Literature / Prey
It's hard to believe that a week ago my biggest problem was finding a job. It seems almost laughable now. But then, things never turn out the way you think they will.
is a 2002 sci-fi thriller novel by Michael Crichton
, this time centering around Nanomachines
that have gone wildly out of control and threaten lives, and the main characters must prevent them from getting any more out-of-hand. As is typical for Crichton, he goes into
great detail on the technical aspects of the nanotech; mostly, in this case, computer programmming and evolutionary theory.
The story focuses on Jack Forman, a House Husband
and former computer programmer in distributed systems who is looking for a new job while his wife Julia brings in the cash. Lately things in Jack's life have not been going too well: he was fired from his previous job, cannot find a new one, and to top it all off, his wife has been acting very strangely as of late, working long hours and becoming increasingly hostile and irrational. At the same time, strange things begin happening around the house: rooms are disturbed, the baby comes down with a nasty full-body rash that disappears just as quickly, and there are extra electronic devices around the house he's never seen before. All this comes to a head when he is hired by his wife's company as a consultant on the same project she's recently been so heavily involved in. Eager to get to the bottom of everything, he accepts and is flown out to a remote facility in the Nevada desert...
Not to be confused with the video game
of the same name.
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Averted. The nanoswarms are simply trying to protect and propagate themselves (exactly what they were programmed to do). However, they are also not smart enough to be reasoned with: not true AI.
- Body Horror: Any time the nanoswarms interact with organic material, it's probably not going to be pretty.
- Bookends: The first and last scenes of the book are nearly identical, word for word. At the beginning, the scene sounds like everything has Gone Horribly Wrong. At the end, however, the reader knows enough that the same scene they read on the first page is actually a Bittersweet Ending.
- Foreshadowing: Midway through the novel, Charley wonders if the nanoswarms could affect human brains. Turns out they can.
- House Husband: Jack. Not by choice - he's trying to compete in a highly competitive field, in a highly competitive spot (Silicon Valley, to be exact), and his reputation was effectively ruined by being a whistleblower.
- Grey Goo: Discussed, lampshaded, and played straight in the first climax. The nanites begin targeting organic material (read: flesh of any sort, living or dead), as they need it to make more swarms. Played with in the second climax: the nanites are now smart enough to want world domination.
- Gone Horribly Right: The "wild" nanoswarms. They are doing exactly what they were programmed to do: solve problems about how to survive on their own. In an attempt to jumpstart their learning process, the corporation released them into the wild, specifically so that they can adapt to high wind. It worked... and then it began eating people.
- Gone Horribly Wrong: The "infector" nanoswarms, which are parasitically controlling humans in order to survive, something they were never intended to do.
- Hive Mind: The nanoswarms work using distributed intelligence, which isn't quite this trope, but it is used as a layman's metaphor in the book at one point.
- Hollywood Science: The thermite charges used by the protagonists explode violently when ignited, much like a grenade. In Real Life, however, thermite actually burns relatively calmly.
- Info Dump: Blocks of hard science appear at several points. It's a Crichton staple.
- Mechanical Evolution: The reason the swarms are so dangerous is that they've been outfitted with learning and problem-solving algorithms. As such, their behavior becomes steadily more complex and sophisticated as time goes on.
- Mechanical Life Form: Or as close to one as you can get in hard Sci-fi.
- Nanomachines: The focus of the book.
- Organic Technology: The construction process for the swarms involves E. coli bacteria (the techs wanted a thoroughly-documented bacterium to work with). The "wild" swarms therefore hunt down and kill animals in order to feed the bacteria within them as part of their reproductive process. A few swarms learn how to "benignly" invade a human body to use as a host and survive.
- Puppeteer Parasite: It's not entirely clear how much control the infector swarms have over their human hosts, nor how intelligent they are. They seem to be accessing their host's memories and directing their actions to some extent, but the hosts are implied to have at least some measure of free will left - hence the hosts' apparent willingness in spreading the nanotech to dominate the world.
- Science Is Bad: Averted. The book mentions numerous useful, revolutionary technologies that could come about with nanotech. It also stresses that the technology is incredibly dangerous, and should be handled cautiously. The company in the novel just did some incredibly stupid things, which is what kickstarts the plot.
- Shown Their Work: It's Michael Crichton. The fact that it is impossible to quickly build several billion nanobots individually (the "build-time problem") is directly addressed, for one.
- Stuff Blowing Up: Thermite, as it turns out, can vaporize a nanoswarm.
- Surveillance Drone: This was the task the nanotech was commissioned for. By arranging themselves in certain formations, the swarms can turn themselves into "eyes" in order to record images.
- The Swarm: The nanobots are organized in such units in order to accomplish tasks. They can kill things by clogging air passageways and letting the E. coli cause severe allergic reactions.
- They Look Like Us Now: The swarms eventually begin to imitate human forms, learning from animals who use mimicry to lure prey near them or to scare off predators. They accomplish this by carefully arranging themselves into humanoid shapes, and aligning their solar panels, reflecting light into the images they need. Later, another variant of the swarm can mimic humans somewhat perfectly, but only to taunt our hero.
- Transhuman: Infected!Julia claims that the nanoswarms are forming a symbiotic relationship with humans, but it is horribly clear, when the swarm is stripped away, that they are really killing the real Julia one small bit at a time.
- Weaksauce Weakness: Wind. The nanoswarms have to stick very close to the ground whenever wind comes up, or the swarm will disperse and the bots will deactivate.