POLITICS MARCH 20, 2006
She took a sip of red wine, then set the glass down on the bedside table. Unceremoniously, she pulled her top over her head and dropped her skirt. She was wearing nothing beneath.
Still in her high heels, she walked toward him.... She was so passionate she seemed almost angry, and her beauty, the physical perfection of her dark body, intimidated him, but not for long.
—State of Fear by Michael Crichton
IT MAY BE hard to fathom that someone capable of writing the above passage is also capable of discovering the hidden truth about global warming that has eluded the world’s leading scientists. But Michael Crichton, on the phone from Los Angeles, does not sound daunted. “If you just look at the science, I, at least, am underwhelmed,“ he says in a slightly jaded monotone that belies his breathless potboiler prose. “This may or may not be a problem, but it is far from the most serious problem. If you want to do something, [limiting emissions] is not what to do. We don’t at this moment have good technology to do this, if, in fact, it’s necessary to do it.”
Then, before I can stop him, the superstar creator of Jurassic Park and more than a dozen other best-selling novels, as well as several box-office movie smashes and television’s blockbuster “ER,” is off and running through his favorite new area of expertise. Effortlessly, Crichton touches on the anti- windmill movement in England, references a 2001 article in the journal Science on global energy needs, notes interesting developments regarding the Kyoto treaty, and poses a question about the latest round of nation-by-nation emissions data. “How many people know that we did better on a percentage basis than Canada?” Crichton asks. He certainly does.
Global warming—or, specifically, the massive hoax by scientists and environmentalists that it allegedly represents and the resulting sexual conquests of nubile women that inevitably flow from the uncovering of this conspiracy—is the topic of State of Fear, Crichton’s latest best-seller. So Crichton’s ravings on the subject might be excusable as just a bad case of authorial self-promotion—were it not for the fact that he can now count among his millions of readers the president of the United States. As reported in Rebel-in-Chief, a new book on George W. Bush by Weekly Standard Editor Fred Barnes, soon after State of Fear’s December 2004 publication, Crichton was contacted by Karl Rove with word that Bush had read his novel and wanted to meet him. In January 2005, Crichton spent an hour with Bush. The session, Barnes writes, found the men “in near-total agreement.”
Crichton, who hasn’t previously spoken on the record about his meeting with Bush, bridles when I mention it. It’s superficial, he says, beside the point, and soon he has slipped back into the more comfortable topic of U.N. documents on atmospheric temperature. What little he will offer about Bush isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. “In terms of meeting with Bush, I would say that, if the president of the United States asks to meet you, you go. Period,” he says.
Crichton has obvious commercial reasons to downplay any hint that he might be a Bush partisan (Democrats buy books, too, after all). But the pulp novelist’s influence on the president is even greater than Crichton’s harshest critics imagine. During his career, Crichton has relentlessly propagandized on behalf of one big idea: that experts—scientists, intellectuals, reporters, and bureaucrats—are spectacularly corrupt and spectacularly wrong. (Not a terribly surprising response from a writer consistently patronized by critics.) Crichton’s oeuvre has promoted, for an audience of millions, a damning critique of expertise. And the Bush administration has put this critique into action, trampling the opinions of government scientists, exorcising trained economists, muzzling the press, and stifling State Department wonks. Crichton, in other words, primed America for the Bush era.
By constructing this highly credentialed stock villain, Crichton created a new hero, too: the debunker, who uses his wits and untainted eyes to see through the hokum perpetuated by PhDs. This heroic figure happens to resemble none other than Crichton himself. By trashing the conventionally trained expert, Crichton has helped create an anti-intellectual ethos where the country’s most powerful political leaders can embrace a science-fiction writer as a great authority. And that’s exactly what has happened. Since State of Fear’s release, Crichton has been captivating audiences throughout Washington, from the American Enterprise Institute to Senate hearing rooms to the Oval Office itself. Finally, in Michael Crichton, the Republicans have found an expert they can love. And, for his part, what Crichton has found is something that, despite his mind-boggling commercial success, had always eluded him.
