Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: January, 1990
Format: Paperback, 399 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Paleontologist Alan Grant is working in the Badlands of South Dakota on his dig site with his student Ellie Sattler. Alan's been working the site for many years thanks recently to a grant from billionaire John Hammond. For awhile he was funded by Hammond's company InGen, but the hassle of dealing with their apparently irrelevant questions about dinosaurs made him sever ties with them. Those ties are going to be tested in the next few days. An apparent dinosaur has been found on the coast of Costa Rica, inland from Hammond's private island. Hammond has asked Grant and Sattler to come to this island for an "inspection." It turns out that Hammond has been building a theme park and his investors are getting jumpy. By bringing a group capable of assessing the safety of the island together Hammond hopes to quell the dissent. Though the shocking truth of the park rattles Grant. Hammond has been able to genetically recreate dinosaurs and has made these newly resurrected creatures the theme of his resort. Another one of the assessment group, mathematician Ian Malcolm, is predicting doom and gloom, saying that his projections show that Jurassic Park is inherently dangerous. To prove Malcolm wrong Hammond has invited his two young grandchildren along to show the parks safety. The park isn't safe. Malcolm was right. They will be lucky to escape with their lives.

Jurassic Park was the beginning. The problem I've always had with school is that I only want to take what I'm interested in. College, aside from those pesky prerequisites, was ideal for me in that my entire schedule could be tailor made to be art, art, and more art. Whereas high school, high school was not. I would attempt to delay the inevitable as long as possible. One way I did that was to not take science freshman year. Sure, this meant that I was then taking science with the grade lower then me, but it meant that I had a year with no science, so it was totally worth it. And it's not that I hate science, well, I have issues, let's put it like that. But aside from physics, my brain isn't programed that way. It's a subject I would rather avoid if I can. Luckily I had a biology teacher who understood that for some students cutting apart a fetal pig wasn't the highlight of their week. And don't get me started on microscopes, they make me all cross eyed, I just can't stand looking through them! So my teacher had other projects that could be done to boost our scores, and while aligning myself with the Australian foreign exchange student who loved to cut things helped out some, I was needing to do some of these other projects badly. One project I did was I got to build a cross section of a plant cell out of clay and then paint and label the whole thing. I loved building it and my teacher loved it so much he asked to keep it. Another project option was to write a book report on Jurassic Park. The movie had just come out over the summer break and was still dominating theaters. I devoured the book and was desperate to have my own slice of real amber. Thus began an addiction that would take in everything Crichton has ever written.

Coming back to the book over twenty years later was a surreal experience. While I have read the sequel a fair few times I haven't picked up Jurassic Park since that book report when I was a sophomore. More then any of Crichton's other books Jurassic Park has become part of our culture. It is THE book that people associate with Crichton. It has spawned a franchise that is part of our collective unconscious so much so that even Weird Al has parodied it with his album artwork for "Alapalooza." When the movie came out it tapped into the zeitgeist and hasn't left. The problem this creates in reading the book is that the visuals from the movie are burned into our brains. The book and the movie have become so intertwined that you can't just read the book without having the key visual images come to mind. The T-Rex doesn't just attack the tour, the glass of water must first ripple to draw out the tension. The T-Rex must roar and the banner must fall. And you know what? These scenes aren't in the book! But you expect them to be, you picture them anyway. While I love movies, there's a part of me that wishes there was some way to keep the book and the movie separate and have no cross contamination.

As time has passed the movie has replaced the book in my brain, but it's time that's the real villain in re-reading Jurassic Park. The truth is I've grown up. I'm no longer a teenager, not that I'd want to be, but there are certain things unique to being a teenager, in particular a teenager with a little brother. And that is I've lost my knowledge of dinosaurs. When you're a kid there's something mystical that makes dinosaurs an all consuming passion, especially for boys. Most of my childhood was taken up with dinosaurs. My brother's bedroom was papered with every kind of poster of a dinosaur you could imagine. I remember when the Milwaukee Public Museum had their grand opening for their dinosaur exhibit and we were there. Since that day I have had nightmares about the Tyrannosaurus ripping out the guts of that Triceratops that is on gruesome display, forever trapped in that horrific moment. Back then if someone where to say a dinosaur name I'd instantly know the visual. Now, not so much. I have three dinosaurs in my brain now that I can instantly recognize, Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, and Triceratops. There are seventeen varieties of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. I have no idea what they look like and this is a big problem when trying to visualize the story. I muddle their names and I don't know one from the other. The confusion that results saps the fear from the book for me.

To have a thriller that no longer has any fear kind of defeats the purpose of the book. Because the fear of the dinosaurs is the only thing driving this book forward. Therefore I had no drive to keep reading it and instead of devouring this book I kind of leisurely strolled to the end. The characters, especially Lex and her grandfather, are so annoying that you are rooting for the dinosaurs to kill them; preferably in a long and agonizing manner. There are so many plot problems with the book that I felt like thumping my head against a wall. Why does this have to be the most popular of Crichton's books? There are so many better ones! The secondary plot though drove me to distraction. So, while they're out in the park they see some raptors jump on board the ship to the mainland and then they have 18 hours or whatever to get ahold of the ship to tell them to turn around. Grant mentions this every few hours to remind us of this totally unnecessary plot contrivance. Why is it unnecessary? Because we have pretty much stated the fact that dinosaurs have already made it to the mainland so what's three more raptors? Also, if it's to add more urgency to their trek through the park, I thought just surviving would be enough?

But I quibble. I pick. This was an ok read, far more enjoyable then the book I'm reading at the moment. Crichton has a similarity to his books but also a breadth to his subjects that feels like home and it's fun diving back in after all these years. I wouldn't be the critic I am today with my love of reading if Crichton didn't spark it. And the more I re-read Crichton the more I see how eerily accurate he was in predicting human behavior and trends. His books are just as relevant, if not more so, then the day they were written. I know the scientific community never liked Crichton being so outspoken and were always criticizing his views, perhaps because his hits were too close to the mark. I wonder what he'd have to say about companies like Monsanto and what they've been up to. I mean, sure, in Jurassic Park we are given a worst case scenario of scientific advancement being made just because they could without thinking of the long term consequences of releasing dinosaurs back into the world; but look to the smaller scale, to the GMO crisis that abounds now! Think about a company like Monsanto spraying a field of corn with a pesticide they're not quite sure what it will do and they end up with rat stomachs exploding. Hammond is the epitome of the problem, nearsighted people looking for their own glory; go hang the world. More and more the world is being made up of these people. Malcolm is right, it's not about the earth surviving us, it's about us surviving us.


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