The Terminal Man

by Michael Crichton

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Year published: 1972
Category: science thriller; medical thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):


SUMMARY {modified from the back cover}:

Harry Benson is prone to violent, uncontrollable seizures and is under police guard after attacking two people.

Over the objections of his psychiatrist Janet Ross, Harry Benson is chosen for a highly specialized experimental surgery to cure his condition by placing electrodes in his brain, sending monitored, soothing pulses to the brain’s pleasure centers.

Though the operation is a success, there is an unforeseen development. Benson learns how to control the pleasure pulses and is increasing their frequency with disastrous results for him, and the victims of his rampages…


Terminal Man is classic Michael Crichton work. It’s a brilliantly-paced story that reflects on the implications of scientific “progress” and warns of the dangers of hubris. And like The Andromeda Strain, I’m amazed at how well the book holds up almost forty years after initial publication. Crichton had an uncanny ability to see the future.

Terminal Man is set in a cutting-edge neuropsychiatry research institute within a hospital. Staffed by neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, and computer specialists, the research unit sees the human brain as a massive computer, nothing more, nothing less. By understanding and manipulating the computer-like qualities of the brain, the doctors hope to cure disease and improve human lives. Their initial focus is on violent individuals who have documented organic brain disease, that is, an obvious physical injury to their brains that has affected their behavior. Harry Benson meets this criterion. Unfortunately, in addition to seizures which release the normal brakes on violent actions (“acute disinhibitory lesion”), Benson is also mildly psychotic with an obsession about machines taking over the world. The protagonist is Benson’s psychiatrist, Janet Ross, who argues with the aggressive neurosurgeons that Benson is not a good candidate for the experimental surgery. Driven by overconfidence and a surgeon’s need to do something—anything—the procedure is performed and appears to succeed. Until something goes wrong, and Benson disappears from the hospital.

As you should expect from Michael Crichton, this book is a well-written page-turner stuffed to the gills with scientific and philosophical insight which never feels preachy or invasive of the narrative. Amazingly the themes are just as relevant today: the increasing dependence of humans on computers; the exploding power and diminishing size of computers; the impact of neuroscience on our understanding of free will and what it means to be human; “mind control”.

I’m going to quote character Harry Benson because I think his comments are so amazing (remember, written in 1972):

“Trends to be opposed: Number one is the generality of the computer. The computer is a machine but it’s not like any machine in human history. Other machines have a specific function—like cars, or refrigerators, or dishwashers. We expect machines to have specific functions. But computers don’t. They can do all sorts of things…Number two is the autonomy of the computer. In the old days, computers weren’t autonomous. They were like adding machines, you had to be there all the time, punching buttons, to make them work. But now things are different. Computers are becoming autonomous. You can build in all sorts of instructions about what to do next—and you can walk away and let the computer handle things…Trend number three is miniaturization. You know all about that. A computer that took up a whole room in 1950 is now about the size of a carton of cigarettes. Pretty soon it’ll be smaller than that.”

Crichton the futurist was right about the trends, and right to raise an alarm about why these things might be worrisome. The main future insight he gets wrong in this book is a prediction that to match the power of a human brain, computers would have to be biological—cell-based, not mechanical. Then again, maybe he was right. Bio-computers are on the cutting edge of computing research today.

A great read, definitely recommend.

Read this book if you like: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke / Stanley Kubrick

Most dated aspect of this book: Everybody smokes. In the hospital. All the time.

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