IN A 1995 interview with Time magazine, Crichton hinted at an agenda beyond dazzling people with roller-coaster plots and astounding Hollywood special effects. Somewhat ostentatiously citing Jean Cocteau’s The Difficulty of Being, Crichton explained that the French writer “said what I’ve always believed about myself. He didn’t care about being noticed for his style. He only wanted to be noticed for his ideas. And even better for the influence of the ideas.”
Until then, however, Crichton, 63, was hardly known for his ideas. He was a plot machine. The son of a journalist, Crichton graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and then enrolled in Harvard Medical School. But, even while there, he couldn’t resist cranking out sci-fi thrillers, and, after one of them—The Andromeda Strain, a 1969 novel about an alien virus brought to Earth by a fallen satellite—became a best-seller, he ditched his scrubs for a typewriter.
Through the 1970s up to the early ’90s, Crichton offered few serious ideas. Instead, he delivered a steady supply of dystopian science-fiction thrillers— as well as Hollywood movies, which he began to direct after the film adaptation of The Andromeda Strain—in which science is fiendishly misapplied or veers horribly out of control: a computer-guided behavior-modification experiment goes awry (The Terminal Man); a cowboy-robot in a futuristic amusement park lethally malfunctions (Westworld); a hospital kills patients to harvest and sell their organs (Coma); dinosaurs are resurrected by cloning and freed by a venal scientist, resulting in carnage (Jurassic Park). Crichton’s device was not an innovation: These were mere versions of the Frankenstein story, tales of often dislikeable scientists who misused or could not control their creations. But, in retrospect, they represent his germinating worldview: a distrust of scientists, of “the experts.” It’s a worldview central to the history of science fiction: Since Mary Shelley, the genre has critiqued modernization and the segments of society associated with it. In “The Imagination of Disaster,“ a 1965 essay about science-fiction movies, Susan Sontag noted, “The most ingrained contemporary mistrust of the intellect is visited ... upon the scientist-as-intellectual.” But, for the Ivy League-credentialed Crichton, this represented a strange tension. He made his name as a credentialed insider in the world of science and technology—as someone who could be trusted to make arcane science accessible to the layman. Yet he couldn’t stop deriding it.
There was likely another tension in Crichton’s life at this time. He is, by any definition, a highly intelligent man—precocious (suspicious that a professor was grading him too harshly, he once turned in an essay written by George Orwell and considered his B-minus grade a vindication) and extremely ambitious. Though his books are pulp for the coach-class set, Crichton has always had one foot in a world far more high-minded than that of the $7.99 paperback. In interviews, he effortlessly drops literary and philosophical allusions from G.K. Chesterton to Jane Austen, disses Henry James (“he’s trivial”), and once even wrote a book about Jasper Johns. And, tellingly, his first published essay—which, as it happened, appeared in The New Republic in 1969— argued that Kurt Vonnegut should be taken more seriously than as a mere science-fiction writer. But, until the ’90s, Crichton had failed to live up to Cocteau’s dictum. That was about to change.
“I’M EXCITED ABOUT this hearing,” said Senator James Inhofe. It was September 28, 2005, and the Oklahoma Republican had just convened a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The day’s purpose was to consider the scientific evidence for global warming, which the ultra- conservative Inhofe has described as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Inhofe isn’t one to wear emotion on his sleeve, unless it’s fury toward liberals, but, today, he was almost giddy about the celebrity guest he had landed. “I’m particularly interested in hearing the testimony of Dr. Michael Crichton,” the gruff Oklahoman explained while Crichton sat a few feet away, his six-foot-nine-inch frame folded awkwardly under the witness table. “I think I’ve read most of his books. In fact, I’ve read them all.... I enjoy the most State of Fear. I’ve tried to say that’s required reading for this committee.”
