John Michael Crichton, M.D. (October 23, 1942 – November 4, 2008) was a bestselling American writer, most commonly working in the science fiction genre. He is known for his extremely technical writing style which openly favored scientific detail over character development and could be somewhat formulaic. The overall thrust of his books was the threat posed by blundering scientists who toyed with nature. Toward the end of his life, his stories were becoming more political and thus controversial.
His works often expressed a cynical view of corporate America and the scientific community. Many credited him with inventing the techno-thriller, although he himself acknowledged precursors such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle.
As a young man, Crichton wrote spy novels under the name John Lange to pay for medical school. However, after a more serious effort written under a new alias, called A Case of Need — a murder mystery which featured an in-depth analysis of the issue of abortion — received widespread attention and won him an Edgar Award, Crichton decided to focus on writing rather than medicine.
His first novel under his own name was The Andromeda Strain, a very spare science fiction thriller about a team of scientists isolating and analyzing an extremely deadly single-celled organism of extra-terrestrial origin. It was a surprising runaway success, establishing Crichton very rapidly. He compounded his success with popular novels such as The Great Train Robbery, a somewhat fictionalized historical novel about the Great Robbery of 1885, and Congo, a modern take on old-fashioned African adventure stories, as well as the less popular The Terminal Man and Eaters of the Dead. All of the aforementioned were snapped up by Hollywood, although Congo and The 13th Warrior were not filmed until the 1990s. Nonetheless, by the end of the 1970s Crichton was a very wealthy man.
After a long hiatus during the eighties, during which Crichton traveled extensively and became interested in mystical concepts such as ESP, he returned to fiction writing with Sphere, which combined his trademark hard-line science with more fanciful ideas about psychic powers. Many of Crichton's fans regard Sphere as his finest work.
In 1990 he released his most successful work, the novel Jurassic Park, about a theme park where dinosaurs are created using genetic engineering. Not only did it sell millions of copies worldwide and get adapted into a massively successful film by Steven Spielberg (in fact, the highest-grossing ever made at the time), it sparked a renewed interest in Crichton, his older books getting reprinted and bought on a large scale, including A Case of Need, the nonfiction Five Patients, and the John Lange-era Binary. Film adaptations of Crichton's works also became suddenly commonplace, including adaptations of Congo and Sphere, although all but Jurassic Park (1993) were met with mostly negative reactions.
Crichton realized that Jurassic Park provided him with significant Protection from Editors, and took advantage of this to begin writing more controversial fare: Rising Sun, which analyzed US–Japanese relations; most specifically the statement that "Business Is War". Those versed in economics point out that he broke several laws of the universe (including making the standard "export good, import bad" mistake) in order to set up the Japanese as the Big Bad poised to conquer the world, though this did not seem to detract from its popularity at the time. The point was rendered moot with the collapse of the Tiger economy, making Crichton seem rather paranoid in the process. He followed that up with Disclosure, a gender role reversal of a typical sexual harassment case set in an early-'90s technology company.
He returned to technothrillers for a while after that, calming his critics by writing The Lost World (1995), his only sequel; Airframe, a book ostensibly about an incident on an airplane but more substantially about irresponsible journalism; Timeline, a foray into Time Travel which subverted Ye Goode Olde Days in a memorable fashion, and Prey, about runaway nanotechnology.
His Protection thus restored, he wrote the most controversial novel of his career, the Global Warming-critique State of Fear, which severely divided his fan base. The controversy over this novel continues to this day.
As this backlash annoyed his editors, he followed this up with Next, a relatively comedic look at genetic research, technology and copyright issues. Unfortunately, his tendency to run off on author tracts remained, as he spent a full page talking about a Washington journalist named Mick Crowley who was on trial for raping a baby and "had a small penis". This character just happened to share the same name and profession as a journalist who had been critical of Crichton's State of Fear, was entirely unimportant to the plot, and never appeared again.
He also wrote nonfiction works such as Five Patients, Jasper Johns, Electronic Life, Travels, and many essays and articles published in magazines and on his website.
Crichton was also a director and screenwriter, most famously of Westworld, about a futuristic fantasy resort populated by robots who eventually break down and turn on the guests, as well as adaptations of Robin Cook's Coma and his own The Great Train Robbery. However, his first attempted summer blockbuster, Runaway, fizzled: With a multimillion-dollar budget, big-name actors and a world-famous author as both writer and director, it was planned as 1984's major science fiction draw. However, it was overshadowed by a low-budget feature, starring B-list actors, and written and directed by an unknown — James Cameron's unprecedented blockbuster, The Terminator. His directorial career essentially ended, and he would not succeed with a summer blockbuster for another twelve years until the movie Twister, which he co-wrote with his then-wife Anne-Marie Martin (who also played Dori Doreau on Sledge Hammer!).
