Thursday, October 07, 2010

State of Fear: Michael Crichton's Argumentative Essay Disguised As A Thriller Novel

Most authors and storytellers include some type of message or theme in the tales they weave. It is almost inevitable that some of the beliefs and values of the author will find themselves creeping into a story. When it is done well, it will be very subtle and avoid detracting from the enjoyment of the novel or story. When it is done really well, the readers will start interpreting the messages differently, and each person will take something that is different from what others gained from the story. This will then lead to great discussion and dialogue between readers about what they really feel the story means or how that tale has impacted them in various ways. When it is done poorly, the message smashes you upside the head like a two by four and completely knocks you into submission. The message will constantly scream over and over again, 'Here I am!' There will be no discussion or argument over that the author was trying to convey, because essentially the message completely overtook the story. Over my many years of reading, I've found that religious themed fiction tended to be the biggest culprits when it comes to the blunt and overt messages. It usually contained metaphors and symbolism that was so thin and obvious that they mind as well have just given you a sermon. By the end you felt like you were being preached to (partly because you were), and it was the message rather than the story that stuck in your head. Well, I now know that religious writers are not the only perpetrators at overly preachy and message centric stories.

I have read a lot of Michael Crichton novels. I have thoroughly enjoyed many of his science fueled thrillers, and believe he was a master when it came to providing fast paced and action packed novels. When I read his novels, I could almost always picture an explosive and special effects laden blockbuster film. I obviously wasn't the only one since many of his books have gone on to be special effects driven extravaganzas (who will ever forget that blockbuster spectacle Disclosure!) Now, while novels like Jurassic Park or The Andromeda Strain clearly had an underlining message about the dangers of man trying to control nature (or at least, that is how a layman like myself interpreted them), it was still obvious that the real point of the books was to provide some awesome action and science fiction. The message was small and minor enough that it could be missed and many probably just walked away from the novel thinking, 'Hot diggity! That raptor sure did some good stomach slicing!' That was okay, because Crichton's first objective was obviously to entertain and craft exciting 'science fictiony' thrillers that appealed to a mainstream audience. The message was always secondary, and probably missed by most readers, but I am sure the fact they were almost all best sellers made that fact okay for Crichton. Well, Micheal Crichton's 2004 techno thriller State of Fear shows exactly why he should have stayed away from a story with a clear message.

State of Fear
is a 672 paged argumentative essay opposing global warming and the environmental advocacy groups that is disguised as a techno thriller. In the last several years of Michael Crichton's life, he became quite outspoken against global warming groups, and started writing many essays and speeches opposing movements designed to stop global warming (and other environmental movements that he saw as extreme and radical). It got to the point that Crichton started becoming the unofficial spokesman for the anti-global warming movement, and the person many would point to as the one with evidence for why laws shouldn't be passed to prevent global movement and why mass amounts of money shouldn't be sunk into environmental projects. The climax of his crusade was when he published this novel. Though really it ended up just being his longest anti-global warming essay, which contained a plethora of charts, stats and footnotes, and essentially, turned out to be a massive sermon about the dangers of being too focused on environmental issues while occasionally squeezing in some action scenes.

The first 30 or so pages of State of Fear were classic Crichton, and set up what appeared would be an action packed thriller. It is then the reader is suddenly hit with the message and purpose of the novel, which is to warn us against global warming alarmists and environmentalist radicals. Now, Crichton is able to maintain a story throughout the book, and it is a story that has potential to be quite exciting, but it is hampered by his incessant need to preach out against the global warming movement.

The characters in the novel are extremely one dimensional and exist for the sole purpose of proving Crichton's points. Almost every character is either a caricature or representative of a certain belief. The main character, environmental lawyer Peter Evans, is representative of the general public who believe most of what is said about global warming, but largely haven't done any type of in depth research thus fairly misinformed about the subject. Throughout the novel, Evans begins to learn more about the realities of global warming, and by the end is better equipped to understanding the realities of global warming (much like the reader). Nicholas Drake, the director of the fictional National Environmental Resource Fund, is a very clear stand in for the professional environmental activists that are trying to push global warming and environmental issues as a major worldwide concern. Ted Bradley is your stereotypical celebrity that jumps into a cause for his own betterment while being to be totally ill informed and ignorant. Essentially, the reader will start being able to pick out clearly what each of the characters are meant to represent since it is never subtle or hidden. But the most annoying and irritating character is John Kenner, who is supposed to represent Michael Crichton himself (or at least, one who is clearly aware that global warming is a hoax and knows the dangers of most environmental activism).

The problem with Kenner is that he is almost depicted as this messianic character. Kenner has an answer to every single question. Kenner is a MacGyver that knows how to get out of every problem presented to the protagonists. I am sure Kenner also knows how to makes the perfect omelette and build a house with his bare hands in one afternoon. The man never seems to be scared or worried, and danger flees from him instantly because he is invincible. By the middle of the book, I was absolutely screaming out for his death and destruction. That is never good when a character is supposed to be one of the heroes. The problem was he lacked flaws and did not seem like a real human.

