“Things never turn out the way you think they will.” That is the first line of the “Day 1” chapter of Prey, and it is both the underlying theme of the book and a warning offered by Michael Crichton to the world. A paraphrase of Murphy’s Law: “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.” But in this age of galloping science, some things that go wrong might not be able to be fixed. Like the pieces of Humpty Dumpty, they can’t be put back together. They might go wrong forever.
Jack Forman has been relegated to being a househusband after being unfairly fired from his job at MediaTronics. There, he was a manager as well as a programmer of cutting-edge code that emulated biological processes -- that imitated life. He now stays home and takes care of the kids and, to his own surprise, is quite comfortable doing it. His wife, Julia, is the breadwinner now, working at a place called Xymos Technology. She is excited about the new products being developed there. The big corporate achievement is that of a new kind of medical imaging. Cameras -- a swarm of camera parts actually, all working together -- can be injected into the human body, each camera bit being no bigger than one-tenth of a billionth of an inch, smaller than microscopic dust. The science of producing such small pieces of machinery is called nanotechnology. The thousands of camera bits actually work together to produce an image due to an old program written by Jack, a program based on the swarming of bees, and “borrowed” now by Xymos to make their technology work.
Perhaps Julia is overworked? She is changing. Once a happy, personable woman, she is becoming short-tempered, edgy, even irrational at times. She hardly ever comes home any more, working longer and longer hours. Jack is worried about her. Is she having an affair? They have three children, a boy, a girl, and a baby, Amanda. Amanda takes ill one day, developing a terrible rash that covers her entire body. Julia is there at home but allows Jack to rush their daughter to the emergency room while she stays with the other children. The baby is howling and Jack believes she must be in pain. Julia is amazingly unconcerned.
The hospital performs many tests, but none seem to either help or explain the baby’s malady. But when Amanda is taken for an MRI, she suddenly stops howling, and as abruptly, the rash clears up, leaving as fast as it came. The baby is fine. What happened? What Jack doesn’t know then but will soon find out is that Amanda’s symptoms of illness were caused by a new kind of combined technological and biological creature, one that will very shortly threaten all of life on Earth.
Prey is a thriller and a true page-turner. But what raises Crichton’s books above the average thriller is his knowledge of science and his ability to incorporate that knowledge into his novels to explain, scientifically, what is happening. To make the most astounding plot concepts sound plausible. The concept of the threat to life on Earth in this novel has the characteristics of a maniacal computer game that has insinuated itself into the life force of a modern day plague. It might very well be a ludicrous theory in lesser hands, but Crichton explains it so well that one begins to worry about the possibility of it actually occurring. Perhaps the author is worried as well, hence the ominous warning at the beginning of the book and at the novel’s end.
In another book reviewed here called Saint Jack and Toad, author Philip Carraher is also concerned about “Murphy’s Law” and its application to modern day science. In that book the author talks briefly of the “third angel of the apocalypse” mentioned in Revelations. It is his concept that the “waters of life” phrase in the “third angel” passage might refer to DNA, and that the current genetic experimentation taking place might result in DNA's permanent “pollution” as predicted in Revelations. Crichton here is stating the exact same concern, although without the philosophical/religious connotation. As he says in his introduction to the novel:
“…someone will manage to create artificial, self-reproducing organisms far sooner than anyone expected. If so, it is difficult to anticipate what the consequences might be.”
Put that statement next to the line he uses in the chapter “Day 1” and you have a serious warning about the future, about the lack of caution humankind exhibits in performing its scientific experiments. Both Carraher and Crichton are concerned that genetic experimentation (with Crichton adding nanotechnology to the mix) might serve to produce a new kind of Frankenstein monster and/or corrupt the Life Force, creating a scientific danger that will not be as easily eliminated or curbed once it is released into the world as was the raging creation of Mary Shelley. How do you stop a killing, intelligent plague? A plague with skills?
That is the question Jack Forman must answer, if he is able. But in the real world, when and if the time comes, we might not have a Jack Forman around to even try to help us. We might not be able to eliminate this new kind of Frankenstein monster. Then again, as Michael Crichton states at the end of Prey, “We might get lucky.”
Prey is a highly recommended entertaining read. Michael Crichton, as most know, is the prolific author of many famous novels, many of which have been made into equally famous movies. He is the author of Jurassic Park, Disclosure, Rising Sun, The Great Train Robbery, and The Andromeda Strain, to name a few, and he may very well be this generation’s H. G. Wells. The Andromeda Strain also draws on a kind of “plague destroying all of life” theme, and one could draw a kind of parallel with that novel’s plot and that of the latest book, Prey.
Not all of Crichton’s books are science-related; Rising Sun is a mystery and The Great Train Robbery an under-appreciated historical novel. All of these novels are also highly recommended, as is almost anything else that he has authored.