He also created and produced the hugely successful TV medical drama ER. The show was based on an unfilmed screenplay that Crichton had written in 1974; Apart from updating some of the medicine, the script was largely unchanged when it finally made the air in 1994. The show's success made Crichton the first writer to have written the number one television show (ER), the number one film (Jurassic Park) and the number one book (Disclosure) in the United States at the same time.
Michael Crichton died at the age of sixty-six after a long and protracted battle with lymphoma on November 4, 2008.
The first of three posthumous works, Pirate Latitudes, was published on November 24, 2009. It is set in seventeenth century Jamaica and follows the adventurers of Captain Edward Hunter, a privateer in service to England's King Charles II, as he raids Spanish shipping.
A third posthumous novel, Dragon Teeth, based on the notorious real-life rivalry between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh in the 1870s, was released in May 2017.
Though Crichton himself had nothing to do with it, his name is on The Andromeda Evolution, a sequel to The Andromeda Strain written by Daniel H. Wilson with the blessing of Crichton's family.
Fun facts: He stood 6'9" (about 206 cm) tall. Before his illness, he was noted to look much younger than his actual age (in the page image, he was sixty years old). He has an uncredited cameo in the 1971 movie The Andromeda Strain as a doctor standing in the back of the operating room when Mark Hall is pulled from performing an appendectomy. He also climbed to the top of Mount Everest.
Books written by him:
- A Case of Need (1968)
- The Andromeda Strain (1969)
- Drug of Choice (1970)
- Binary (1972)
- The Terminal Man (1972)
- The Great Train Robbery (1975)
- Eaters of the Dead (1976)
- Congo (1980)
- Sphere (1987)
- Jurassic Park (1990)
- Rising Sun (1992)
- Disclosure (1994)
- The Lost World (1995)
- Airframe (1996)
- Timeline (1999)
- Prey (2002)
- State of Fear (2004)
- Next (2006)
- Pirate Latitudes (2009)
- Micro (2011)
- Dragon Teeth (2017) note
- Westworld (1973) - Wrote and directed.
- Coma (1978) - Wrote and directed the film adaptation.
- Looker (1981) - Wrote and directed.
- Runaway (1984) - Wrote and directed.
- ER - (1994-2009) - Creator, writer and executive producer
- Twister (1996) - Co-writer and producer.
- The 13th Warrior (1999) - Wrote the original novel, and was the producer and director of reshoots.
His works contain examples of:
- Action Girl: In most of his works there's a woman in the band of protagonists who really can kick ass, to the point that she has a skill that ends up being critical to saving others.
- Micro: Karen is fully trained in martial arts, plus has extensive knowledge of weapons. When the main characters are turned into micro-humans, she's the best fighter in the situations they get in where they have to survive - better than the men.
- Timeline: Kate is an avid rock climber, a skill which turns out to save the characters when they are in the Middle Ages.
- Artistic License: Lots of it, spread over multiple categories. Mostly justified in order for there to be a story, and his novels certainly lean more towards hard sci-fi rather than soft, but considering how closely he tries to match real-life science and technology, some of it isn't.
- Asshole Victim: There's usually one character (either the outright Big Bad, or a minor (but crucial to the story) character who's betraying both the bad and good guys) that is a complete jerk with no redeeming qualities - and they usually get a Cruel and Unusual Death.
- Cowboy BeBop at His Computer: An increasingly frequent element of his fiction as time went on. Airframe and State of Fear both rely largely on the premise that Old Media Are Evil.
- Creator Thumbprint: Skepticism of the media and corporations. The dangers of unchecked scientific development. Extensively well documented research into the subject matter. And theme parks.
- Characters Dropping Like Flies: Most of his books start with a band of 6 to 8 "good" people, and only about 2 of them survive until the end. And make no mistake, "bad" guys drop like flies too.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: How the characters drop like flies is described in gruesome detail, and it's nasty.
- Decoy Protagonist: His books' first one or two chapters often follow a person, only to then switch to and introduce the real protagonists. Usually because they are killed or harmed (i.e. in The Andromeda Strain, the protagonists of the 1st chapter quickly die; in Jurassic Park they are attacked by dinosaurs).
