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Amazon in Pictures

Amazon

I thought we’d look at Amazon a little differently from the other Telarium games because it is, even more so than the others, very much a visual as well as textual experience. I therefore thought I could best convey the experience of playing it with lots and lots of pictures. It also marks one of the last of the classic Apple II “hi-res adventures,” which whatever their other failings had a unique aesthetic of their own. With the Commodore 64 so eclipsing other gaming platforms by 1984 — remember, Amazon with its long gestation period is in a sense much older than its eventual publication date of late that year — we won’t be seeing a whole lot more of this look. So, let this be our goodbye to one era even as it also represents a prime example of the newer, more sophisticated era of bookware. And anyway things have been kind of dry around here visually for a while now. This blog could use some pictures!

Uniquely for the Telarium line, Amazon lets you choose one of three difficulty levels. I’m playing on the highest difficulty of “Expedition Leader” here, which gives the most to see but is also pretty brutal; death lurks literally everywhere, and comes often (usually?) with no warning whatsoever.


Amazon

Shay Addams referred to Amazon as an “interactive movie” in his Questbusters review, one of the earlier applications of that term to a computer game. And indeed, the opening sequence is very cinematic, and suitably dramatic. After tuning a receiver to catch the satellite transmission, we watch as the camera pans around the smoking, demolished remnants of the previous Amazon expedition’s campground. It ends with a shot of a member of the cannibal tribe that replaces the killer gorillas of the novel as the architects of all this destruction.


Amazon

Replacing Amy the signing gorilla is Paco the talking parrot, shown here in this lovely illustration by David Durand. I find him kind of hilarious, but I’m not entirely sure if he was written that way intentionally or not; Crichton, whatever his other strengths, isn’t normally what you’d call a funny writer. Paco at first appears to be a classic adventure-game sidekick/hint system, giving advice constantly throughout the game. In a departure from the norm, however, his advice is, at least on Expedition Leader level, disastrously misguided at least 50% of the time, getting you killed or stranded in all sorts of creative ways. Crichton often stated that he wanted to make a more believable, realistic adventure game. In that spirit, I suppose taking everything said by a talking parrot as gospel might not get you very far in the real world. But then if we’re debating realism we have to also recognize that Paco is basically a cartoon character, even more so than Amy the ridiculously intelligent, loyal, and empathetic gorilla of the novel. Foghorn Leghorn’s got nothing on this guy.


Amazon

Like in the book, we can use our field computer to link up with NSRT headquarters for regular updates. The above shows the situation just after we’ve parachuted with Paco into the Amazon rain forest. Looks like other than the cannibals and the rampaging government troops and that volcano that’s about to erupt there’s nothing to worry about.


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Amazon

Have I mentioned that it’s easy to die at Expedition Leader level? One wrong move leads to one of a rogue’s gallery of gleefully described death scenes to rival one of the Phoenix games.


Amazon

Crichton’s opinion of Peru’s military seems to be no higher than was his opinion of Zaire’s in the novel.


Amazon

In another strikingly cinematic scene, we use our handy night-vision goggles and an assist from Paco to sneak away from the troops who captured us.


Amazon

With the “corrupt government troops” behind us, we now get to deal with the Kemani tribesman. Luckily, they like cigarettes and we happen to have a pack.


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We climb the volcanic Mount Macuma, which separates us from our objective and will soon give us problems in another way.


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NSRT airlifts some desperately needed supplies to us. (Why do I want to hear Paco saying “De plane! De plane!” when I see this screenshot?)


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Crichton may have been trying to make a new type of adventure game, but he couldn’t resist including a very old-school maze which we have to navigate to reach the airdropped supplies. This is actually the only part of the game which requires mapping. Normally it’s much more interested in forward plot momentum than the details of geography.


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Getting across the river is even more difficult than was getting over the mountain. Once again our night-vision goggles come in handy.


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Next morning we find that mischivious monkeys have stolen our supplies. A merry chase follows, implemented as one of Amazon‘s two action games. These were not likely to make arcade owners nervous, but at least they aren’t embarrassingly bad like the action games in Telarium’s other titles. They’re actually kind of engaging in their way; a nice change of pace. Indeed, Amazon‘s way of constantly throwing different stuff at you is one of the most impressive things about it. The screen is constantly changing. “Whatever works for this part of the story” seems to have been Crichton’s philosophy.


