Michael Crichton (born 1942) is best known as a novelist of popular fiction whose stories explore the confrontation between traditional social and moral values and the demands of the new technological age. His most successful novel, Jurassic Park (1990), involves the re-creation of living dinosaurs from ancient DNA and examines what can go wrong when greedy people misconstrue the power of new and untested technologies.
Crichton was born in Chicago and raised on Long Island. At fourteen years of age, he wrote and sold articles to the New York Times travel section, and, in 1964, earned a B. A. in anthropology from Harvard University. The following year, while on a European travel fellowship in anthropology and ethnology, he met and married Joan Radam; they eventually divorced in 1970. Returning to Harvard University in 1965, Crichton entered medical school, where he began to write novels under the pseudonym John Lange in order to support his medical studies. While doing postdoctoral work at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, Crichton published The Andromeda Strain (1969), a technological thriller, which garnered literary acclaim and national prominence for the author. Upon leaving medical studies, Crichton began a full-time writing career. Eventually, he also directed his screenplay of his novel Westworld (1973), starring Yul Brynner, and wrote the screenplay for his book, The Great Train Robbery (1978).
Crichton's stories generally take place in contemporary settings and focus on technological themes, although his earliest works were traditional mystery novels. Writing under the pseudonym John Lange, Crichton published a mystery novel entitled Odds On (1966), followed by A Case of Need (1968), written under the pseudonym Jeffrey Hudson. A Case of Need received favorable reviews and the 1968 Edgar Allan Poe Award of Mystery Writers of America. In 1969, Crichton published The Andromeda Strain, a novel that, Crichton acknowledges, was influenced by Len Deighton's The Ipcress File (1962) and H. G. Wells The War of The Worlds. The Andromeda Strain is a technological thriller about a seemingly unstoppable plague brought to earth from outer space; it became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and a 1971 motion picture, directed by Robert Wise and starring Arthur Hill. In Westworld (1973), Crichton depicts the ability of technology to blur the line between reality and fantasy, and how that can affect people's lives. As the android creations of the Delos theme park begin to operate on their own recognizance, they attack and threaten the lives of the guests who have come there merely to play and live out their childhood fantasies in the make-believe Old West.
While The Great Train Robbery (1975) recalls the history of an actual train robbery in Victorian England, and Eaters of the Dead (1976) is set among tenth-century Vikings, and is supposedly the retelling of the Beowulf myth, Congo (1980) returns to the dangers of technology, greed, and power. Congo recalls the narrative tradition of Rider Haggard's novel King Solomon's Mines, as it relates the story of a behavioral specialist and Amy, a gorilla that is capable of communicating in human language. In the process of returning Amy to her African jungle home, the specialist and the gorilla encounter a series of dangers and catastrophes. These include the ruthless activities of a group of corporate-sponosored explorers who are searching for the Lost City of Zinj, where a race of hostile apes guards rare diamonds capable of nullifying humanity's need for nuclear weapons and energy. An encounter with alein life forms and alien technology is the central focus of Crichton's next novel, Sphere (1987). Scientists undertake an underwater excavation of an alien spacecraft, believed to have landed in the ocean three centuries earlier. While a raging storm maroons the scientists on board the spacecraft, which is one thousand feet below the surface of the sea, the aliens wreak havoc on the contact team.
In 1990, Crichton published his nationally acclaimed best-seller, Jurassic Park, which recounts the classic tale of greed and a technological experiment gone awry. A wealthy entrepreneur and his scientists lose control of their experiment to re-create living dinosaurs for a wild animal park on a deserted island off the coast of Costa Rica. Steven Spielberg's 1994 Academy award-winning film of Jurassic Park also helped to ensure the world-wide popularity and success of the novel. Turning to Japanese-American relations in today's competitive business world, Rising Sun (1992) begins with the bizarre murder of a young woman, which is pivotal to a plot that explores the exploitative and unprincipled actions of Japanese technocrats. Rising Sun is often criticized for its stereotypical presentation of Japanese villains and Japan-bashing—criticisms that Crichton rejects. Disclosure (1994) continues to focus on the technological business community and its handling of sexual harassment. In a role-reversal, the new female executive of Digi Com seduces a former lover and present employee, and then accuses him of sexual harassment when he spurns her advances. The story focuses on the fight to save his job and the truth of what actually happened. In 1995, Crichton returned to the theme of genetic engineering in The Lost World. Scientist Ian Malcolm and entrepreneur Lewis Dodgson of Jurassic Park join rival expeditions sent to investigate an island thought to be inhabited by dinosaurs. Once again, twentieth-century human technology is challenged by the raw force of prehistoric nature.
Crichton's works have received mixed reviews. While most critics applaud his ability to make technological information understandable and engaging, some fault his traditional and predictable plotlines, such as Disclosure's battle-of-the-sexes plot and Jurassic Park's the-dangers-of-new-science theme. And too, while many critics favorably comment on Crichton's well organized plots and use of clear and simple prose, they fault his ability to develop realistic characters. For instance, John Hammond and Nedry of Jurassic Park are the traditional unprincipled entrepreneur and scientific genius whose greed precipitates a technological disaster, while Meredith Johnson of Disclosure is the predictable evil enemy of Tom Sanders, the harassed and innocent victim-hero of the story. As Robert L. Sims points out, most of "Crichton's characters are one-dimensional figures whose psychological makeups are determined by the particular drama in which they are involved." A few commentators also remark at Crichton's ability to identify and successfully capitalize on current public issues and concerns. For example, Disclosure examines the issue of sexual harassment in the business world, while Rising Sun focuses on Japan's growing power in the world of American business. Nevertheless, in spite of traditional plotlines and simplistic characterizations, Crichton's concise prose style, tightly organized plots, contemporary themes, and engaging action continue to make his works popular and successful.
Further Reading on John Michael Crichton
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 10, Gale, 1993.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 54, 1989.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981, Gale, 1982.
American Spectator, May, 1992, p. 71.
American Way, September, 1975, pp. 66-69.
Atlantic Monthly, May, 1972, pp. 108-110.
Best Sellers, August 15, 1968, pp. 207-208; February, 1981, p. 388.