- Gone Horribly Wrong: Rich men developing new technology often results in this: Hammond's dinosaur park goes horribly wrong in Jurassic Park when the dinosaurs break loose and even escape the island; the time travelling to the middle ages in Timeline also results in a disaster for all involved (well, except for Marek).
- Hoist by Their Own Petard: Frequently happens to the villains, or to well-meaning but reckless characters.
- Jurassic Park: John Hammond, the owner/inventor of the titular park, is killed by his own dinosaurs he created. In the book at least - the movie changed the character's nature and motivation, and his fate at the end.
- Micro: Nanogen CEO Vincent Drake is killed by his own microbots.
- One for Crichton himself: Despite his extensive research, sometimes Crichton would simply make up facts, present them as real, and cite them in his footnotes. But he didn't always remember which facts he made up, which would sometimes lead him to spend hours or days attempting to chase down an obscure book or article only to find out that he'd made up the entire thing.
- Reconstruction - Many of his works (read: the ones that got trope pages first) are Speculative Fiction reconstructions of classic pulp concepts, tales, or genres. Jurassic Park is The Lost World (1912), Sphere is a Cosmic Horror take on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The Terminal Man is a cyborg slasher story. Timeline is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The Andromeda Strain started this trend, being a (frighteningly) scientifically plausible version of an alien invasion story.
- Science Is Bad: A common perception of his novels, where new technology running amok is often a theme.
- Science Is Wrong:
- A common complication of placing his novels on the sliding scale of sci-fi hardness is his approach to cutting edge theories and technologies. In other words, it's not so much that velociraptors didn't really look like that and so he's wrong, it's more that he's writing from the perspective that deinonychus is actually a misidentified fossil of a mature velociraptor. As a consequence, his One Big Lie is often either an untested or somewhat fringe scientific theory that would have interesting and fantastical consequences if it were true, such as the theory that isolated neanderthal populations survived into modern history or closed timelike curves are possible and traversable.
- The other complication is his cynicism about media reporting on scientific research, a commonly held pet peeve of scientists and science writers. Often times a story's conceit will rest on (The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park) or be in resistance to (State of Fear, Airframe) the hypothetical version of a scientific story that the media might report instead of the reality.
- Science Hero: Attentive readers will notice that it is actually the exploitation of science by big business or government before new developments are fully understood that is being decried. Many of his heroic characters are scientists and experts who refuse to sell out and are forced to use their knowledge to survive the Characters Dropping Like Flies.
- Science Marches On: A lot of what his novels considers cutting-edge or about to be realized in the scientific community would be subsequently disproven.
- Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: Tends towards the harder end. A common development is that a Speculative Fiction concept will create the circumstances for a much more fantastical element.
- Jurassic Park - The search for genetic data untouched by regulatory or patent restrictions drives In-Gen to seek out pre-historic DNA. Realizing the opportunity, they combine it with modern reptile DNA to create a theme park for dinosaurs.
- The Terminal Man - A cranial implant is used to treat an epileptic with slight electric pulses. Classical conditioning instead makes his brain go into epileptic fits more frequently and violently, turning him into an unstoppably ferocious murderous android.
- Westworld - A theme park company seeks to use precision robotics not merely in building their animatronic entertainment robots but also in designing them. AI turns out to be better at designing AI than humans are, and as a consequence robot cowboys and knights go on a rampage.
- Eaters of the Dead - A work of real historical ethnography, Ahmad ibn Fadlan's account of traveling the "lands of darkness" and encountering Volga Vikings, is expanded to send him to their homeland on a pastiche of Beowulf. Ambiguity in the archeological record is exploited for One Big Lie: The titular eaters of the dead that the also titular thirteen warriors battle are a lost tribe of neanderthals.
- Timeline - Quantum Computing finally works out. A tech company tries to make a "3d fax machine" only to discover the hard way why it's called space-time. Subsequently, they use it as a time machine with the intention of researching past events to make more accurate historical recreations and theme parks.
- Electronic Life - A non-fiction series of essays on then-modern computing speculates on the future implications of AI, not just in "the future" but "right now". A key sister work to The Terminal Man.
- Technology Marches On: A lot of it, but computers in particular. A lot of time in early novels is dedicated to discussing the incredibly powerful mainframe computers of the 70's and early 80's, and their capabilities - none of which could hold a candle to the processing power and capability of your average modern mobile phone.