events with the children, picks fights with Jack and their daughter, works long hours and proffers inconsistent excuses that lead Jack to believe she's having an affair. His growing but unconfirmed suspicions fill him with doubt as he second-guesses himself. At his wits' end, Jack calls his sister Ellen, a psychologist, who promptly comes to evaluate the situation under the guise of helping look after the kids.

Ellen's arrival also conveniently frees Jack to take a consulting job with his former employer, who coincidentally happens to be doing work for Xymos, Julia's employer. On the surface, Xymos is developing microscopic robotic cameras for internal medicine applications. Shortly after he arrives at their remote Nevada fabrication plant, Jack learns that the company has taken nanotechnology to new levels of sophistication.

Xymos' experiments run amok, of course. Crichton has changed his focus from reanimated dinosaurs to seemingly sentient robots thousands of times smaller than the head of a pin—call it Microscopic Park. His intriguing setup devolves into just another thriller and the secondary characters turn into cardboard automatons. It's a shame, really, for Jack's domestic situation is more interesting than the dilemma he discovers at Xymos because readers can identify with it on a personal level.

Hired to correct flaws in the programs controlling the nanoparticles, Jack's humanity becomes less important. Because the plot depends on readers understanding—at least superficially—some fairly sophisticated science, Crichton needs to convey a lot of information through his characters. Jack, as narrator, bears most of the burden. Action and dialog screech to a halt for three or four paragraphs as Crichton-via-Jack explains in detail what's going on. It's educational and interesting, but this amount of information dumping is bound to turn off some readers. Equally distressing is Crichton's reliance on coincidence to advance Jack toward his goal. When things seem at their worst, something fortuitous saves the day. By the third or fourth time he escapes a potentially deadly situation, Jack begins to appear unbeatable, which spoils some of the book's suspense.

Prey is a cautionary tale, and not a terribly subtle one. Crichton shows his hand in a preachy five-page introduction that describes the potential hazards of nanotechnology disasters. He didn't open Jurassic Park by explaining why a theme park populated with genetically recreated dinosaurs is a bad idea. He let the story speak for itself. Unfortunately, Crichton allowed technological issues to overwhelm humanity in his writing as well as the plot.

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