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One more obstacle to cross, and we come to the outskirts of the lost city of Chak. It doesn’t exactly look welcoming.


Amazon

The cannibals attack that night and, in increasing numbers, every night we remain in Chak. The attack is presented as another action game, this time a Space Invaders-like affair which, while not as original or entertaining as the monkey chase, is at least competently executed.


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We have about five days in Chak before the volcano erupts. If that sounds generous, know that it’s really not; time passes devilishly quickly. Our main objective is to find the secret staircase that will take us to the endgame.


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The endgame requires us to open a series of doors in the correct order using clues found onscreen — one of the few classically adventure-gamey puzzles you’ll find in Amazon. The correct sequence for the above, for example, is 1-3-2. I assume this is because there are 9 marks on the first door, 13 on the second, and 11 on the third. At any rate my first instinct was to arrange them in numerical sequence, and it worked.


Amazon

The final sequence is, to say the least, a bit more tricky. Now we have nine doors to contend with. This puzzle, which appears only at Expedition Leader level, stumped me entirely and forced me to a walkthrough. If you can solve it, or even just give the methodology for solving it given the correct answer, I’d love to hear about it. To see the answer, highlight the empty space that follows: 3-4-8-1-5-9-2-6-7.


Amazon

Get past the last of the doors and we come to enough emeralds to warm any greedy adventurer’s heart. And after that, to quote Neal Stephenson, “It’s just a chase scene,” as we rush to get away from the erupting volcano.


Crichton wouldn’t return to computer games until some fifteen years after Amazon. It’s not hard to understand why. Even if Amazon sold 100,000 copies, his earnings from it would have been a drop in the bucket compared to what he earned from his books and movie licenses. Yet Amazon is good enough that it makes me wish he had done more work in interactive mediums.

Which is not to say that it doesn’t have its problems. The parser is no better than you might expect from such a one-off effort; on at least one or two occasions I knew exactly what to do but had to turn to the walkthrough to figure out how to say it to the game. And the story logic often has little to do with real-world logic. If you don’t do everything just right in the opening stages of the game, for instance, your flight to Peru will get hijacked and you’ll end up dead after the game toys with you a bit — this despite there being no logical reason why your previous failings should have led to your flight getting hijacked.

Still, Amazon is a unique experience, as I hope the pictures above convey. Especially if played on one of the less masochistic levels, it’s a fast-moving rush of a game that’s constantly throwing something new and interesting at you. And it really is relentlessly cinematic, replete with stylish little touches. Even when it’s working with just text, words often stutter onto the screen in clumps to mimic conversation, or are pecked out character by character when they’re coming through your satellite computer hookup. There’s a sense that things could go in any direction, that anything could be asked of you next, rules of computer-game genres be damned. If that sounds appealing, by all means download it, fire up your Apple II emulator, and give it a go.

 
 

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From Congo to Amazon

There are new ways of presenting information other than the traditional ways in which the reader or viewer is required to be passive. A few years ago, I realized that I didn’t know about these things, and that I’d better find out about them. The only way I could learn was to actually go and do one. So I said, “Well, I’ll just make a game and then I’ll learn.” And I certainly did.

— Michael Crichton, 1984

Anyone who had been reading Michael Crichton’s novels prior to the founding of the Telarium brand had to know of his interest in computers. The plot of 1972’s The Terminal Man, of a man who has a computer implanted in his brain, is the sort of thing that would become commonplace in science fiction only with the rise of cyberpunk more than a decade later. And of course computers are also all over 1980’s Congo; indeed, they’re the only reason the heroes are out there in the jungle in the first place. Crichton’s personal history with computers also stretches back surprisingly far. Always an inveterate gadget freak, he bought his first computer-like machine in the form of an Olivetti word processor almost as soon as his earnings from his first hit novel, The Andromeda Strain, made it possible. He wrote his books for years on the Olivetti. When the trinity of 1977 arrived, he quickly jumped aboard the PC revolution with an Apple II, first of a stable that within a few years would also include Commodores, Radio Shacks, and IBMs.

