Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man

The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: April 12th, 1972
Format: Paperback, 266 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Harry Benson blacks out. When he loses time he commits violent acts. This has been happening ever since he was in a car accident where he retained brain damage. The Neuro-Psychiatric Service of the University Hospital has been looking for a "stage three" candidate to try a new procedure on. They believe that actual psychical brain injuries can be cured with the implantation of electrodes in the brain. The electrodes would fire a positive charge into the patient's brain whenever an "attack" was imminent. This would be perfect for Harry. Whenever an attack started, instead of blacking out, he would get a happy little pleasurable charge and everything would be fine. He'd no longer be beating up exotic dancers and gas station attendants. The only thing the NPS didn't count on when choosing Harry as a candidate is that he is actually psychotic. Doctor Janet Ross warned them that this was the case, but the surgeons in their zeal to do what has never been done brushed aside her concerns about Harry's fear of machines and went ahead with the surgery. The day after the surgery it appears that Doctor Ross's fears have materialized as Harry is triggering seizures to get pleasurable responses. He then escapes the hospital and it is only a matter of time until he reaches his breaking point. If he was dangerous before he is even more dangerous now.

Despite deciding on a whim that I would read the books for my Crichton Celebration in reverse order I have to say it's a decision that I don't regret in the least. As I read this, my last book for my celebration, and the second book Crichton published under his own name, it's fascinating to see the genesis of what he'll later explore in future books. The Terminal Man is by no means a polished book, it's very rough around the edges, and I almost like it more for this. Crichton hasn't established any pattern to his narrative structure and this gives the book a freshness. But we get hints as to his future greatness and his future themes, from man competing with technology to apes to genetic modification. Crichton had a very interesting range of subjects he was compelled to write about and seeing them in a protoformat makes the book nerd in me smile. Of course he does fall prey to some cliche ridden techniques that he would thankfully remove from his repertoire later on, the most egregious error being the abrupt ending that he would use again in Eaters of the Dead in some attempt to be edgy, but it's just lame.  

What I find interesting to mull over is the idea of the medical drama or medical thriller. While there have been innumerable shows and books and movies, so much so that we know the language and the argot, Crichton would be at the forefront of this movement. He refined and for many defined what a medical procedural should be with ER. Twenty years after writing The Terminal Man he was still interested enough in medicine to bring it to television. He was always working and playing with ideas for years and years until he found the perfect outlet, be it book or film or television. He was able to explore themes in a way that was almost always fresh and most definitely an expansion of his previous thoughts. What I wouldn't give to have him still in the world and examining how things have changed and how much he predicted and how some things were tried and abandoned. He must have been an interesting person to talk to and how I wish I had had that chance.  

Though with this prevalence of medical shows over time I think I have become desensitized to blood and guts. I can sit and watch Hannibal eating Eddie Izzard's leg and think nothing of it aside from the wonderful ability of Eddie to deliver a wry line. Adaptations of some of the bloodiest murder scenes, such as those of Jack the Ripper, nary an eyelash is batted. Yet reading about the brain surgery of Harry Benson I had this odd visceral reaction. Perhaps it's because I'm used to visual stimulus and this was written and therefore my mind's eye was left to imagine the worse, but the impact this simple surgery had on me was remarkable. It had such force my gorge was actually rising as I thought of the brain being cut into. Also, the fact that the brain has no nerve endings and that you can hack away without the patient feeling any pain, ugh, no. I don't know what it was about this but it struck a literal nerve in me and made me connect to Benson on a level I never thought I would.

Another medical aspect that struck me was the doctor patient confidentiality between Harry Benson and all his doctors, in particular Doctor Janet Ross. In other words, they didn't seem to care about it or even mention it once. Yes, once Harry goes on his little rampage every sane doctor would give the police everything they needed to catch him, but shouldn't there be at least a nod of acknowledgement that Harry is a danger and that is why the confidentiality is being breached? When Captain Anders comes to Doctor Ross's apartment after Harry tried to kill her she calmly sits down and tells him everything about Harry not leaving out a single detail. Would this fly in court? Can she really tell him everything? It not only seems like a breech of trust, but as if she's being vindictive against her patient. She keeps saying that she wants to help him, yet she's laying all his secrets bare and that seems like a negative response to almost being killed more then a helping hand.

But maybe in the early seventies people didn't dwell on potential litigation. Ethics and standards have changed drastically in the past forty some years. And, as the book is written to point out, technology is changing rapidly too. One of the aspects of the book that I found disturbing was the fact that research on monkeys wasn't in the least bit controversial. Ellis mentioned hundreds, yes, HUNDREDS of monkeys he'd worked on to prepare for this one procedure in a human. Also, the monkeys apparently cost $80! Not only the cruelty to the animals but that such a low sum could be placed on their lives disgusted me. Which if extrapolated outwards, you can relate to Harry's predicament and how the surgery being preformed on him both disgusts and horrifies him. Morals, standards, ethics, all is in flux constantly within ourselves and within society. There is a palpable fear of technology that is logical. But there is also a fear of what we have been and what we could be capable of. It's not even the technological advances and the fact that a computer knows what a cat is that's the real danger, it's the human element that is unpredictable and terrifying.

And isn't that always the way? The human element is where things break down. This idea that we can control humans, that we can program them, drug them, retrain them, it is always in playing god in this sense that things go awry. Yes the technology is terrifying, but the fact that humans then try to use it, try to play god, that's what really scares me. Despite the fact that Harry is quite literally insane, I truly felt sorry for him reading this at this time in my life. These doctors that were there to help him were really, despite them objecting that the press was sensationalizing it, preforming mind control. Because changing someone's behavior, be it as simple as them biting their nails, is mind control at a basic level. Look to all the drugs prescribed for anxiety and stress; I'm on a few myself. These drugs don't magically solve anything, they are their to rewrite your behavior and get you to stop anxiety in it's tracks. If I get over emotional I feel the drugs kicking in and it feels like a band around my head which won't go away unless I calm down. This pressure has taught me to calm down. I have been reprogrammed in the simplest way, with negative reinforcement. Now imagine having wires in your brain doing that? I shudder to think. Having them in the mind of someone actually psychotic? That is why The Terminal Man is both terrifying and a cautionary tale.


Newer Post Older Post Home