Oct 21, 2017

Michael Crichton: ‘Science fiction’ author or popular thriller writer? How about both?

Isn’t it strange how Michael Crichton’s name doesn’t crop up more often when talking about science fiction?

BYGautham Shenoy

The sci-fi author considered most popular with Hollywood is perhaps Philip K. Dick, and for good reason. But Michael Crichton isn’t too far behind. With almost a dozen movies based on his sci-fi novels or characters he created, Crichton leads the field as far as box office collections are concerned, with the juggernaut of a franchise called Jurassic Park itself notching up more than $ 3 Billion in earnings worldwide. Not to mention the TV series based on the books and stories he wrote, including the latest HBO hit Westworld, which is based on the 1973 movie of the same name that Crichton wrote and directed.
From his first bestseller, 1970’s The Andromeda Strain – which was published while Crichton was still a medical student – the King Solomon’s Mines-inspired Congo, and 1987’s Sphere about an ‘alien’ spacecraft to 1996’s Airframe that explores human-machine themes to 1999’s Timeline and 2002’s Prey, that involved time travel and nanorobots respectively, Crichton wrote what can only be described as science fiction techno-thrillers – usually about things gone wrong, and almost always cautionary in tone, bordering on science-infused techno-dystopias. And everyone knows about the monster hit that was Jurassic Park.

Left: Michael Crichton on the sets of 1973’s Westworld, a sci-fi movie he wrote and directed, and which the HBO series is based on. Right: Crichton with Steven Spielberg on the sets of Jurassic Park. (via the author’s website)

So, with all this, I find it a little baffling that Michael Crichton’s name doesn’t come up more often when talking about science fiction authors. Without a doubt, the books mentioned above are sci-fi, so what could be the reason?
Is it because Crichton didn’t call himself a science fiction writer? This can’t be the reason because there are a lot of people who write sci-fi but don’t call their work science fiction or want to be identified as such because they believe it pigeon-holes them into a narrow genre. Even a great writer like Kurt Vonnegut wanted to get out of the file drawer labelled science fiction. Also, Crichton didn’t just write science fiction, he also wrote a lot of other non-sf books like Disclosure, Rising Sun and The Great Train Robbery, each of them bestsellers. So that can’t be it.
Is it because he wasn’t marketed as a science fiction writer? See above.
Is this dismissal of Michael Crichton from discussions on sci-fi, because his books are to be found in the general fiction shelves, and not the ‘Science Fiction/Fantasy’ section? This cannot be because ultimately these labels are for convenience and nothing else, and sub-genres (and sub-sub-genres) created solely to help some author somewhere find a niche. Readers who like sci-fi I’ve found are beyond these labels. Also, it’s the dream of many a sci-fi writer to make the move from the Science Fiction section onto the General Fiction category of bookstores, if not the ‘Bestsellers’ shelf. So this can’t be the reason. Just because an author writes a sci-fi tale in the manner of a thriller and makes it to the bestsellers list doesn’t mean he’s to be ignored as not being sci-fi or sci-fi enough surely. Ultimately all of this talk around labels and genres is nit-picking and hair-splitting.
Left: Michael Crichton in a publicity photo for Jurassic Park publicity photo by Marsha T. Gorman. Right: Crichton with Yul Brynner and Tom Selleck on the sets of the sci-fi action film, Runaway, that Crichton wrote and directed. (via the author’s website)

In its second obituary for Michael Crichton after his death in 2008, the New York Times wrote, ‘As a writer he was a kind of cyborg, tirelessly turning out novels that were intricately engineered entertainment systems. No one — except possibly Crichton himself — ever confused them with great literature, but very few readers who started a Crichton novel ever put it down.’ In other words, a dismissal of a popular author based on his ‘literary’ merit – judged by the righteous standards of literary awards and lit-fic critics. Is this the reason then, that Crichton tends to be dismissed from sci-fi discussions? Ironically, if anything this should be another reason to consider him a good genre author because this is the kind of literary apartheid that genre fiction as a whole, and not just sci-fi has been subject to by lit-fic circles. And to be fair to Crichton, he never claimed his books were great literature, or to be a writer’s writer. He wrote to a formula he perfected to bestselling effect in the grand tradition of the airport thriller while weaving in science fiction, deriving inspiration from SF classics such as Conan Doyle’s Lost World and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for The Terminal Man to HG Wells’ War of the Worlds and the epic poem, Beowulf, to name a few.
So it would seem to be a smattering of all these reasons has contributed to the fact that discussions on Michael Crichton’s books and movies are missing when sci-fi is discussed, and that is a tad unfair. For many people, Crichton’s books were a gateway to science fiction, and for this, he deserves not a small amount of credit. Apart from that fact that they were eminently readable page-turners while being science fiction, a good example of that you can crossover to the mainstream and be a popular author while writing sci-fi. Then there’s also the handful of movies he directed too.
So the next time you find yourself in a discussion about sci-fi books or themes, maybe about time travel and dinosaurs, or nanobots and genetics, try and slip in a Michael Crichton book or two. If you’ve read them, you know what fun they are. Is it time for a reread maybe?
On that note, dear reader, I sign off for this week and hope to see you again next weekend for yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly, only on FactorDaily. Live long and prosper!
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Gautham Shenoy is a writer of FactorDaily.