Prey is the latest science fiction thriller from perennial best-selling author, Michael Crichton. It’s been a few years since I read any Crichton novels so I was curious to see if my memory of his work – topical, easy to read in the way that bestsellers have, but flat and unoriginal – holds true for his current writing. Crichton used to be a guilty pleasure for me. Does he still fulfill that function in his new book?
A military-funded venture in nanoparticles (“micro-robots” as the back cover so helpfully informs us) goes dreadfully wrong in Prey. Tech experts Jack and Julia, a married couple who are undergoing some domestic strife, both end up at a remote research station trying to fix the problem. A swarm of nanoparticles has been accidentally released into the environment and it is quickly developing new behaviour. Jack doesn’t think the wild swarm is a big problem; he’s soon proved wrong by death after death. The plot strategy resolves into a simple and-then-there-were-none pile of corpses until only Jack and a handful of other researchers are left alive. And has the swarm infiltrated the installation and learned a new strategy?
Crichton gives us some body-horror sequences at this point that resemble nothing so much as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in an attempt to give us a narrative payoff for the domestic struggles. Specifically, can Jack trust Julia? The answer is an obvious no, considering that her body has been taken over by a freakish entity bent on world domination. This is hardly a nuanced ending for a story of family and relationship angst. Originally, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers brought a pure jolt of paranoia to the 1950s, literalizing fears that may or may not have been valid. Crichton seems to have lifted these tactics wholesale without considering that a) the Cold War is over and b) modern audiences have been exposed to more sophisticated stories than this (I’ll give some examples later).
Jack discovers later in the story that the researchers deliberately released the nanoparticles into the environment because they were stuck and wanted to let the evolutionary software approach find their solutions for them. An intriguing idea. With their company in a risky financial situation, this seemed like the only way to save the day. Such a combination of hubris and greed, however, can have only one reward in a Crichton thriller: destruction and death by the forces of haywire technology. In more memorable stories, this has been represented by the chomping jaws of a dinosaur or bullets from the gun of a malfunctioning theme park robot (Jurassic Park and Westworld respectively).
Jurassic Park and Westworld were memorable because they found effective (if simple-minded) metaphors to talk about fears of technology. Science fiction works well when it can literalize a metaphor about how we live. For example, the alien is a helpful stand-in for the Other; alien stories that want to scare us will play on our xenophobia, while more sophisticated stories will show us how to be tolerant if that’s what’s necessary. But this process has benefits and hazards. The downside is that it’s a lot of work to think up new metaphors, and the genre tends to use them up quickly. In other words, Jurassic Park worked a dozen years ago but it wouldn’t necessarily work today. Unfortunately, Prey looks backward rather than forward, recycles rather than makes new.
Is there a better way to talk about nanotechnology? The Crichton formula has been reduced to: new technology is bad. The lifelessness of this approach in Prey makes a stark contrast with other sf stories about nanotechnology. For example, Karl Schroeder’s Permanence features a society called the Rights Economy. This is a system in which nanites (i.e. nanoparticles) are embedded in every object, like chairs, books, cars, and so forth. These nanites register every use of any object or bit of intellectual property and force users to make payments to the copyright owner. Talk about horrifying! Far more so than any Body Snatcher plot, and far more topical. What do we want from new technology? To augment corporate control of our lives? Schroeder’s book makes us think about the relationship between commercial interests and high-tech in a very urgent way.
Prey also exhibits a failure of nerve in that the ending returns the world to the status quo. What would happen if nanotechnology truly got out of control? Greg Bear’s Blood Music, nearly 20 years old now, shows us a world taken over by replicating cells. The full-blown apocalypse of this story is both bold and imaginative, with a greater impact because of the sheer scale of the problem.
Lacking any of these ambitious ideas, Prey is an easy book to read; it feels like a short story, and it’s not very challenging. The book clearly sold a lot of copies – bookstores use Prey to fill out those mountainous displays at the front of the store – and has probably given bored travellers a few thrills and chills on their way to their destination. But it’s not much more than an airport book, it’s a snack more than a fulfilling meal. And even Crichton’s previous snacks were better than this one.