Although Committee Democrats like Hillary Clinton groused at the notion of a science-fiction author testifying about scientific facts, Crichton was granted the floor to discourse about climate change, the use of science in public policy, and, as he put it, “the now-familiar story of the hockey stick graph and the debate surrounding it. To summarize it briefly. ...” And on he went.
Finally, Crichton was seeing the influence of his ideas in all its glory. The road to this moment had begun more than a decade earlier, with the 1992 publication of his novel Rising Sun. That book’s plot involved a murder of a beautiful young woman in a Japanese-owned Los Angeles skyscraper. In fact, it was an excuse for Crichton to issue a dire warning that Japan’s “business is war“ philosophy threatened to cripple and humiliate the United States. The book’s afterword noted that its storyline “follows a well-established body of expert opinion.” In The New York Times Book Review, Robert Nathan said the book “vaults over its humble origins as entertainment, grasps the American imagination and stirs up the volcanic subtexts of our daily life.”
With Rising Sun, Crichton had made a crucial turn from constructing fantasy to chronicling reality. And, for the first time, he had an obvious influence on reality—political reality, at least. Pat Choate, a fellow Japan critic who knew Crichton at the time and who became Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1996 presidential election, told me that Perot had “pick[ed] up” Rising Sun’s themes during his campaign. Choate added that he remembers Crichton as having been an enthusiastic Perot supporter.
That makes perfect sense. In our conversation, Crichton told me he viewed national politics with “enormous fatigue and a tremendous amount of cynicism. When I have political discussions with my friends, I piss them off, because my personal position is that there’s no difference between the parties. It’s the Red Sox and the Mets.”
That’s also how Ross Perot felt. Perot was pro-choice but culturally traditional, economically nationalistic, and an anti-Washington populist. He voiced a bitterness—typical in Crichton’s work—that the eggheads in charge of the country can’t do anything right. (Perot even had a famous paranoid streak, as do Crichton’s many “they’re-coming-to-get-us” tales.) Perot’s campaign also presaged an important cultural-political shift in America: the rise of the angry white male.
All the better for the timing of Crichton’s next polemic, Disclosure, a 1994 book (and, later, film) about a hapless white-collar fellow who gets seduced—and then falsely accused of sexual harassment—by his voluptuous man-eating female boss. Crichton noted in Disclosure’s afterword that he based the book on a true story and that he studiously interviewed the key participants in that case—almost as if aping the reported social commentary of, say, Tom Wolfe. In 1996 came Airframe, whose plot narrowly concerned the safety of airplanes but whose moral had to do with the treachery and idiocy of the press. Crichton feinted back to old form with 2002’s Prey, in which a creepy scientist unleashes a swarm of homicidal nanotechnology particles. But even Prey’s long bibliography and preachy forward—“Sometime in the twenty-first century, our self-deluded recklessness will collide with our growing technological power”—made clear that it was intended as something more profound than just a made-for- Hollywood joyride. (And it was treated that way: Prey has been respectfully mentioned several times in congressional hearings about the future of nanotechnology.)
These books are more than stories: They are arguments. Crichton has never been known for nuanced character development. But, as with the novels of Ayn Rand or socialist realist fiction, the characters in his later books don’t represent real people so much as ideas. Amid the death and mayhem, a moral struggle is underway. The books themselves follow what has become a familiar formula: We meet the main characters. Someone dies or suffers a terrible trauma. Then it’s time for “the point”—a long, fact-heavy monologue that serves as Crichton’s take on the issue at hand. Early in Rising Sun, for instance, comes this:
As I approached Senator Morton, I heard him say, “Yes, I can tell you exactly why I’m disturbed by the extent of Japanese ownership of American industry. If we lose the ability to make our own products, we lose control over our destiny. It’s that simple.... The truth is, our nation is sliding badly.”
