Saturday, July 18, 2015

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park


Opening Passage: The book has both an introduction and a prologue as well as an opening to the story proper, so I go with the first paragraph of the Introduction, bland as it is:

The late twentieth century has witnessed a scientific gold rush of astonishing proportions: the headlong and furious haste to commercialize genetic engineering. This enterprise has proceeded so rapidly--with so little outside commentary--that its dimensions and implications are hardly understood at all. (p. ix)

Summary: Catastrophe consists of the accumulation of errors. One of the things that works well for Jurassic Park as a story is that Crichton does a good job in showing the compounding effect of error, which in itself is something human beings find fascinating. In the course of doing so, he depicts one way in which such a compounding of errors can occur: arrogance, which leads to a refusal to take proper steps to prevent errors and correct them. And, negatively, of course, I suppose that gives us one of the important aspects of humility: it leads you to take your capacity for failure seriously enough to avoid failures that magnify other failures.

The basic story, of course is fairly straightforward: John Hammond is building a park on an island, using genetically reconstructed dinosaurs. There are plenty of indications throughout that something is not right: Dr. Wu mentions in passing that they have to help some dinosaurs out of their eggs; the dinosaurs all have a slight rotten-fish smell to them, despite the fact that the herbivores should not have that kind of smell; there are several "worker accidents"; there is evidence that some dinosaurs are turning up on the Costa Rican mainland. And those are just some of the things that are out in the open. It is the signs of wrongness that people aren't noticing that will turn out to be truly dangerous.

In a lighter, fast-paced novel like this, it is a bit difficult to determine what is just thrown in as a detail and what is supposed to link up to the larger themes. For instance, we learn some things about the family situation of Tim and Lex -- their parents are separated and getting divorced, and while there's not a lot of discussion, it does get quite specific. Is it just something used to help give a sense of the time passed as Grant and the kids try to get back to the compound? It could be. On the other hand, it is hard in context not to see it as another case of accumlation of errors. Likewise, the quasi-chapter headings are mostly descriptive, but it's difficult not to see an irony in the fact that all of the sections occurring in the control room are titled 'Control' and that they start coming thick and fast at the point where it is clear that things are out of control.

To go with this re-reading of the book, I re-watched the famous movie based on it. There are certain things that the book does better than the movie. I remember the movie when it first came out, and remember comparing it to the book at the time; one of the things that struck me then, and still strikes me, is that the book does a much better job at showing the ignorance that laces through everything in the park: there are signs of unknowns that have been disregarded on almost every page once we actually get to the park. On this time around, I saw that the book also does much better at conveying the fact that the problem with the park was not just an illusion of control, although that was part of it. Even the dinosaurs are not the real thing. A good example is in the case of the dilophosaur, which is depicted in both book and movie as spitting venom. This is in fact entirely fictional. The book signals this by the fact that it's explicitly stated to be an unexpected discovery and by stating that the biologists studying the animals had not even been able to figure out how they do it, since they don't seem to do it by any normal methods (from which it logically follows that the behavior could not have been predicted from prior paleontological knowledge, since there is nothing that could have signaled it in the fossil record). It is put in as an imaginative example of just how much prior knowledge could fall short of such an undertaking. The movie does not, leading an entire generation of moviegoers into thinking that dilophosaurs spit venom.

But despite the things that the book does better, I think this is a case where, overall, the movie is better than the book. There are things that are just different and I don't think are necessarily worse; the book, for instance, starts much more slowly and indirectly, and this fits well with its structure, while the movie does a very good job of getting us caught up quickly, which does better for a cinematic structure. But the movie tells a somewhat better story, because it makes it more about the human beings and what they do or fail to do.

It also has much better characters. Most of the characters in the movie are more likable than their book counterparts, but I will note one in particular. The John Hammond of the book and, for that matter, of Crichton's original draft of the movie, is extremely unlikable and arrogant, who seems incapable of human sympathy. That from David Koepp's final draft is much more human, and, of course, Richard Attenborough plays the role for everything it is worth. It was a masterstroke to make Hammond not obviously arrogant but instead an enthusiastic and charming grandfather who actually cares for his grandchildren and wants to bring something exciting and wonderful to the children of the entire world. We get a more powerful lesson on the nature of hubris, a richer character, better interactions with other characters, and a greater sense of how we, ourselves, could fall into the same trap. We don't want him to fail even when we see that he must. And the Hammond we get in the movie is someone who is much more involved in his park, much more aware of what is going on, and thus there is less room to fall into the error of thinking that we ourselves could have avoided the catastrophe. This one change alone makes almost everything better. And the death of Hammond in the book was always one of the least satisfactory things about the story; the death of his dream in the movie is massively more affecting.

Dragon curve animation

The curve above (which are shown in their first twelve steps), which people have often found intriguing, is never named in the book; but it is a fitting one, since it is one of a family of fractals called 'dragon curves' -- this one is called the Harter-Heighway dragon. There's a good explanation of how it is drawn here.

Favorite Passage: This is not really a book in which any particular passage stood out as especially funny, or interesting, or exquisitely crafted. But I thought that this one was a fairly good depiction of a common response to rational argument:

"Malcolm's models tend to have a ledge, or a sharp incline, where the drop of water will speed up greatly. He modestly calls this speeding-up movement the Malcolm Effect. The whole system could suddenly collapse. And that was what he said about Jurassic Park. That it had inherent instability."

"Inherent instability," Gennaro said. "And what did you do when you got his report?"

"We disagreed with it, and ignored it, of course," Arnold said.

"Was that wise?"

"It's self-evident," Arnold said. "We're dealing with living systems, after all. This is life, not computer models." (p. 246)

Recommendation: Recommended; it's definitely worth reading at least once.


Quotations are from Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, Ballantine (New York: 1990).


  1. Enbrethiliel8:50 AM


    The Jurassic Park opening reminds me of the War of the Worlds opening.

  2. branemrys9:55 PM

    There does seem to be a bit of an analogy between the two; the attempt to slowly build suspense, I suppose.


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