Never shy about sharing his interests in print, Crichton became a semi-regular contributor to Creative Computing magazine, who were thrilled to have a byline of his prominence under any terms. Thus they gave him free rein to opine in the abstract:

I would argue that it [computer technology] is a force of human evolution, opening new possibilities for our minds, simultaneously freeing us from drudgery while presenting us with a parody of our own rational sides. Computers actually show us both the benefits and the limits of rationality with wonderful precision. What could be more rational than that pedantic little box that keeps saying SYNTAX ERROR over and over? And what does our frustration suggest to us, in terms of other things to do and other ways to be?

But Crichton was more than the mere dabbler that poeticisms like the above might suggest. He took the time to learn how to program his toys, publishing fairly intricate program listings in BASIC for applications such as casting the I Ching (a byproduct of his seldom remarked interest in mysticism; see his nonfiction memoir Travels, which might just be the most interesting thing he ever wrote); identifying users based on their typing characteristics (inspired by his recent short story “Mousetrap”); and creating onscreen art mirroring that of abstract painter Josef Albers (Crichton’s interest in and patronship of the visual arts also tends to go unremarked). In 1983 he published the book Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers, a breezy introduction for the layman which nevertheless shared some real wisdom on topics such as the absurdity of the drive for “computer literacy” which insisted that every schoolchild in the country needed to know how to program in BASIC to have a prayer of success in later life. It also offered a spirited defense of computers as tools for entertainment and creativity as well as business and other practical matters.

Which isn’t to say that he didn’t find plenty of such practical applications for his computers. During this part of his life Crichton was immersed in planning for a movie called Runaway, which was to star Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons of Magnum P.I. and Kiss fame respectively. He hoped it would be one of the major blockbusters of 1984, although it would ultimately be overshadowed by a glut of other high-profile science-fiction films that year (The Terminator, Star Trek III, 2010). He hired a team to create a financial-modeling package which he claimed would allow a prospective filmmaker to input a bunch of parameters and have a shooting budget for any movie in “about a minute.” It was soon circulating amongst his peers in Hollywood.

Thus when the folks at Telarium started thinking about authors who might be interested in licensing their books and maybe even working with them on the resulting adaptations, Crichton was a natural. Seth Godin approached him in late 1983. He returned with extraordinary news: not only was Crichton interested, but he already had a largely completed game for them, based on his most recent novel, Congo.

Crichton had first started thinking he might like to write a game as long as two years before Godin’s inquiry. He’d grown frustrated with the limitations of the adventure games he’d played, limitations which seemed to spring not just from the technology but also from the lack of dramatic chops of their programmers.

I simply didn’t understand the mentality that informed them. It was not until I began programming myself that I realized it was a debugger’s mentality. They could make you sit outside a door until you said exactly the right words. Sometimes you had to say, “I quit,” and then it would let you through.

Well, that’s life in the programming world. It’s not life in any other world. It’s not an accepted dramatic convention in any other arena of entertainment. It’s something you learn to do when you’re trying to make the computer work.

Here’s what I found out early on: you can’t have extremely varied choices that don’t seem to matter. I can go north, south, east, or west, and who cares? You can only do that for a while, and then if you don’t start to have an expectation of what will happen, you’ll stop playing the game. You’d better get right going and you’d better start to have something happen.

If I play a game for a half-hour and it doesn’t make any sense to me, I’ll just quit and never go back. Say I’m locked in this house and I don’t know what the point of the house is and why I can’t get out and there’s no sort of hint to me about the mentality that would assist me in getting out — I don’t know. I could say “Shazam!” or I could burn the house down or — give me a break. I just stop.

Crichton started to sketch out his own adventure game based on Congo, whose simple quest plot structure made it a relatively good choice for conversion to the new format. Realizing that his programming skills weren’t up to the task of implementing his ideas, he hired programmer Stephen Warady to write the game in Apple II assembly language. The little team was eventually completed by David Durand, an artist who normally worked in film graphics. The game as it evolved was as much a mixed-media experience as text adventure, incorporating illustrations, simple action games, and other occasional graphical interludes that almost qualify as cut scenes, perfectly befitting this most cinematic of writers (and, not incidentally, making the game a perfect match with Telarium’s other games once they finally came calling). Crichton would sometimes program these sequences himself in BASIC, then turn them over to Warady to redo in much faster assembly language. Given Crichton’s other commitments, work on Congo the game proceeded in fits and starts for some eighteen months. They were just getting to the point of thinking about a publisher when Godin arrived to relieve them of that stress.

