Thursday, December 30, 2004

States Of Fear, Bad Science And Perceptions Of Reality

The plethora of books one reads every year are not, for the most part, difficult to categorize as good, bad or ugly. The bad ones rarely get finished, and the time spent is considered wasted. The really good ones make one think, feel and wonder.

Michael Crichton's new book "State Of Fear" is an ambiguous book to review. It is in fact, a very good book hidden inside a bad one. The master of the application of bad science to thrillers excels in the creation of tense situations that are resolved more by intellect than any deus ex machina devices. The action shifts from place to place, yet retains a sense of unity of purpose and character.

The main thing wrong with the book is the character development. Most of the characters at one time or another merely quote long bodies of science, or pseudoscience, and the motivations of a few key characters are not clarified until it is too late to matter. Peter Evans, minutes away from death, professes his love for Sarah, yet keeps his distance from her for much of the book, seeming to fancy another character, Jennifer. Kenner's knowledge of many fields is set off against his inability to explain the conspiracy clearly to Peter. The deliberate attempt at rendering a political statement cum scientific polemic detracts from the action and distracts the reader.

Peter, an environmental lawyer is shaken out of his placid life by the disappearance of his primary client, a billionaire named George Morton with a certain resemblance to George Soros, in word and deed. He joins a couple of mysterious agents cum scientists in trying to thwart an eco-terrorism conspiracy to set off a series of climactic catastrophes around the world timed to coincide with a major environmental conference. Break-neck action and tense moments abound, although things are mostlyset right in the end, with a minor tsunami to boot. Along the way, the author paints almost the entire environment movement in as much of an unfriendly light as the movement itself characterizes big business. Many of the standard cliches about the environment are questioned, and it is made to appear as if the fears about global warming are unwarranted at best, and specious lies at worst.

It is not difficult to find crooks, bad scientists and unsavory characters in any movement, but that is no cause to doubt the ethics of the movement itself. This is similar to, say, considering all charities criminal because a few of them subvert public funds for 'uncharitable' purposes. As an author, Dr Crichton has the right to choose as crooked villains as his mind can dream up, and not introduce any other better representatives of the profession, but then he risks being classed a second-rate Sax Rohmer with stereotypical Fu Manchu-like characters rather than the masterful writer of good fiction he has shown himself to be.

The publishing company ran a game prior to publication wherein one had to visit a variety of websites scanning for codes and locations in Flash banners. Though this was quite cheesy at the time, reading the book now makes the clues more meaningful. Just for the record, here is the list of clues. This list alone, shows the breadth of the book, without giving away much of the plot.

2. Paris Nord, France
3. Pavutu, Africa
4. Pahang, Malaysia
5. Shad Thames, London
6. Tokyo, Japan
7. Vancouver, BC
8. San Francisco, CA
9. Point Moody, CA
11. Punta Arenas, Chile
12. Weddell Station, Antarctica
13. Beverly Hills, CA
15. Los Angeles, CA
16. Century City, CA
18. City of Commerce, CA
19. Diablo Canyon, AZ
20. McKinley State Park, AZ
21. Arroraville, AZ
22. Oakland, CA
23. BLUE
24. Santa Monica, CA
26. Resolution Bay, Gareda
27. Pavutu, Gareda

One of the key aspects of this book, apart from the scientific spin, is the concept of netwar - most resonant with the current War on Terror. This deals with the fear of governments in having to fight an amorphous, loosely connected enemy who changes and shifts focus, and is well-informed & well-funded. In this case, the eco-terrorists employ highly advanced methods to attempt to control the weather, and are tracked by highly covert methods with great difficulty.

Possibly the most compelling character is a USC Professor named Hoffman who puts forth the proposition that the environmental crisis supplanted the spectre of global communism as a means of social control by the 'PLM' or politico-legal-media complex. Sounding like a David Icke-clone, he makes quite a bit of sense in trying to show that state control of society depends on having sources of fear to manipulate the populace. Not a new idea, and one that saw it's most sinister application in the fascist regimes of the twentieth century, and indeed in the historicity argument of Marxism. Hoffmann's best line comes when he talks about 'whole sectors of society' living 'the life of the mind', supplanting universities, who, according to him, are 'the most restrictive environments in modern society' and 'factories of fear for the PLM'. Thus he adduces 'the nation that these institutions are liberal is a joke. They are fascist to the core...'

In effect, Dr Crichton's thesis is that the eco-crisis is a meme gone wild, an idea whose appeal is like that of a fad, fed by legions of academia, politicians and the media. He expands on the theme, directly to the reader at the end of the book, with a few appendices, and the line, possibly tongue in cheek that 'Everybody has a agenda. Except me.'

The science citations in the book are all real, but similar, contrary citations can be found easily enough - such as this one in the NY Times on Arctic warming. This serves to support Dr Crichton's additional thesis that 'all reality is media reality'. An example of good analysis of the pros and cons of one of his examples - the ablation, or lack of it, of glaciers - is shown by this homework assignment from the University of Cincinnati on global warming and the related course. Dr Crichton spends a lot of time in the book warning against allowing bias to affect our perception of reality, as in 'believing' that greenhouse gases primarily cause global warming, while ignoring the effects of urbanization. He fails to exclude bias himself, however, in his reasoning.

The challenge of separating out an individual issue like the question of whether global warming is indeed occuring from the larger pantheon of environmental issues such as pollution and depleting resources is not easy, and possibly pointless. Any person who has seen the pollution clouds of the uber-cities would agree that these are important problems which cannot be dismissed as mere gimmickry by a sinister cabal of environmentalists, determined to preserve their sinecures.

In the end, perhaps it is good that this book is shelved under fiction, for that is where it belongs, despite all the scientific efforts of the author. A thrilling read, with provocative ideas that should induce the reader to do some research of his own into an important subject, more relevant today with the signing of the Kyoto protocol and the recent disasters in Asia.


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Time traveler, world traveler, book reader