Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's Sphere

Sphere by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: May 12th, 1987
Format: Paperback, 371 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Norman Johnson is a psychologist who is often asked to come to plane wrecks to help the survivors. But years earlier he worked on a secret project for the government wherein he was asked to think about the hypothetical event of the wreck being extraterrestrial in origin. He thought it was all a joke, but took the job because with a wife and a family who was he to turn away good money? It was no joke. He is now in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and before him are the candidates he had suggested would make the ideal welcoming party. There has been a crash. This crash though is unlike anything he could ever have expected. The "vessel" lies at the bottom of the ocean and has been there for hundreds of years.

Though nothing is as it seems. As the team settles into the habitat on the ocean floor they prepare for their first sojourn to the ship. At first glance the ship, while old, is obviously man made and comes from the future, but returned to Earth's past by mistake. While they wrap their heads around this conundrum they stumble on a sphere in the hold. This, unlike the ship, is obviously of alien origin. Back in the habitat things start to subtly change. An ocean devoid of life is now abundant in everything from shrimp to jellyfish. But there's something else out there too. A creature communicating with them via their computers. An entity called "Jerry" who is going to pay them a visit that they might not survive.

Sphere is really the book that started my Crichton obsession. Prior to Sphere I had just engaged in a dalliance with Crichton. I'd read Jurassic Park for high school biology and Rising Sun for fun on vacation one year in Door County. I believe it was on that vacation that I picked up Sphere at this bookstore in Sister Bay that was noted for having a Piggly Wiggly as part of the same complex. Ironically I mentioned to a few family members that bookstore was still there and they totally remembered it more for the convenience of the Piggly Wiggly then anything else. Yet I remember it as the bookstore that over the years became a goldmine for Crichton's books. During that trip I was too engrossed in Rising Sun to start the new book, but when I finally did pick up Sphere it became my go-to Crichton book for many years.

The most successful of Crichton's books all deal with a small group of individuals in a remote location fighting to survive. Yet in his other books the threat is very defined. Jurassic Park and The Lost World have dinosaurs, Congo has Apes, Prey has nanotechnology. Clear, definable villains. Whereas Sphere... technically it's our own subconscious fears, but it's also the manifestation of these fears. The threat is far more amorphous, and therefore far more scary. Sphere, for all intents and purposes, is basically a haunted house story at the bottom of the ocean. All the manifestations can't be easily explained and slowly, one by one, people start to die. There are only a few survivors and the ending is left open to interpretation. If by this point you're not thinking of Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House I'd say there's something wrong with you. That urgency and fear that you only get when being told a particularly great ghost story, here it is hiding in the guise of a popular thriller.

But the book doesn't just dwell on supernatural fears, Crichton is able to work in technological fears as well. He would, of course, in later novels take this idea further, but I think it's the simplicity of how "Jerry" is handled that makes it all the scarier. Jerry as the ersatz voice of the threatening entity using the computer interface makes me think of WarGames. The truth is, no matter how technology has advanced, when one thinks of the world being destroyed by computers it all goes back to the simplicity of WarGames. A computer that is childlike in it's interactions, unable to grasp the result of these interactions, that is what our fear is, childlike ignorance. Sometimes simplicity is the best way to get a concept across. Not to say that either Sphere or WarGames is simple, but the underlying concept is and that's what makes for something lasting.

Despite the lure of the supernatural and the fear of the technological, I can't quite put my finger on why Sphere was and is so resonant with me; but it sends chills up my spine and has resulted in many a sleepless night. I can't count how many times I've read the book, yet if you were to ask me to summarize the plot in detail I don't think I could do it. Sphere leaves more images and impressions then anything. The phosphorescence of mysterious sea life as it appears outside the habitat. The ominous clanging that can only mean one more person is dead. That feeling that you are isolated from the whole world and no one is coming to rescue you. Delicious.

Sphere is like a fever dream more then anything else. There's a detachment coupled with a frenzy to live, yet after it is all over you can't quite remember how it ended. Think back to books you retreated into as comfort reads when you were sick. The book swirls around you and you are being entertained and comforted, yet at the same time you're not quite sure what is going on. There's characters, there's a narrative, yet there's your detachment. Re-reading this book after so many years while actually being sick heightened this feeling. The book was exactly as I had remembered it, yet totally different. Of all Crichton's works this one is the loosest and most open to interpretation. What really did happen? Only the dreamer knows.


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