When Spinnaker started their due diligence on the deal, however, a huge problem quickly presented itself: Crichton, as was typical for him by this time, had already sold the media rights to Congo to Hollywood. (After they languished there for many years, the success of the Jurassic Park film would finally prompt Paramount Pictures to pick them up and make a Congo movie at last in 1995. Opinions are divided over whether that movie was just bad or so cosmically bad that it became good again.) Those rights unfortunately included all adaptations, including computer games, something the usually business-savvy Crichton had totally failed to realize. Spinnaker may have been a big wheel in home computers, but they didn’t have much clout in Hollywood. So, they came up with another solution: they excised the specifics of the novel from the game, leaving just the plot framework. The Congo became the Amazon; Amy the signing gorilla became Paco the talking parrot; Earth Resources Technology Services became National Satellite Resources Technology; a diamond mine became an emerald mine; African cannibals and roving, massacring army troops became South American cannibals and roving, massacring army troops. It may not have said much for Crichton and Spinnaker’s appreciation for cultural diversity, but it solved their legal problems.

Amazon was written for the Apple II in native assembly language. Spinnaker, however, took advantage of the rare luxury of time — the game was in an almost completed state when Crichton signed in late 1983, fully one year before the Telarium line’s launch — to turn it over to Byron Preiss Video Productions to make a version in SAL for the all-important Commodore 64 platform. The result wasn’t quite as nice an experience as the original, but it was acceptable. And it was certainly a wise move: Amazon became by all indications the most successful of all the Telarium games. Some reports have it selling as many as 100,000 copies, very good numbers for a member of a line whose overall commercial performance was quite disappointing. The majority of those were most likely the Commodore 64 version, if sales patterns for Amazon matched those for the industry as a whole.

I do want to talk about Amazon in more detail; it’s an historically important game thanks if nothing else to Crichton’s involvement and also a very interesting one, with some genuinely new approaches. But we’ll save that discussion for next time. In the meantime, feel free to download the Apple II version from here if you’d like to get a head start. Note that disk 3 is the boot disk.

(All of the references I listed in my first article on bookware still apply. Useful interviews with Crichton appeared in the February 1985 Creative Computing and February 1985 Compute!. Other articles and programs by Crichton appeared in Creative Computing‘s March 1983, June 1984, and November 1984 issues.)

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton

It’s easy to dismiss Michael Crichton. Following his shocking 2008 death from throat cancer at age 66 (few had even been aware he was ill), virtually all of the obituaries and memorials took a tack similar to that of Charles McGrath in The New York Times: “No one — except possibly Mr. Crichton himself — ever confused them [his novels] with great literature, but very few readers who started a Crichton novel ever put it down.” One somehow feels the need to qualify that, yes, one understands he’s not great literature or anything before one admits to enjoying a Michael Crichton book. That’s kind of odd when you think about it. Readers of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King don’t seem to wax defensive quite so quickly or in quite such quantities.

If we take the relatively accepted and non-controversial definition of hard science fiction as a story that begins with the words “What if…” and then proceeds to try to rationally work through the consequences of that opening proposition, many of Crichton’s stories are virtual textbook examples of the genre. His breakout novel, The Andromeda Strain, asked what if a satellite returned to earth bearing a deadly extraterrestrial microbe; his most successful of all, Jurassic Park, asked what if dinosaur DNA could be recovered and cloned. Yet he was never really embraced by hardcore science-fiction readers. Something about Crichton was just too slick, too commercially calculated, too damn ubiquitous to be embraced by scruffy fan communities. He just wasn’t one of them. Instead he became the king of that genre unto itself of airport fiction, his latest bestseller — everything he released after The Andromeda Strain was a bestseller — to be found clutched under the arms of business travelers, as much a part of that strange artificial environment as X-ray machines, processed air, and canned announcements saying something about baggage left unattended. These folks wanted something to read that was neither embarrassing nor aggressively stupid but also not too taxing while they hurried up and waited. Crichton knew exactly where that perfect median lay, and he delivered every time.