The big problem is that the novel just lacked realism or any ability to get the reader immersed into the story. I realize that 'realism' is a loose term when you are trying to get engaged in a techno thriller. I am not saying that I don't want fantastic elements that probably can't actually happen in the real word, actually I would be disappointed if those things were absent. I do ask for things to be believable within the world that was created. The big problem is that the characters just come off as mindless drones that only do things in order to further the message of the story. Characters often do things that don't make sense for what has already been established for them. I constantly found myself being taken out of the story, because the events happening either didn't make sense or seemed completely pointless in furthering the plot.

The biggest issue is that State of Fear has potential to be an amazing thriller. There are moments in the story where I got engaged and wanted to to find out what will happen next. It is clear that Crichton is a master at weaving a tale of adventure and thrills, but he hurts himself by being so focused on presenting his message. Throughout the story a character like Evans will ask a question or make a specific statement, and then another 'more informed' character (often Kenner) will them proceed to go on a several page diatribe. Numerous times in the novel, Kenner (or sometimes his allies like Sanjong Thapa) will go off on a long spiel that will contain numerous facts and histories and statistics. The character will be able to present massive amounts of charts and data, and will be able to quote dates and numbers right from their memory. I couldn't stop from rolling my eyes at the fact these characters knew so much precise information without having to consult their textbooks or notes. When the characters were not supplying us with facts or data, then rest assured half the page would be filled with footnotes from Crichton to supply the information that had been missed. It becomes pretty clear, that the purpose of the novel is supply information and facts that support the positions and thesis held by Crichton. At some point, you are left wondering why Crichton doesn't just scrap the story, so he can plow forward with his true agenda and purpose. I don't think I've ever read a story where there is so many footnotes and charts and graphs strewed throughout. I've definitely never read any novel, where the characters proceed with an in depth lecture in the middle of the crisis or action. The dialogue and exchanges may be the worse example ever of thinly disguising presentations of data (no one has ever had a conversation like these). It is really to the point where you wonder why Crichton even bothered with the novel aspect of the book, and didn't just write a textbook instead. It is a real shame, because as I stated before, I do think this could have been a very entertaining novel (but it becomes clear that was never really Crichton's intention here).

Once you get past the thin story, you are left with the agenda and facts presented by Crichton. I do not agree with Crichton's strong anti global warming stance, and since the novel, there has been numerous rebuttals to the science and information presented in his novel. Though at the same time, there has also been supporters of Crichton's stance. and a belief that the global warming supporters are being overly extreme in their beliefs. It is clear the issue is still a growing debate, and one that there is incredibly smart people on both sides. I am of the belief that both sides have valid points, but neither is fully correct (though, I personally see more hard facts in favour of humans having an effect on altering and harming our environment in some form). I do think that even though I was not fully convinced by Crichton's side, that he does present some worthwhile information that is worth exploring.

Manufacturing Fear

A major component of Crichton's prevailing argument is that media and government tend to instigate a feelings of fear and danger among the public (you could almost say, a state of fear -- hmmm, where have I read that saying before?). A character in the novel talks about how media and the government use fear as a way of social control. Another interesting point, is when they use the example of how global warming and climate change started being referred to as a crisis and catastrophe right around the end of 1989. The significant event on November 11, 1989 (rather near to the end of that year) was the tearing down of the Berlin wall, which essentially signified the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War. The character presents the idea that the two things may be related, because since states often control their citizens through fear, there was now the need for a new enemy since the Cold War was over (no more red terror). Global warming became that new threat that would keep the citizens in fear. I don't agree with global warming being an invention that was essentially a replacement for the Cold War, but I do entirely agree with the idea that fear often is used as a controlling tactic (or that can be manufactured).

Information and facts can be a very fun thing. There often are ideas and theories presented (or sometime even complete works of fiction) that are eventually refuted or disproven (or in the case of fiction, not initially believe by anyone). Despite the fact a belief has been disproven, it continues to remain in the social conscious and even continues to have books or shows or classes talking about it as fact. Some idea for whatever reason seem to stick with people for a long time, and people continue to believe it even when evidence points against it. For example, you can probably still come across literature that tell you that the right part of the brain and the left part of brain work separately from each other. This idea came about in the 1970s from a study that was only supposed to be applied to the specific test subjects, and it was never theorized that a healthy human being would function in a way which the two parts operate separately. To this day, you can still come across books or people who believe the two parts of the brain are functioning separately from each other (despite there being no concrete scientific data support this). This is only one example of numerous where incorrect information gets passed of as fact and in continually believe.

