The War of the Worlds. H.G. Wells, 1898
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Ninth Day Intro


So you'd like to write a great science fiction novel

How to clone a nightmare

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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 cream."

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?

Leonard Crane is a novelist who has explored the coming age of virotechnology in his science thriller Ninth Day of Creation.

IntroductionSynopsisTaubenbergerReviewAuthor's BioSelling PointsBird Flu
Spanish FluPrologueChapter OneChapter TwoTop Page

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