CBRIII Maneuver #4 – State of Fear

Target: Michael Crichton’s State of Fear

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Techno-Thriller, Hard Science

Summary: From the back cover, “In Paris, a young physicist performs an oceanographic experiment – then dies mysteriously after a romantic tryst with a beautiful stranger.  In the jungles of Malaysia, powerful hypersonic cavitation technology – capable of toppling mountains with sound – is purchased by a private interest for an unspecified purpose.  In Vancouver, a businessman leases a small research submarine for use in the waters off New Guinea.  In Tokyo, in Los Angles, in Antarctica, in the Solomon Islands… an intelligence agent races to put all the pieces together to prevent a global catastrophe.” 

Vital Stats:
Pages: 715 & a 20 page appendix
Difficulty: 4 out of 10
Rating 3/5

Peter Evans is probably the worst lawyer ever.  His inability to process information on any sort of reasonable level is the only reason half of the events of the novel happen at all.  For a lawyer, being unable to deal with the data you are presented with is probably a fatal flaw. 

Let’s go back to the top.  State of Fear is not a good novel.  Well, it is good, it’s just not great.  Certainly not up to the literary standards that Mr. Crichton has set for himself.  That does not make the book a bad read or an uninteresting one, but from the standpoint of a literary critic, the novelization is not good.  This is probably because State of Fear isn’t really a novel.  It’s a cleverly disguised Socratic debate; with some explosions for good measure. 

The book is very much like a set of nesting dolls.  On the surface, and layered at the start and finish of every major section, is the novel.  A well paced thriller, pitting a lawyer, two secret agents and a secretary against the might of an eco-terrorist group attempting to stage a series of global catastrophes that will ‘prove’ the dangers of global warming.  The story is decent, but definitely not Crichton’s best work.  The characters themselves show the biggest hole in the book.  They are excessively bland.  Even the international top secret agents read like a less witty Penn & Teller.  Most of the time. 

The next layer down is an extensive Socratic dialogue between the agent John Kenner and several other members of the cast regarding global warming.  These lengthy conversations normally consist of the characters regurgitating common knowledge facts about global warming and Kenner, or on occasion a lawyer named Jennifer, slapping them down with vetted science and studies.  These chats are punctuated by footnotes referencing actual studies and real reports.  At the beginning of the novel, the author disclaims that anything in the book should be treated as fiction, except the footnotes. “Footnotes are real.” 

Characteristic of Socratic dialogue, the main theme of these conversations can be boiled down to, “You don’t know what you think you know.”  More to the point, you are dumber for believing in things you have no knowledge of.  Crichton compares the belief in global warming to religious faith.  So many people take it as gospel, but very few of them have any real information about it.  Just taglines and headlines created by the environmental lobby and the mass media. 

Which brings us to the last doll in my awkward simile.  Tucked away in the midst of the 500s block of pages, is a tiny little one sided conversation about the ‘State of Fear.’  This concept, a familiar one to all of us in the post 9/11 world, pins global distress on the mass media.  Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, nations have had to use other tools than the threat of global thermonuclear war to keep their populations in line.  The new tool of choice; a climate of terror and fear, perpetuated by the 24 hour news cycle.  Crichton notes that even though the United States is experiencing a drop in violent crime, and has been since 1993, the increased media coverage has most of the nation believing that crime is on the upswing. 

These asides are fascinating reads, and well worth considering on their own merits, but they destroy the pacing of the top layer of the novel.  They are also incredibly dense, and while the story summarizes them nicely, they’re still a bit thick at times.  For those of us with strong environmental leanings, it’s hard not to take the little Socratic jabs personally. 

Michael Crichton came under a lot of fire from the scientific community for State of Fear.  They claimed he misrepresented data and bolstered the factions that oppose global warming and environmental control.  Anyone who thinks that is clearly an idiot or just didn’t read the book.  Crichton’s point is painfully obvious: we don’t know nearly enough about the world.  Socrates had a goal in mind when he ridiculed his opponents for not knowing anything.  It was to get them to open their eyes and realize how little they knew.  So to does State of Fear.  There is so much suspect research being done on the environment by partisan groups that it is all but impossible to determine the truth anymore.  All Crichton is advocating is healthy scientific skepticism.

Is State of Fear a good book?  No.  It’s trying too hard to be too many different things.  But it is a solid read and might spark some interesting thought, and really, who could ask for more from a book?

Posted on January 14, 2011, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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