by Michael Crichton
(extraordinary; top 10% of SciThri)
Year published: 1987
Category: science thriller
Tech rating (out of 5):
SUMMARY (from the back cover):
In the middle of the South Pacific, a thousand feet below the surface of the water, a huge vessel is discovered resting on the ocean floor.
Rushed to the scene is a group of American scientists who descend together into the depths of the sea to investigate this astonishing discovery.
What they find defies their imaginations and mocks their attempts at logical explanation. It is a spaceship of phenomenal dimensions, apparantely undamaged by its fall from the sky. And, most startling, it appears to be at least three hundred years old…
Nobody—and I mean nobody—writes like Michael Crichton. There are authors whose books are as good as Crichton’s, but MC has a gifted style all his own that no one has been able to replicate.
Sphere is a first-rate white-knuckle story set deep underwater, with strong sci-fi themes in the form of potential contact with alien life. As I read it, I swear I had trouble breathing because of the stale, compressed, helium-rich air! We read the story from the point of view of middle-aged psychology professor Norman Johnson, who clearly has no business enduring the physical rigors of deep ocean life. Johnson’s psychological insights and understanding of group dynamics under pressure play a key role as the situation turns sour.
Unsurprisingly, the cast of characters is cut off from the surface by a storm, and their habitat comes under attack. The real reasons behind the attack unfold as the pages turn. The mental states of the characters are a major source of tension and plot development.
It wouldn’t be Crichton without a lot of intellectual fireworks. Details about U.S. Navy operations in deep water are meticulously researched and well-utilized in the plot. Numerous discourses on the hunt for alien life, astrophysics, psychology of stress, Jungian psychology, evolution, and more are scattered across the pages. Miraculously they inform and entertain without ever feeling pushy or preachy.
All the usual Crichton strengths are on display here: a claustrophobic setting (deep underwater habitat), isolation (storm has forced surface support vessels to depart), a cast of characters working together and against one another with different motivations, goals, and styles. The tension begins on page one, and relentlessly ratchets up until the very last page. Unanswered questions compel you to keep reading: what’s the deal with the ship? The sphere? The squid? In most thrillers, the reader has a pretty good idea of where the plot is going and what the characters will do. Crichton manages to keep you on your toes, never divulging excess information and keeping you guessing at every turn. He uses a lot of foreshadowing to crank up the tension; often, but not always, these hints come true.
One weak plot point: the characters begin communicating with an unknown entity who is using some kind of code. This sequence is clever and engaging but ultimately illogical. If the entity knows English, why must it use a code?
Interesting character: Mathematician Harry Adams has a lot in common with Crichton’s more famous math genius, Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park.
Like most of Crichton’s works, Sphere is an excellent choice for teens/pre-teens who are strong readers. No profanity or sex, plenty of action and imagination.
Key words: spacecraft; black hole; deep ocean; decompression sickness; bioluminescence; manifestations; sea snakes; thought control