I finally got around to reading Michael Crichton’s posthumous novel Micro, finished after Crichton’s death by another popular sci-fi author Richard Preston. Since I first tore through Jurassic Park in 7th grade (more 20 years ago…yikes!), I have been a huge fan of Crichton’s imaginative worlds of science fiction. Not to mention that I was so inspired by Preston’s The Hot Zone that I entered the fields of infectious diseases and immunology for my career. So imagine my disappointment to discover that Micro is little more than a science-themed knock-off of the wacky Rick Moranis comedy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
I really don’t have any problem with the stretch-of-the-imagination scenario that scientists have created a magnet powerful enough to shrink anything–including humans. In fact, that sounds very Crichtonesque. He did manage to clone dinosaurs from ambered mosquitos and frog DNA after all. My disappointment lies more with who he decided to shrink, where it took place, and the utter hijinks that ensues.
First, the who. No, not the band, but a rag tag group of grad students from an unnamed university on Divinity Ave. in Cambridge, MA (ie. Harvard). How an ethnobotanist (studying medicines found in nature), an arachnologist (spiders), and entomologist (beetles), a botanist (plants), a biochemist studying pheromones, one studying venoms, and a student of scientific linguistics all end up working in the same lab is beyond me. Looking beyond that flaw, each of these students is uniquely suited to provide a distinct advantage in their shrunken wild world that the plot is essentially a paint-by-numbers. They come across the obligatory giant spiders and beetles, discuss how chemical signals called pheromones impact insect life, isolate venom from a bug to use as a weapon, and even cook up some curare all while arguing about the entire miniature scenario with each other.
Secondly, the where. Let’s take 7 grad students from Boston and plop them down in the rainforest of Hawaii, and of course they will know all of the insect and plant species they come across. I recognize the intelligence of the characters (it was hard not to), but I was also a grad student once. To get a Ph.D. one must become an expert on a very narrow, specific facet of what they study. For example, the entomologist may do research on one species of beetle and may spend years doing experiments to understand a single part of that beetle’s biology. The student wouldn’t necessarily know all 400,000 species of beetles on the planet, much less be able to identify the ones they come across as micro-humans in Hawaii.
Finally, the hijinks. I wanted to believe the characters’ motivations, but the dialog was just so poor. The villain was way over-the-top and the protagonist was killed half way through the novel–and not by a giant bug, but by being shot by a human. How boring. Between the giant insects and huge rain droplets a la Honey I Shrunk the Kids, plus hired hitmen and the only side effect of shrinking–a rapid onset disease similar to the bends, it wasn’t really a surprise that only 2/7 grad students managed to survive. But I was disappointed by how little I cared.
There was an opportunity to craft a compelling story of shrunken micro-humans and their fight to stay alive. To interject just the right amount of science to make it seem plausible without being absurd is Crichton’s forte. Instead, Micro fed us a bunch of pretentious students attempting to one-up each other in a strange new world. And in lieu of the science arising naturally through the story, the dialog force fed it to the reader. On top of it all, the last remaining students started the novel as rivals and ended up as lovers. This ain’t no rom-com.
I love Crichton and Preston, and I’m looking forward to reading Preston’s The Hot Zone sequel (though I reserve my right to determine if it’s nonfiction–check back to CMB), but they failed this one big–ahem, little–time.