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Ninth Day Intro
So you'd like to write a great science fiction novel
How to clone a nightmare
WHERE ARE ALL THE GREAT MODERN
by Leonard Crane, author of Ninth Day of Creation
If, like me, you loved the novel Jurassic Park, you've probably also
wondered why there aren't more books around like it. I've certainly wondered
about that. Why aren't there a dozen writers out there like Crichton? Why, when
I look at fiction writers as a group, do I find myself shaking my head when it
comes to their portrayals of science? Why can't I find great writers who can
deliver up the goods, render accurate depictions of science not only as it is
(and convincingly at that), but as it might be--and to manage it
while incorporating a flair for the dramatic?
OK. So maybe you don't have to be a genius to figure it out. They fail because
the task is not only difficult, it's extremely difficult. Even for
those who know how to write. It explains why there are so many science writers,
but so few science novelists. It is one thing to interview a scientist
and transcribe onto the page the excitement he or she feels for their work.
But to create similar ideas from scratch? In a fictional form? Wouldn't you
almost have to be a scientist to do that?
Actually, yes. I think you would. These days, to really write about the way
science might be, it seems to me that at some stage you'd literally
need to have been a scientist. And that's part of what makes the
science novelist so rare. Because doing science turns out to be a lot easier
than writing about it.
In my case, I represent a former aspiring physicist (now turned writer) who
figured plenty of other people could do quantum mechanics better than I.
What most of them couldn't do, I was sure, was write about science
in a way that not only showed science for the glorious enterprise that it is
(Carl Sagan is smiling down at me, I'm sure), but to do it in a way that both
inspires and thrills.
It seems obvious to me that Sagan had the same idea in mind when he sat down
to pen Contact. But even a story based on so lofty a theme as the
imagined receipt by our species of a Message from the stars, gets bogged down
when the author relies solely on the inherent attractions of Science to carry
the reader along. Crichton, whose method has been far more successful, is
cunning enough to show us the effects of a dinosaur attack on page two of
Jurassic Park. He baits the hook and, like those rapacious
velociraptors, we snap at it. Even in The Andromeda Strain we see
for ourselves the effect of the killer space strain by page nine.
Jurassic Park, although it narrowly missed becoming #1 on the
New York Times Bestseller list, was by any other standard the
Blockbuster Novel. Crichton, as the often-repeated story goes,
turned to writing as a means for paying his way through medical school. In the
process he discovered that telling stories was where his real talent lay. When
he finally decided to make a permanent transition, the news came as no surprise
to the psychiatrist assigned to advise him at Harvard Medical School.
"I thought you would quit in the end," he told¹ the young Crichton.
"Your fantasies are too strong."
As Crichton has noted, the good doctor was correct--though more so perhaps
than the author could have realized back in 1969, when his best-selling
novel The Andromeda Strain hit the shelf. Although the book sizzles
with suspense when it sticks to the known medicine of the time, and the
perhaps just-barely speculative, it goes off the rails completely when the
culprit microbe mutates into an energy-gobbling hydra. Surely it's my
background training at work here, but when the author of an otherwise great
science thriller violates the known laws of physics there's a certain shaking
of the head, and gnashing of the teeth. One reviewer at the time wrote² of the
book, "As craft, it's pure stainless steel." But another³ may have
been closer to the point when he rallied against what he perceived as
one huge biological cop-out
So curse you, Michael Crichton.
You led me on with a beautiful dud--a chocolate eclair filled with shaving
But all the sins of a writer's past may be forgiven when he pens a
well-crafted tale of adventure based on something as thought-provoking as
the proposed recreation of an ancient life-form from its remnant DNA.
No shaving cream in this one. Indeed--there's Crichton bolstering our
opinion of the skeptical mathematician, Ian Malcolm, by having him cite the
uncertainty principle of physics on page 313 of my paperback.
Now, this isn't to say that Crichton necessarily knows what the uncertainty
principle really means. In his spaceship-underwater thriller
Sphere, he has Malcolm's predecessor, Harry Adams--another
mathematician--explaining to us on page 87 (again of my paperback copy)
the concept of two equivalent space-time paths, when, in fact--in the
example he gives--they are distinctly unique. Not the same at all.
As brilliant as Crichton's story-telling ability may be--and in his case
this talent generally makes up by far for the errors of fact which occasionally
slip through--and as convinced as we may be that we understand what's
going on in his story, the ease with which authors can set such traps for
themselves only underscores the inherent dangers faced when they attempt to
reveal for us the meaning behind that "scientific idea."
Still, as difficult as the task may be, my gut feeling is that there ought
to be at least a few more science thriller hopefuls out there willing
and prepared enough to bring their wares to market. It's not as though the
job's without the possibility of reward--setting aside the obvious financial
incentives, some of the hardest won pieces of fiction can turn out to be the
most fondly remembered.
So where are they, those intrepid few?
I, for one, don't know. But in the unlikely event that a little
incantation can solve the mystery, I'll give it a shot:
Closet science gurus, I command you--Come out, come out, wherever you are,
and write that thriller-diller with best-seller stamped on its every chapter.
Melt the ice sheets, dry the landmasses. Boil off the atmosphere if you must
to get our attention. But keep it moving, show us some engaging characters
resorting to nothing less than scientific mastery to save the day, and--if you
do it convincingly--this reader at least will applaud you. After all, learn some
frontier science while reading a page turner--who could resist?
¹ Travels, Michael Crichton. Ballantine Books, 1990.
² Webster Scott, in The New York Times Book Review, June 8, 1969, p.5.
³ Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in The New York Times, May 30, 1969, p.25.
Leonard Crane is a novelist who has explored the coming age of virotechnology in his science thriller Ninth Day of Creation.
Content and Copyright © by Leonard Crane, 1998-2006.
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