In Rising Sun, the villains were treacherous foreigners. But, since then, Crichton has delighted in bashing a wide class of media and intellectual elites here at home. Thus, in Airframe, we get the current state of media ethics: “There was a time,” one government official who deals with the press thinks to herself,
when reporters wanted information, their questions directed to an underlying event. They wanted an accurate picture of the situation.... But now reporters came to the story with the lead fixed in their minds; they saw their job as proving what they already knew. They didn’t want information so much as evidence of villainy.... They proceeded from an assumption of universal guilt, in an atmosphere of muted hostility and suspicion.
When Crichton isn’t lecturing this way, he rolls out noxious characters to represent all that’s wrong with the segment of society he’s targeting. In Disclosure, for instance, we get a columnist named Constance Walsh, who plays the role of radical-feminist minstrel. She publishes a column titled “mr. piggy at work,” which affords Crichton the opportunity for a sarcastic rant. “[Rape] is exclusively a crime of males, who use [it] with appalling frequency to keep women in their place,” she writes. “For their part, women simply do not oppress men. Women are powerless in the hands of men.”
You can read these books in search of an ideology, but you won’t find a distinct one. Clearly, Crichton is no liberal (although he argues that one of his earliest books, A Case of Need, did have a pro-abortion rights message). But a free-market conservative wouldn’t write an essentially protectionist book like Rising Sun, either. What Crichton’s worldview really amounts to is a kind of hectoring contrarianism that is increasingly targeted at America’s know-it-alls, against the liberal elites, against the very type of expertise that had given him his professional cachet. And that worldview has reached its bitter, frothing apex with State of Fear.
IN PERFECT POPULIST fashion, Crichton says he was disgusted by his first Capitol Hill adventure. “It’s all like a Stalinist show trial. The senators all get up and make their statements and leave. No one listens. Holy smokes. There was a lot of posturing and not a lot of real consideration of what people were arguing.“ What else did he expect, though? At one point in State of Fear, a sympathetic character observes that a Senate hearing is an “unquestionably manipulative” means of raising public awareness.
But one suspects that Crichton quite enjoys his newfound influence. He certainly couldn’t have minded when, during his Senate appearance, Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson gushed, “At the risk of seeming to pander, I’d like to [thank] Dr. Crichton ... for the countless hours of entertainment he’s given me on Delta Airlines back and forth to Washington over many, many years. And I have read State of Fear, and I found it very educational, very knowledgeable, and very entertaining.”
Crichton’s work has found its way into public policy debates in the past. But to judge from this sort of adulation, op-ed columns from the likes of George Will, a White House visit, speaking appearances before the American Enterprise Institute and something called the Washington Center for Complexity and Public Policy, and countless other examples, it seems safe to say that no Crichton novel has matched State of Fear’s effect. And it’s no wonder: State of Fear is by far Crichton’s most aggressive polemic. The book tells the story of environmentalists so determined to hype climate change that they use exotic technology to touch off natural cataclysms (crumbling a massive Arctic glacier, triggering a tsunami, and so on), with a willingness to see innocents die for their cause. According to Crichton, that cause—major limitations on greenhouse gas emissions—is madness. The news media and Hollywood celebrities don’t understand that climate science is wildly imprecise, and, even if you take it seriously, the pro-warming case is overstated. The heroes of the book either understand or come to realize this, and we are meant to follow along with the help of graphs, copious footnotes referencing scientific studies, and long, pedantic exchanges between the characters. To wit, here we find one young global-warming believer stuck on a plane next to the heroic skeptic, John Kenner:
The jet flew through the night.... He sat in the back, staring out the window at the carpet of clouds glowing silver in the moonlight.
Kenner sat opposite him. “It’s a beautiful world, isn’t it?” he said. “Water vapor is one of the distinctive features of our planet. Makes such beauty. It’s surprising there is so little scientific understanding of how water vapor behaves.”
“The atmosphere is a bigger mystery than anyone will admit. Simple example: No one can say for sure if global warming will result in more clouds, or fewer clouds.”
“Wait a minute,” Evans said. “Global warming is going to raise the temperature, so more moisture will evaporate from the ocean, and more moisture means more clouds.”
