The Problem With Paperbacks, Part 2

16 Aug

So, I had originally intended to fit the entirety of my journey into cheap paperback-land into one post, but the third book I cracked, Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, really merited its own post.

I have certainly read my fair share of Crichton.  There was even a time, right around middle school, when Sphere was one of my favorite books.  I also really liked Congo and Jurassic Park.  So, it was without hesitation that I grabbed State of Fear off the shelf at the bookstore; I hadn’t heard of it, but figured it was a safe bet.  Light stuff, with some basic brain activity encouraged.  You know, a fun techno-caper.  

Damn it.

I should amend that last.  I actually had heard of it, though I didn’t realize it at the time.  As I began to read, however, it started to dawn on me… I kind of remembered politicians going back and forth about the book, and seeing lots of op-ed pieces about it online… how it did or did not twist facts to push the notion that Global Warming isn’t a real threat… and damn it, here I was, reading it.

Ugh.  There’s nothing that will kill a reader’s cheap-thrills paperback yen like injecting some unwanted hot-button politics into your story.  Particularly in the midst of the awful, boring political quagmire that August has become.

The plot of this book is, as best as I can figure, as follows: A whole bunch of eco-terrorists, unable to prove in court that Global Warming actually, truly exists, set about using stolen technology to manipulate the weather all over the world, causing tsunamis and hurricanes, killing thousands.  The only person standing in their way is a young lawyer who, in the process of discovering the truth, will have his smug assumptions about the fact of global climate change shaken to the core.

Full disclosure – just as I’ve had to for a couple of other disappointing paperbacks (see Part One), I didn’t finish this book.  I stopped about a third of the way through, not really because I didn’t agree with the book’s thesis (though I don’t); it was more that it got kind of exhausting to read.

To start with, the entire book has a thesis-paper vibe to it, complete with footnotes and a bunch of hard-to-decipher graphs.  The hell?  Crichton clearly added all those extras to make more credible his account of a bunch of stuff that totally never happened, at all.  I’m all for charts in books (this lines up with my pro-map position), but I usually see them, when used in fiction, as a way to enhance your fictional universe, and to provide data in a way that can’t be easily explained using only prose.

The problem, then, is that Crichton is not in the realm of straight-up fiction, he has steered a course intothe waters of Truthiness. As a result, his use of charts and studies is clearly designed to make people think that his conclusions are supported by scientific research. In actuality, it would appear that he has distorted data to arrive at his own, predetermined conclusions.

After the book was published, the scientific community bristled, and were quick to call bullshit.  From Wikipedia:

The Union of Concerned Scientists devote a section of their website to clear up some of Crichton’s misconceptions in the book [1]. Jeffrey Masters, Chief meteorologist for Weather Underground, writes: “Crichton presents an error-filled and distorted version of the Global Warming science, favoring views of the handful of contrarians that attack the consensus science of the IPCC.”[22] James Hansen wrote: “He (Michael Crichton) doesn’t seem to have the foggiest notion about the science that he writes about.”[23]
Good lord, man.

Good lord, man.

This wouldn’t bug me so much if it didn’t turn out that freaking Senator Jim Inhofe, when he was chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, actually made his entire committee read the book, and then called Crichton to testify before the committee. That type of thing shouldn’t really surprise, coming from such an accomplished jackass as Inhofe, but still…  Michael Chrichton is not a scientist.  He just interviewed some scientists, then stitched their data together into something he could make an international thriller out of.  He spent several years doing research.  That sounds impressive, and perhaps, for a novelist, it is, but come on!  Remember the people who spend their whole lives doing research? Couldn’t we call THEM to testify? Don’t they have a name or something?  Scien… Scion… Scientologists?  No, that’s not it…

Sigh. It reminds me of when, in the aftermath of 9/11, Tom Clancy was going on the talk show circuit as an “expert panelist” because he wrote a book in 1994 about terrorists crashing a plane into the capitol building.

Anyhow, I’ve gone on long enough, particularly about a book that I didn’t even finish. If that’s not Modern Jackass, I don’t know what is.  Sorry.  My gripe with State of Fear isn’t that I don’t want books to make me question the world around me.  It’s that when fiction starts to present itself as researched fact, it becomes difficult separate the narrative from the real science from the fake science, and the whole thing gets kind of exhausting.

There’s a great line in Jurassic Park that seems appropriate – Ian Malcolm, the mathematician (played in the film Jeff Goldblum) says something about about how the men who cloned the dinosaurs had no right to meddle with life as they had, that they had “stood on the shoulders of geniuses” to acomplish something that they did not fully understand.  I would turn that around on Crichton – he has stood on the shoulders of the scientists who have devoted their lives to studying climate change, then taken his half-assed understanding of their conclusions and turned it around to support his own agenda.  I just can’t get into that.

Also, the initials of the evil eco-terror group are N.E.R.F., and the naive good guy (who drives a grey Prius) spends the first half of the book being shadowed by an evil blue Prius.  

Blerg to the max.

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