This is far worse when used as a tactic to foster fear. Fear that then causes people to act in a certain way, because otherwise, they believe harm will come to them. Fear that causes them to turn to the government and allow government policies to be furthered in order to protect them. The novel brings up examples of how people for years were petrified of living near power lines because they believed it caused cancer. There was the huge movement that the silicone used for breast enhancement caused cancer (cancer seems to be a nice way to scare people). Even though, neither has any factual scientific basis behind, and instead caused tax payers millions of dollars in research and prevention (which could have gone to real problems like AIDS in Africa). This is where the novel then goes the route of arguing that climate change and global warming is the new fear factor. It is what government uses to control the masses and keep people relying on them.

The odd thing for me, is that this is a book written post 9/11. In the last decade, we've clearly seen media and government totally feed into people's fears. It hasn't been global warming, but rather terrorists. There has been countless new policies and laws passed in order to save us from the terrorists. I know people who get panicky on a plane, because they are seated near someone who looks of Arab descent. I know folks who are uncomfortable living near a non white family, because there is a chance the family could be terrorists in disguise. I accept the idea that fear can be a manufactured product created by the government and media, but I don't think global warming is the current tool. The fear towards immigrants (such as the recent Tamil that landed in Toronto) is reaching new heights, because a certain portion of people are fearful that many immigrant (especially from the East) are potential terrorists. I am not saying there isn't terrorists. I am not saying there isn't people out to hurt the west. I am not even saying that we won't be attacked tomorrow. I am saying that fear has likely grown way past the reality. The issues in New York over the mosque and the growing hatred towards Muslims, has a lot to do with the fact media and government have continually presented information and pushed policies that make many feel terrorists are the greatest threat to our safety. The fact is, there has almost always been terrorists. I don't think it has necessarily gotten any worse the last few years, compared to the 80s or 70s when there was terrorist incidents then. Instead, there has just been the creation of a new Cold War. The public thinks there can be a nuclear attack or a mass invasion at any moment, while in reality, very little ever happens.

This is the same reason why I'll have people tell me how we live in dangerous times. Or how they won't walk the streets when it is dark anymore. The reality is, crime has actually gone down these last few years. There is constantly fear for our safety or health or security. The truth is, as a whole, we are probably safer and healthier than any other time period. We have massive medical advancements that weren't even available 10 years ago. The western civilization has made amazing technological progress. We have seen the constant push towards more human rights and equality. Yet fear continues to grow among many people.

I do think Crichton presents some interesting points when he discusses the fear being used as a controlling mechanism. I also think it will be something that is always used, because history shows it has always been used in the past. The only way to fight the fear is keep yourself informed. One must question the facts that are presented to them, and try to verify them. When crimes are being reported on the news, we need to remember the media is presenting what they think the public wants to see (rather than reporting that for the most part, your neighbourhood is pretty safe). Fear is powerful, but it can be controlled by education and knowledge.

At the end of the book, Crichton presents an essay which largely focuses on the history of eugenics, and how it lead to horrible things like the holocaust. He talks about how pseudosciences have been presented as facts and been accepted by renowned figures. He goes on to talk about how sciences being used to push agendas can be extremely dangerous. I agree with most of what he talks about here, and again, think it shows why it is important for us not to accept things at face value. We need to question the information that is presented to us. We need to find out the validity of things for ourselves. The notion of believing something just because it is widely accepted is a very scary one. At one point, many people thought witchcraft was plaguing America, and that it was entirely justified to have witch hunts. At one time, an entire nation believed Jews were responsible for their country's downfall, which also lead to their own vile witch hunt. I do agree that using science to push an agenda is a very frightful thing, especially when it is revealed that it is actually a pseudoscience. Even though I may not agree entirely with Crichton's conclusion about global warming being false, I do wholeheartedly agree with his reasons for questioning it.

State of Fear
does bring up some interesting points. It did make me think and question my own beliefs (which is always good). It also did a great job at illustrating the importance of questioning facts, especially those peddled by media and government. I am not saying we entirely distrust the government or media (neither was Crichton), but one must always be careful of being a mindless follower too. Though the novel presents some interesting points, in the end, it would have been better suited as an essay. The actual story is extremely thin and just a way to present the agenda Crichton wants to push. As a work of fiction, it is a rather big misstep from an author that has created several fantastic novels. As an overly long essay, it presents some very valuable pointers on the importance of being careful about the information being presented to you.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:18 pm

    I have to say, that the main thing with his books is that I always feel like I am right in the story, watching it over the shoulders of the main characters... Timeline was outstanding action. He seems amazing at taking something extremely far-fetched and adding some science to it to make it seem completely believable. I think I will be staying away from this book after reading this.

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  2. I love Michael Crichton; I own a large collection of his works. I agree that he always had a skill of making this fantastic and far fetched story but used real science to add some believability. The man was highly intelligent and a great storyteller.

    The real unfortunate thing is State of Fear had a lot of potential to be a great yarn, but Crichton just seemed so obsessed with getting his point across, which it really took me out of the story. I think, he could had kept his message in, but made it far less overt, if he decided to actually concentrate on making a great story instead.

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