"Prey," Michael Crichton

Pros: Interesting story; some characters seem very real
Cons: Lengthy dry descriptions; over-explanation; detail problems/inconsistency
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 1/8/2003

I have a confession to make: I’ve never read a Michael Crichton story before. Oh, I’ve heard plenty about them. They sell really well. Some of the science is dubious at best. They contain too much explanation. Well, I finally decided to find out for myself what I thought of these popular books, so I read Crichton’s latest, “Prey.”

Jack Forman’s ethics put him out of a job. Now he’s a stay-at-home father for his three children while his wife works a high-powered job at Xymos Technology, a firm working on nanotechnology. The thing is, Julia has started acting weird lately. She comes home late every night. This formerly sunny, sweet woman yells at their kids and even hits the baby. She lies about where she’s been. Jack thinks she’s having an affair, but soon that’ll be the least of his worries.

One of Xymos’ creations has escaped into the desert–and it seems to be multiplying. It’s evolving and learning far faster than it should be. Xymos wants to bring it back under control, and for that they’ll need Jack’s help. After all, he wrote the original program that governs the nanotech’s distributed intelligence. But Jack had better hurry, because there’s more at stake than just a few square miles of desert. The swarms of nanotech devices are doing their best to break back into the Xymos complex. Julia isn’t the only person who’s acting weird. And now Jack’s baby, Amanda, has come down with a mysterious illness. Can he solve the mystery in time?

The Science

I admit straight off that I don’t have the background to know how realistic or ridiculous the science is. Although, I can say it’s clear that Crichton has taken a handful of modern-day ideas and extrapolated heavily. He does include a bibliography at the end of the book, so that you can look up further work on the ideas he introduces.

There are places where it seems like he doesn’t remain consistent with the science he introduces. The book makes a big deal about how Jack can’t take anything metal with him into the complex, or at least not past the residence area, because of the huge magnets the complex uses. Jack isn’t even allowed to wear his watch or belt into the building (nor his blue jeans with rivets), and he’s told that if he forgets and tries, alarms will go off and shut down the magnets, which will really annoy the people working with them. However, one incidental character wears a walkman. Others wear glasses that presumably have metal screws in them. There are syringes in a lab that almost certainly have metal needles (not to mention a dissection kit with a scalpel in it). There seem to be computer workstations all over the place, as well as metal pipes and such. (There’s another thing that really should have set off those mythical alarms, too, given the events of the story, but I won’t give that plot development away.) Maybe there’s some way in which this is supposed to make sense, but I can’t see it.

While the technology is actually quite interesting, it is presented in long sections of dry exposition. The main character (the book is told in first person) literally just stops to explain everything to the reader as he goes. In excruciating detail. The only thing that even remotely saves us from the sheer boredom of this technique is Crichton’s occasional winking tendency to cut these explanations off in mid-sentence when something interesting happens.

Characters and Story

Crichton has a talent for creating rather “real” characters. Jack’s supermarket dialogue with Ricky about diaper brands rings true, as does their subsequent loud discussion of sports when a passing woman gives them a strange look. The characters in this book have all the foibles and flaws of normal people.

The story, too, was interesting; I loved the unraveling of the plot. Crichton seeded the story with details that would keep the reader guessing, while only giving the main character enough things to work with that the ongoing explanation would always be a step behind the reader’s speculations. The only problem here was that there was a time or two when Jack really should have picked up on things and made some mental connections, but he was conveniently stupid.

All in all, “Prey” is a good story about a fascinating technology, told in an average-to-boring manner. With less explanation and better attention to detail this could be a great book, but Crichton wraps it up at the end by explaining every last hanging detail. I’m caught between thinking that his tendency to over-explain everything might be good (in that it makes the science end of things more accessible to non-science-minded people), and thinking that it’s rather condescending and, well, dull. It leaves us nothing to ponder. Nothing to think about. No “oh, wow!” connections to make when the story is done. The book is closed, and that’s it.

And in my book, that’s a sad thing.

Posted in Reviews

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