November 29th, 2002
Patrick Nielsen Hayden has posted a tantalising excerpt from an article by Oliver Morton in the New Yorker's book review section about why Michael Crichton isn't a science fiction writer, no matter how often he writes about genetic engineering, chaos theory, dinosaurs and robots:
[Chrichton is] forever describing things that could change the world–but don't. The Andromeda strain of space germs mutates into harmlessness and goes away; the lost city of the Congo is wiped from the map by lava; in Sphere, the discoverers of the extraterrestrial artifact of untold power use that power to wish it into retroactive nonexistence. The fact that Crichton has no interest in showing what might have happened is what makes him a writer of suspense fiction, rather than of science fiction. A science-fiction writer would naturally want to see what would happen if the technologies stayed out of control (as most do), and might even want to ask whether the consequences would be all bad (as they often aren't). Might not free-range dinosaurs make Costa Rica an even more interesting place than it is today?
Unfortunately the full article isn't available online, so I'll have to see if I can lay my hands on a copy of the magazine before I can decide whether I agree with the writer's argument.
The segment quoted above is true as far as it goes, to be sure, but I'd like to see if the full article tackles another facet of the question, namely whether anyone who could mangle chaos theory as badly as Crichton did could possibly be considered a science fiction writer?
(OK, that's a little over the top. Scientific accuracy isn't an essential requirement for a science fiction writer, provided that they make it clear that they're not trying to predict the future but to use the standard props of the genre to tell an interesting story – see, for example, Iain M Banks' Culture novels. But it would be good to see Morton spell out how addle-brained the thinking of Ian Malcolm, the mathematician played by Jeff Goldblum in the film of Jurassic Park, was.)