All of which can make it a little bit hard to get really excited about Michael Crichton. I have a theory that, for all his ubiquity, relatively few people would claim him as their favorite writer — and those who do probably in all honesty don’t read a whole lot of books. Still, his achievements are kind of amazing. Educated as a doctor but never actually licensed to practice medicine, he was seemingly interested in everything and pretty good at a fair number of those things. And, like Steve Jobs and Byron Preiss, Crichton had looks and charm on his side as well. (People magazine named him one of their “50 Most Beautiful People” in the world in 1992, a rare honor indeed for a writer and general behind-the-camera type.) In 1970, in the aftermath of The Andromeda Strain‘s success, he abandoned his medical fellowship and set out to conquer the world of film. Despite having no background whatsoever in filmmaking, he convinced MGM to let him direct his own screenplay of Westworld in 1973. From there Crichton maintained parallel careers in the worlds of letters and film. It’s difficult to say which was more successful, especially since the latter so obviously fed off the former; every one of his first ten novels became a film, often with Crichton himself screenwriting, directing, and/or producing. And then, from the realm of Things Completely Different, let’s not forget that Crichton also created one of the most long-running and popular television dramas in history, E.R.

Clearly Crichton’s commercial instincts were well-honed. He always seemed to have the right book for the times, jumping on the newest trends and fears in popular science and the zeitgeist in general: the Hong Kong Flu (The Andromeda Strain, 1969); the first widespread discussion of cloning and its implications (Jurassic Park, 1990); workplace sexual harassment in the wake of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings (Disclosure, 1994); the global-warming debate (State of Fear, 2004). If he was still with us, I’m sure Crichton would have a book for the latest pop-science fad for all things neuroscience.

So, yes, there was a certain amount of calculation to Michael Crichton — but that’s not all there was. Yes, sometimes he oversimplified, and sometimes he got things just plain wrong, but most of Crichton’s books evidence more research than their sensational thriller plots — not to mention the feckless Hollywood blockbusters based on them — might suggest. Crichton was genuinely curious about the world around him, and genuinely worked to inform as well as entertain. Or, perhaps better stated, to entertain by informing, because the subjects he tackled are often genuinely fascinating. His peculiar genius was really composed of three parts: a deep sense of the current zeitgeist in science, technology, politics; a flair for explaining complicated ideas in an understandable, readable way (he could have been one hell of a “pure” pop-science writer if he’d wanted to); and the ability to tie the aforementioned talents to breakneck plots guaranteed to keep you turning the pages. We can see all of these elements at work in 1980’s Congo, generally regarded as one of his better books if also one that demonstrates some of his failings.

In typical Crichton fashion, Congo begins with an attack: an expedition encamped next to a heretofore undiscovered ancient city deep in the Congo Rainforest is ambushed and massacred by gorillas, or at least some somethings that are distinctly gorilla-like. The expedition had come there not for the sake of archaeology but to search for diamonds — special diamonds, meant to serve not as ornamentation but as the heart of a new generation of computers to be built using optical circuits instead of electric, made out of diamonds instead of silicon. Current computers, Crichton eventually explains, have gotten just as small and fast as they can with silicon chips. Like many specific predictions and extrapolations in Crichton novels, this is spectacularly wrong, as a quick comparison between, say, an Apple II and an iPad, both based on good old silicon, will demonstrate. But hey, where would a thriller writer (or pop-science writer, for that matter) be without a bit of hyperbole?

