I have been a fan of Michael Crichton and his fantastical and yet somehow believable technothrillers since I leapt on Jurassic Park back in 1990. Since then, I don’t think there’s been a title I’ve missed – with the exception of Pirate Latitudes (I have an aversion to books about pirates). Crichton’s death in 2008 was a great loss. It was an unexpected pleasure, then, to hear that he left more than one novel in a near completed state. The first of these, Micro, was finished off by scifi writer Richard Preston and published yesterday. I’ve read it already and that’s because I was counting the days until Micro came out and I wasn’t going to let a little thing like work, eating, sleeping, communication with fellow humans, get in between me and this book.
I’m delighted to report that there are no pirates in Micro – at least, not the sort with one leg who sail around in boats. Instead, we’re back to what Michael Crichton does so well: taking a hugely attractive and exciting idea (here deadly nanorobots – bots – and humans shrunk to about an inch) and putting them in an environment that catches the imagination (here the Hawaii jungle complete with every creeping, crawling and wriggling critter you could try not to imagine), all carefully slotted into a tight plot that will keep those pages turning.
Seven graduate students, including Peter Jansen, leave their studies (ethnobotany, arachnology, venomology, biochemistry, psychology) in the NE US to join Peter’s brother Erik who is Vice President of a hi-tech company in Hawaii called Nanigen. They have been headhunted. Nanigen doesn’t have enough scientists. It’s not too long before we realise why. From the moment of their arrival, nothing goes to plan. Erik, an experienced sailor, has been lost off his new boat and his brother Peter, using some hi-tech methods of his own, soon suspects Nanigen’s part in his brother’s loss. But there’s not much he or his fellow students can do about it when they’re shrunk to an inch and a bit and banished into the Hawaiian jungle.
If I could have read some of Micro with my eyes shut I would have done. There are some very exciting and truly horrific moments as everything with no legs or a lot of legs sets out to eat, dismember or impregnate our resourceful but surely doomed little heroes. There is relish here in the descriptions of some of the very many disgusting ways in which to die in the jungle but there is also a beauty and an appreciation of some of the wonders of nature. And that is a characteristic of Michael Crichton’s work – a love of nature and the environment even though it frequently clashes with the technology that he enjoys equally. The students are scientists and they too respect and admire the animals and insects that they work with. They don’t want to kill unnecessarily and when reduced to the same size as the beetles, mites, daddy longlegs and spiders that they know well, they see them with fresh, appreciative eyes. They can hear their sounds for the first time, they can see fear in their eyes. A mite crawling up the leg is carefully placed back on the squirming jungle floor.
However, this wonder at nature has its limits – and these limits are embodied in ants, centipedes and wasps and other nasties which are even more horrible when they’re the size of a dog or car.
The environment is the strength in Micro. There is also a real charm in the students’ discovery of this new world, despite the appalling danger, and this exuberance is infectious – I learned quite a lot about creeping creatures and plantlife. The baddies, though, and more than one of the students, are not particularly rounded and some strands are left inconclusively dangling. While some moments are savoured with relish, others are hurried and unsatisfying. Also, some of the description is repetitive and I wonder if this is an inevitable result of the book being left incomplete and finished off by another’s hand.
Nevertheless, I am so pleased that Micro reached the light of day. It might have reminded me of Innerspace and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (inevitably, I think), but it also reminded me very much of the good old Jurassic Park days and that is a very good thing indeed.