“That’s one idea. But higher temperature also means more water vapor in the air and therefore fewer clouds.”
“So which is it?”
“Then how do they make computer models of climate?” Evans said.
Kenner smiled. “As far as cloud cover is concerned, they guess.”
“Well, they don’t call it a guess. They call it an estimate, or parameterization, or an approximation. But if you don’t understand something, you can’t approximate it. You’re really just guessing.”
Evans felt the beginning of a headache.
So might the reader. By the time he wrote State of Fear, Crichton had been living in the Hollywood milieu for more than 20 years—and his frustration shows. Crichton’s treatment of limousine liberals is his crankiest yet. He creates one character, a pompous bleeding heart clearly modeled after Martin Sheen, and then feeds him to cannibals. Another scene features a dilettante Hollywood environmentalist shocked that a climate-change skeptic would question her scientific authority. “But I am very dedicated to the environment, and I have been all my life,” she protests indignantly. “I read everything. I read the `Science’ section of the New York Times every Tuesday cover to cover, of course The New Yorker, and the New York Review. I am extremely well informed.” In case you didn’t get the point, the same character is later pressed about where she’d be willing to build the vast expanses of solar panels her philosophy demands. Texas, she proposes. “Nobody I know cares about Texas.”
Besides red-state-bashing Hollywood celebrities, Crichton takes aim at environmentalists, whom he portrays as overhyping the global-warming threat for fund-raising purposes. In one scene, Nick Drake, who resembles “a latterday Ichabod Crane“ and heads the “National Environmental Resource Fund“ (NERF—get it?), berates subordinates for producing insufficiently alarmist promotional materials for a conference. “We need some punch here, some pizzazz,“ he complains. “This conference must point to a catastrophe.”
This is the real argument of Crichton’s State of Fear—that unseen forces are conspiring to alarm us so they can then manipulate us. The book is ultimately about something much bigger than global warming. Late in the novel, one character speechifies against “the politico-legal-media complex,” which is “dedicated to promoting fear in the population—under the guise of promoting safety.” The PLM is powerful because it “unites so many institutions of society. Politicians need fears to control the population. Lawyers need dangers to litigate, and make money. The media need scare stories to capture an audience. Together, these three estates are so compelling that they can go about their business even if the scare is totally groundless.” Also fueling the PLM are universities: “factories of fear. They invent all the new terrors and all the new social anxieties ... to be used by politicians, lawyers, and reporters. Foods that are bad for you. Behaviors that are unacceptable. Can’t smoke, can’t swear, can’t screw, can’t think.... The notion that these institutions are liberal is a cruel joke. They are fascist to the core, I’m telling you.”
Global-warming alarmism, then, is just one more product of this nefarious cultural conspiracy. The “experts” have evolved from a bunch of foolhardy scientists to obnoxious feminists and reporters, then to a veritable vast, left- wing conspiracy that tyrannizes the nation. This is an odd argument, to say the least, coming from a man who has made tens of millions by scaring America about everything from hideous viruses to killer nanotechnology. Of course, it’s not the first time that someone has played this trick. There’s a certain resident of Pennsylvania Avenue who also decries the scare-mongering of experts—at the same time he raises homeland security alerts, conflates dictators and terrorists, and predicts the imminent collapse of Social Security.
And Crichton has undoubtedly profited from this similarity. The Bush years have been Michael Crichton’s anni mirabiles. And now, like a mighty t-rex that has escaped from Jurassic Park, Crichton stomps across the public policy landscape, finally claiming the influence he has always sought. In this sense, he himself is like an experiment gone wrong—a creation of the publishing industry and Hollywood who has unexpectedly mutated into a menacing figure haunting think tanks, policy forums, hearing rooms, and even the Oval Office. And, ironically, this leaves Crichton in the very role he and the science-fiction genre have always derided: the hubristic man of opinions, the insider, the expert.
This article appeared in the March 20 & 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.