More prescient and interesting is the nature of the company that sent the unfortunate team into the field. Earth Resources Technology Services is like the Google of geology, scouring the planet on behalf of their clients to find mineral deposits of all stripes and stake claim to them. They are, to use a modern term, a data-driven organization, at least by the standards of 1980; ERTS stores “two million images” on their central computer, with new ones coming in at the staggering rate of “thirty images an hour.” They must inevitably send teams of people out to investigate promising sites in person, but the teams do their best to maintain satellite connections with ERTS headquarters in Houston. It’s thanks to this that ERTS gets to watch their team get killed in real-time. Not being idealistic sorts, they judge that this site is just too juicy to let a few killer apes and dead employees stand in their way. They mount a new expedition, which becomes the subject of the book. It’s led by one Karen Ross, who looks “the very flower of virile Texas womanhood” but entered MIT at age 13. For reasons that are rather tenuous at best, she decides to bring along a sign-language-using gorilla named Amy and her trainer, the diffident scientist Peter Elliot. The cast is rounded out by a grizzled ex-mercenary with a shady past named Munro and a jolly but mysterious group of native porters whom you just know are going to be the first to die. With our adventure-novel archetypes all in place, we’re off.

The structure of what follows is lumpy and kind of odd, but very typical of Crichton. About half of the text is devoted to a thrill-a-minute adventure story as the team penetrates deeper and deeper into the heart of the Dark Continent and into ever greater peril. Crichton meant it to be, besides being a crackerjack thriller in its own right, an homage to classic adventure fiction like The Lost World and King Solomon’s Mines; Crichton’s Lost City of Zinj and its diamond mines are in fact sourced from the same legends as the latter book. But Crichton, to his credit, doesn’t just try to ape adventure fiction of earlier generations. His heroes are thoroughly up to date, with all the latest gadgets. Thus they may be wandering through the jungle dodging cannibals, rampaging army troops, and strange hostile gorillas, but they’re also using their portable computer to link up with ERTS for all manner of assistance as they try to beat a rival high-tech consortium to the prize. (Admittedly, this assistance can sometimes be a bit too helpful, leaving Crichton with something of the classic Star Trek transporter dilemma: i.e., how can we have real drama when Captain Kirk can just shout “Beam me up, Scotty!” into his communicator as soon as things start to get hairy? Like the Star Trek writers, Crichton must often contrive circumstances — a freak solar flare, etc. — to cut off his heroes from their lifeline.)

Crichton, as even his worst detractors will admit, is good at constructing the skeleton of compelling suspense fiction. He knows how to build a roller coaster of a plot and let it run, knows how to keep you turning the pages to find out how they’re gonna get out of this one — even if he does wrap things up in this case via a classic deus ex machina of a volcano that’s been dormant for thousands of years suddenly deciding to erupt the very week our heroes visit.

But intertwined with the thriller is the pop-science book. Crichton loves his research, and loves to share what he’s learned with us. So we get often pages-long digressions on all sorts of things: the state of computing circa 1980 (lots of this, delving into lots of sub-topics); primates’ capacities for language learning (ditto); satellite-imaging technology; volcanoes; the strange customs of African cannibal tribes; the race among China, the Soviet Union, and the United States to exploit Africa’s vast mineral wealth; the hippopotamus in nature and in human culture; the vanishing rain forests; etc, etc. The pattern is always the same: during the story part of the novel some character, or Crichton the narrator himself, will make reference to some scientist, some event, some technology. Then it’s time to put the story on hold and start with the infodump.

By all rights this structure ought to be infuriating — but somehow Crichton makes it work. Perhaps it’s partly because most of the topics he writes about are genuinely interesting. Certainly it’s largely down to the fact that Crichton is a good writer within his sphere, able to make his factual material as engaging as his fiction. But maybe it’s also caught up with something else about Crichton, something I don’t even know whether I should label a flaw precisely because I think it’s actually a big part of his appeal as an author of airport fiction: the peculiar sense of distance about the whole exercise.

By the final chapters of Congo the situation is truly desperate. Our hardy band of heroes camped on the outskirts of Zinj are enduring nightly attacks by hundreds of remorseless killer gorillas. Already almost half their party — all native porters naturally; can’t start killing the heroes too soon — have been killed. Supplies are dwindling, ammunition almost exhausted. Worst of all, they can’t even try to escape back out into the jungle and take their chances with the roving bands of cannibals; the gorillas wait in ambush at the choke point which is the only way out of the valley in which they’ve encamped. And now, to top it all off, the volcano just above them is rumbling ominously. The horror of the situation should be palpable. Yet Crichton continues merrily along in the mode he established from the beginning, ticking off events as they occur and infodumping in between about gorilla behavior, gorilla populations, the cause and frequency of solar flares, the nature of language. He doesn’t do our imaginations any favors; any palpable fear or sense of real identification with the party will have to come from ourselves alone. Even his heroes seem oddly oblivious to their situation. No one seems to care all that much when the porters start getting killed. They’re much more concerned about their satellite connection and where those diamonds might be buried.

