Latest book review: Micro by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston


from the notes of Michael Crichton; written by Richard Preston

(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Year published: 2011
Category: science thriller
Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY:

Jurassic Park meets Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. (Okay, I’m not the first reviewer to make this connection, but the comparison is so perfect I had to use it.) Set on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

REVIEW BELOW CONTAINS MINOR PLOT SPOILER.

REVIEW:

If Micro didn’t have the names of two of the greatest science thriller writers of all time on its cover, I would not have been disappointed.

If this were a debut novel by a new writer, I would eagerly watch for more. But instead of representing an early, worthy effort by an artist still perfecting his craft, Micro is a big step down from The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, and The Hot Zone. If you’re a big Crichton fan—in particular if Jurassic Park is your favorite—you’ll enjoy Micro; it goes down easily (you can skip every other page if you like!). It’s just that at times this novel reads like a parody of a science thriller, a careful attempt to replicate the successful formula of previous books.  It follows the rules but loses the magic.

The Plot: seven graduate students from the Harvard-MIT golden triangle in Cambridge, Massachusetts travel to Hawaii as potential recruits for a highly secretive biotech company that promises to change everything without ever admitting what, exactly, it is that they do. Minor SPOILER ALERT: In a scene that reminds me of the first Austin Powers movie (when Dr. Evil tries to get rid of his enemies using sharks with laser beams on their heads—and Scott suggests they simply use the handgun in his room), the graduate students are shrunk down to about an inch in height and dumped in a tropical rain forest. The plot is survival. Any other attempts at plot in this book are distractions.

The problems with this book: Micro gives us an utterly unbelievable villain who is everything that makes a poorly-written thriller bad guy: thinly drawn, pointlessly sociopathic, brutal yet ineffective.  The book also fails to give us a proper protagonist to root for (in some weird way I guess this fulfills the admonition given to writers that they ought to balance a strong hero with an equally strong villain). With seven graduate students, none are properly developed characters, and they serve primarily as cannon fodder. Who cares which ones live or die? In other books–Sphere comes to mind—Crichton successfully used group dynamics to create tension and interest. The group thing fails in this novel.  Also, characters frequently make illogical decisions that the author(s) try to justify in the next sentence, but the actions are still ridiculous (e.g., why didn’t he tell the cops about the woman in the video?)

The only character that really caught my fancy in this story is a peripheral one, Honolulu police lieutenant Watanabe. I would’ve liked to see a lot more of him in this story.

The science: Here is one area where the book shines. Crichton & Preston have imagined the “micro” world using accurate scientific information. They create all the advantages (free fall doesn’t hurt!) and dangers (raindrops! ants!) that a human shrunk to micro size would experience. Because each tiny graduate student has a specialized knowledge of some aspect of the biology of the rain forest, each makes observations and commentary on the life forms and food chains on this size scale. I loved the emphasis on chemical adaptations, whether poisons or scented pheromones, used by many small creatures. This makes me recommend Micro to teen readers who are not yet interested in science as it might open their eyes to the complexity and violence of the natural world.

Unfortunately from a storytelling perspective, the scientific musings of the graduate students interrupt the action and are often ludicrous if you consider the situation. When you’re fleeing for your life from a wasp the size of a 747, you don’t pause to smell the flowers.  Also, from a LabLit perspective, I appreciate the way the authors portrayed some of the cultural aspects of graduate student life and competition.  But I’m wondering why in the world these seven people were in the same research lab; their work would have little in common.

The reason I didn’t give Micro a full five-biohazard rating is the shrinking process itself. It’s completely SciFi, not SciThri. (Conservation of mass, anyone?)

Micro is a Jurassic Park wannabe.  At the end, Micro even tries to emulate the sequel setup of JP.  All I could think was, give me a break.  Read Micro if you’re a fan but don’t expect greatness.  Enjoy the clever, vivid, and often brutal descriptions of micro-life and just roll with the rest.

If you want to read a better novel with killer micro-robots in it, read:
Spiral by Paul McEuen

If you like thrillers with real science, read:
Petroplague by Amy Rogers

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4 Responses to Latest book review: Micro by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston

  1. Mr.Mike says:

    Your review is spot on. The background information for the flora and fauna was much better developed than the characters, and insect behavior was more believable than that of the humans. Still lots of fun – especially on audio where I actually looked forward to my drive to work just to advance the plot another 30 minutes.

    • Amy Rogers says:

      That was the amazing thing about Crichton. Such a great storyteller that even his “bad” books were fun, as I discovered when I read one of his “Med School” novels EASY GO (written under the name John Lange).

  2. OC Heaton says:

    Couldn’t agree more Amy. I am a huge Michael Crichton fan. In fact I got into writing because of him and his style. That of merging science fact with fiction where the two are so tightly intertwined that you don’t know where one starts and the other finishes. This was the greatest disappointment about Micro. The shrinking technology wasn’t remotely believable because very little effort was made to explain it. All the authors were interested in was getting the kids into the jungle so the survival games could begin. A big disappointment and the estate of Michael Crichton should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

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