A review of the distorted plot and politics in Michael Crichton’s State of Fear
Michael Crichton’s State of Fear is an attempt to meld serious politico-scientific critique with a modern techno-thriller. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but to paraphrase Thomas Edison, success is 1 percent ambition and 99 percent not writing an awful book. Crichton’s novel, alas, is unilluminating as a critique and unsatisfying as a thriller.
In many books of this ilk, authors work up a certain level of suspense by following several characters’ storylines at once, cutting back and forth at each cliffhanging juncture. In State of Fear, however, the reader is shackled throughout to dim-witted lawyer Peter Evans. It’s a peculiar choice, since in a book full of characters with exactly one personality trait, Evans is set apart only by having exactly none.
Perhaps it is fitting, though, since Evans is a cipher, a blank slate, and as such an appropriate stand-in for the reader, whom Crichton means to lecture and manipulate so transparently that an intellectual pulse would be merely a hindrance. It’s ironic that in excoriating scientists and the public for insufficient analytical skepticism, Crichton has produced a book that demands a sponge-like passivity on the part of those reading it.
The Plot Thins
Evans is a lawyer for George Morton, a rich philanthropist upon whose financial largesse depends the National Environmental Resource Fund (any similarity to organizations living or dead — like, say, the Natural Resources Defense Council — is purely intentional). NERF is run by Nicholas Drake, a man whose humorless zealotry functions as the book’s stand-in for the entire green movement.
Drake’s nemesis is Dr. John Kenner, a professor of Geoenvironmental Engineering at MIT (any similarity to MIT professor and global-warming skeptic Richard Lindzen is, again, hard to miss) and an undercover government agent. Kenner makes MacGyver look like a damsel in distress, with training in martial arts, espionage, guns, helicopters, and whatever else the machinations of plot require. Add to that near-omniscience, a LexisNexis-like ability to cite obscure scientific papers, and a penchant for talking like HAL from 2001 and you have an egghead author’s wet dream. What you do not have is anything recognizable as human.
Drake is frustrated by the public’s lack of fear about global warming and, hence, lack of enthusiasm for funding NERF. To remedy the situation, he plans a high-profile conference on “abrupt climate change,” a phenomenon that is essentially fabricated. To make sure folks are good and scared about the imaginary threat, he contracts with the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) — which, unlike the real-life Earth Liberation Front, is not a collection of autonomous cells composed of dreadlocked hippies that raid animal-testing labs and burn down new subdivisions, but rather a sophisticated, highly coordinated, techno-savvy worldwide terrorist network of dreadlocked hippies — to create a series of floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis that will devastate the world on the eve of the conference.
To summarize: An environmentalist plans to slaughter tens of thousands of people in order to publicize his conference.
Luckily, Kenner knows all about this plot, saving readers the drudgery of having to figure anything out for themselves. Their only job is to watch as Kenner drags Evans and various athletic, attractive, interchangeable gals here and there while he foils the ELF’s plans. They go to Antarctica to stop a massive glacier from being blown off an ice shelf, to Arizona to prevent flash floods, and to an island off New Guinea to thwart a massive tsunami. In the process, they dodge lightning bolts, cannibals, and Prius-driving ELF agents wielding small, poisonous octopi in sandwich baggies. (Guess the life-cycle analysis on handguns didn’t work out in their favor.)
The book is, of course, a thin pretext for the movie that will inevitably follow. Lest there be any doubt on this score, visualize the scene during which Kenner and one of the interchangeable women are trapped in a giant chamber filled with artificially generated lightning. However will they save themselves?
“What are we going to do?” Sarah said, panicked.
“Take your clothes off.”
Paging a Ms. Jolie, a Ms. Angelina Jolie.
But Seriously, Folks
This silliness would be tolerable for beach readers with brains fried by too much sun, but Crichton doesn’t want your brain fried. He wants desperately for you to take him seriously. The book is riddled with footnotes — which, he assures us in his foreword, are “real” — and bears an author’s note, two appendices, and a 20-page bibliography.
Between overblown action episodes, there are ponderous lectures in the form of Socratic dialogues, with Kenner in the role of Socrates. Sometimes the interlocutor role is filled by Evans, sometimes by crudely caricatured celebrity do-gooder Ted Bradley, an amalgam of Martin Sheen and Ted Danson. (Those irked by celebrity activism will be happy to hear that Bradley gets his comeuppance — he’s eaten by cannibals.)
While Kenner reels off statistics and cites scientific journals, his interlocutor’s job is to say things like, “But of course Antarctica is melting! Trust me.” Kenner references a paper, and a dippy enviro makes the opposing argument in the most naive, flat-footed, dim-witted way possible — with no recourse to scientific citation. Rinse. Repeat.
This makes for terrible literature, of course, but it also reveals a peculiarity at the heart of the book.
A broad and robust scientific consensus exists on the subject of anthropogenic climate change, embodied by thousands of scientists and peer-reviewed studies. How is it that Crichton thinks so many scientists are so wrong, so willing to go along with the baseless hysteria?
No representative of the consensus appears in the book, or is even mentioned, so the reader gets only an indirect answer, when outside the much-ballyhooed conference a cranky sociologist reveals to Evans the existence of a politico-legal-media complex (PLM), which has taken over from the military-industrial complex and now runs society. The PLM keeps the masses in line with fear, and global warming is just the latest bogeyman. Scientists toe the line and distort their own work in response to the social and financial pressure. No countervailing force exists — except, of course, brave contrarian skeptics like Crichton.
Suffice it to say, readers will not find a Real Footnote© under this theory. Perhaps Crichton was leery of citing Fox News.
So scientists have sold out. For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says Kenner, consists of “a huge group of bureaucrats, and scientists under the thumb of bureaucrats.” Presumably he would say the same about the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the American Association of State Climatologists, the U.S. EPA, the Arctic Council, the Pentagon, and, hell, Royal Dutch/Shell.
Paranoid thrillers work best when they seize on something real — Cold War espionage, government surveillance, genetic technology — and amplify it into something insidious. Crichton’s Jurassic Park, for instance, freaks us out not because we think velociraptors wait around the next corner, but because the use of genetics really does seem to be heading in creepy directions.
But what’s the reality at the core of State of Fear? Crichton’s not asking us to believe that environmentalists really run a ruthless transnational cabal, of course. But he is asking us to believe something more fanciful: that in the real world, they have engineered a global scientific and political consensus on climate change without one.
A brief gander at the current political scene — or the pages of Grist — reveals that even environmentalists themselves don’t consider their movement particularly efficacious. As former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach says, “Every significant indicator of global environmental health is heading in the wrong direction.” The real fear du jour is terrorism, which is drowning out warnings on global warming and a whole host of other environmental threats. Environmentalism seems permanently consigned to the political fringe. Despite this, Crichton wants us to believe that the one group of people enviros can sway is climate scientists — virtually all of them.
State of Fear presents two scenarios, one fictional and one allegedly factual. Crichton spends too much of his time lecturing at us, trying to convince us of the second. Meanwhile, the first is tossed off, sloppy and flat. In the end, neither is remotely plausible.
The result is a 15-page political pamphlet of questionable scholarly provenance bloated into a near-600-page novel of minimal literary merit.