This strangely disembodied quality infects the whole book. Instead of giving us a tactile sense of the still primordial continent of Africa, inspiration for so many truly great books (Heart of Darkness; Out of Africa; The Green Hills of Africa), he infodumps statistics at us: that each tree has a trunk 40 feet in diameter and rises 200 feet, that there are four times as many species of animal life here as in a typical forest ecosystem. Add in Crichton’s less than engaging characters, who are if anything even more wooden than Arthur C. Clarke’s, and we’re left feeling, shall we say, somewhat removed from the action. We’re interested to find out what’s going to happen, but almost as an intellectual exercise rather than out of any sense of empathy. Nobody’s going to lose a lot of sleep if such refugees from Hollywood central casting as Karen Ross the Frigid Beauty or Munro the Shady Former Mercenary should buy it. By far the most memorable and endearing character in the book is Amy the signing gorilla.

Despite all of his research, there’s a certain facile quality to Crichton’s writing even when he sticks to facts. He is indeed shockingly prescient in imagining a company like ERTS, who deal only in hard data and seek to quantify absolutely everything, including the percentage chance their team has for finding diamonds and for getting themselves killed, which they coldly use to balance corporate risk and reward; diamonds are obviously worth some lives and the associated bad press and insurance payments. Yet he’s content to present ERTS’s corporate philosophy as just a neat new thing and move on. He never asks whether ERTS’s calculations and probabilities can replace more innate forms of human wisdom, or what it means that ERTS seem to think they can. Similarly, he mentions that Peter Elliot, trainer of Amy the gorilla, is being targeted by animal-rights groups, but he’s content to use this situation largely as a plot device to get Peter and Amy to Africa. Once that’s accomplished, it’s never mentioned again; he never addresses the legitimate ethical questions raised by inculcating an intelligent, empathetic animal into a human society in which it can never truly have a place beyond age seven or eight (the age at which a gorilla becomes too large, strong, and dangerous to safely interact with one-on-one). No, Crichton is happy to just label Elliot’s oppressors kooks and move on.

Like the wonks at ERTS, Crichton throws lots of facts at us and even comes to lots of conclusions, but never digs all that far beneath the surface. I think it’s this very facileness, this unwillingness to ever really make his reader — or, perhaps more importantly, himself — uncomfortable, that many people are subconsciously connecting with when they rush to make the disclamer that Crichton certainly isn’t great literature or anything. Yet it also may be just what made him so popular. When all is said and done, and despite all the chaos and death and violence and potentially world-ending threats his books contain, he’s a comfort read. You’ll emerge from reading one of his books feeling pleasantly distracted and even a bit more educated about various esoteric subjects, but with worldview intact and bedrock assumptions unchallenged (assuming, of course, that said worldview and assumptions are comfortably Middle American like Crichton’s in the first place).

All of which probably reads more harshly than I really intend it. After I reread Congo for this blog for the first time in many years, my reaction may have been typical: “I enjoyed that… but I don’t need to read anything else by this author again.” On the other hand, if I was trapped alone in an airport somewhere with time on my hands, and Jurassic Park or Sphere or The Andromeda Strain was in the display window of the bookstore… well, I might just take the plunge. What else can I say? Crichton knew exactly what he was doing and did it well. If that makes him a craftsman rather than an artist, well, many other bestselling authors are neither.

Amongst his other accomplishments, Crichton was also the most famous name ever to actively work in the medium of interactive fiction. (His only rival would be Stephen King — but while King’s story The Mist was adapted to interactive fiction, it was purely an exercise in licensing; thus the “actively.”) We’ll talk about how that happened and the game that resulted next time.

(The photo was taken from the February 1985 issue of Compute!.)

 
 

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