LOS ANGELES -- Michael Crichton turns out to be as oddly compelling in person as his weird creatures are on paper.
Crichton's the father of the techno-thriller, the guy who dreamed up cloned dinos roaming Jurassic Park and more than a dozen other best-selling books of futuristic fiction loosely based on scientific facts. Now he's come up with Prey, yet another tale of technology gone amok, featuring a monster you wouldn't want to reckon with.
This one is actually a swarm of nano-particles -- each less than half the thickness of a human hair -- teensy machines with cameras built in. They have the ability to reproduce and evolve independent of the humans who created them. This means they are quite literally alive -- and they can become very, very evil.
There are scientists who say such a swarm might be created to act as an undetectable and indestructible military spying machine. In Crichton's imagination, they can be programmed to search you out, inhabit your brain and turn your flesh into oozing white froth before they further alter your physical being to suit their needs.
As with all of Crichton's tales, the technology he writes about is already available; he's just taken it to a level that we can only hope will remain fictional.
Of course, writing isn't enough these days. An author has to get out and pitch his product -- an obstacle even Crichton, 60, can't wiggle around. He arrives for an interview at a hotel near his Santa Monica home looking glum. He is in the midst of a messy divorce from his fourth wife, the mother of his only child. In September, Crichton and his 12-year-old daughter were at home when armed robbers bound and gagged them and ransacked the house. He understandably refuses to discuss any of the above or anything else of a personal nature.
In fact, he seems reluctant at first to discuss anything at all. Asked about the unsympathetic picture he draws of his new book's female lead character -- an irritable workaholic scientist-mom who slaps her baby for kicking during a diaper-change -- Crichton simply replies, "You're not meant to like her."
Asked about the book's hero -- a tender, nurturing house-husband who minds the kids, cooks the meals and shops at Crate & Barrel -- he responds: "Don't you think in the real world that there are very high-powered women who have a demanding business life and tend to find nurturing men to couple with?"
Crichton is 6-foot-9 and very slender, which gives him the appearance of an exotic, long-legged bird. And which also means he views the world a bit differently than most people: from an elevated position. Add to that his lofty intellect -- he graduated from Harvard and Harvard Medical School and did postdoctoral study at the Salk Institute in San Diego -- and you have someone worlds apart from the hordes who scarf down popcorn as they watch the films made from his books. (Prey, too, is slated to become a movie.)
Crichton has, at various times in his career, written and directed films, run software companies and created successful computer games. He has just signed a contract with Sega, which he also refuses to discuss. He has written four nonfiction books, including a definitive volume on artist Jasper Johns. Oh, and he created the genre-bending TV show ER, which started the whole trend of quick-cut, fast-talk docudramas.
Crichton speaks slowly, with pauses, as if cautiously doling out words. Then, as fast as you can say nano-swarm -- and for no apparent reason -- he decides to open up. Suddenly, even the briefest question evokes an answer many minutes long. He offers up meandering, pedagogical monologues that at first seem to have no purpose but, on reflection, turn out to be prophesies every bit as riveting as his techno-tales. Like when he's asked if he would ever write a book just about human relationships, without technology as a factor.
"Probably not. I'm not sure I would have anything to add to what already exists. I mean, the enormous amount of fiction that I read is about all this interpersonal stuff, which seems to me to have been better done by George Eliot or Jane Austen. I view the arts, broadly speaking, in exactly the same way that I do science or technology. I view them as advancing and moving forward, in directions where they undergo transformations that have to do with the larger society around them.
"A simple example is that with the arrival of photography in the 1860s, there was a certain archival or recording quality of painting that vanished. You no longer needed to paint a picture of a battle to preserve the scene. And so artists were obliged to move to something else because that need was taken away.