Saturday 11 April 2015

Not A Review Of Michael Crichton's 'Prey'

In Spain my Dad gave me a Micheal Crichton book called 'PREY -

(To be Human.. is to be Hunted.) I started reading in the airport while we were waiting for a plane home.

We were half way through the flight when my girlfriend remarked that I was 200+ pages through the book. She was reading Nabokov and was (I think) about 40 pages into it.

I said 'yeah but its Micheal Crichton so its designed to be easy to read'.

Which is interesting.

In his writing style, almost no idea or action is implicit. Every single thing that the narrator says or does has a clear and explicit structure of thought and experience behind it.

This is most obvious when talking about the technological mystery in the book. The narrator has to solve a difficult problem in adventurous circumstances. To do this he has a number of directly technical conversations with work colleagues.

The presence of these conversations in a book is a kind of cultural marker for the kind of book it is. Like, someone going into work, speaking to a co-worker and saying: "Yes, slot A is wrongly configured. We should to change the shape. What kind of shape do you think is best?"

"Well I think this triangular shape would work well because of the following reasons.."

This is the kind of conversation that takes up a meaningful part of each persons waking life and which are almost unimaginable in a work of modern literature. You can't have people go into work and just talk about work.

You can but it has to have a subtext. "It is good that you have finally learnt the details of baking and are baking good loaves in the following way.."

"Yes the theme of bread was introduced with my relationship to my mother in chapter one and after the failure of my advertising company and return to my home town my mastery of the baking process  became symbolic of my personal re-growth based on a new sense of selfhood gathered from my re-integration with my family history."

"Yes this bread has several meanings to it and therefore all that talk about yeast in chapter three is now validated as having a meaningful artistic reason and not just nerdy bullshit about baking."


(Or you can probably do it when its a Zadie Smith thing and its like "So Harvard Colleague, I hear your field of study in **human-culture-subject-A** has thrown up some radical yet topical opinions."

"Yes, Oxford Colleague, let us discuss this field of study in depth for it mirrors YET ALSO COMMENTS UPON cultural shifts in the wider world.)

So people talk-about-the-problem in a very talk-about-the-problem way. The way you might at work with a new colleague, or with someone with whom you do not share a first language, in a slightly over-clear over-emphasised manner.

"Due to your background in developing parallel processing you will understand the nature of this programming challenge."

"Yes I do, and will re-describe it in my internal narrator voice with a brief reference to the history of the topic."

The book is in first person, but when secondary characters walk off screen and do something important to the plot the narrator will confirm their exact actions, either by talking to them in the story and saying something like "what were your actions?" or by commenting he has 'reviewed the tapes' or 'talked to her after the event'.

(People lie in the book, but its rare that they lie and the narrator does not get a 'funny feeling'. I think they never lie without the narrator being suspicious of them already or being made suspicious of them by the lie. A lie exists to be found. Like a trap in D&D in part exists to be found. A trap in a dungeon that you can never find, intuit, predict or understand is a bad trap. It has no story potential.

Old-school games push this pretty far towards the traps being very hard to find but still you can always possibly find the trap. I have never read the phrase "this trap is undetectable" in a module or adventure.

So the discontinuity in the system, the trap in the dungeon, the lie in the Micheal Crichton story, is not truly what it is. It is an inverted symbol of a thing. In real life we lie to get away with things and set traps to be invisible to the target but in stories and games often the failure of this trap or lie is the reason it is in the fiction.)

This armature of certainty exists at ever level of the book. Right down to the basic text. Each sentence is a clear description of event with the circumstances locked in.

"It was ten minutes after the swarms had gone and we were all standing in the storage room. The whole group had gathered there, tense and anxious."

"Having watched Julia's demo tape, I was immensely curious to see what he showed me next. Because many people I respected thought molecular manufacturing impossible."

"With the vibration of the helicopter, I must have dozed off for a few minutes. I awoke and yawned, hearing voices in my headphones. They were all men speaking:"

"It was a warm evening and we had dinner in the backyard. I put out the red-checkered tablecloth and grilled the steaks on the barbecue, wearing my chef's apron that said THE CHEF'S WORD IS LAW, and we had a sort of classic American family dinner."

We were all standing in the storage room - the whole group
I was immensely curious - because people I respected
helicopter - headphones - voices - men speaking
the voices were men, speaking
warm evening - backyard dinner - grilled steaks - chefs apron - classic American family dinner
It was a classic American family dinner.


The cognitive load of most Micheal Crichton sentences are almost exactly the same. Everything is what it is. It runs through your mind like smooth directly-stated ticker tape. That's why you can read it almost five times faster than Nabokov. It's designed to be read that way. To be clear.

This extreme clarity and directness is exactly the kind of thing you are not necessarily meant to do in Art. In Art each sentence and paragraph would have an individual cognitive load and the subtlety of that load is part of how we judge its quality.

A while ago on G+ there was a conversation about art and popular culture and I came up with an idea that I think was something like this:

Some people draw joy, pleasure, from the closeness, interconnectedness and familiarity of their ideas. Therefore, for them, a family drama in the present day is an ideal form of entertainment as all the ideas are directly relateable. They have a strong background of knowledge about families and therefore can energise the work more powerfully as they can increase the interconnections between ideas. It's literally more powerful for them, like a different thing is happening in their brain when they read. Beauty is different for them.

Others draw more power from the distance between ideas and the tenuousness of the connection between them. So the further apart two concepts are, (and I mean here across every aspect of the created thing from general themes to stylistic tricks to detail and observation, everything) but the further apart they are, the greater the charge when they are meaningfully connected. So to push an idea further is always good.

I imagine these two states of being as, on one side, a closely interconnected Archipelago, with everyone trading and making and conversing and swapping cultures, then on the other, some distant exploration-obsessed island, sending out single ships on wild expeditions to unknown lands and cold seas, waiting years for each message or report to return, each report being stranger than the last.

Or like a closely interconnected interplanetary civilisation, a knot of lights around a star, verses an world obsessed with interstellar exploration, sending out long range cryo-ships on eons-long expeditions.

I think that part of what Micheal Crichton is doing with his fiction is building this very-certain, very-explicit ladder or web of association, so that when we reach the strange bit at the end, the hard to believe bit, there is a relentlessly clear sequence of actions and discussions which make every single thing explicitly possible.

Like, you could stand up in court and argue the events of a Micheal Crichton book with the description of the Micheal Crichton book. Everything backs everything else up.

I like this.

It robs me of nothing, and its an interpretation of something I love (weird nanite hive minds, secret labs, nerds solving impossible problems) written explicitly for people who are not minded like I am. The people who would read about the nanites and get nervous, or feel like they were lost, people for whom there would be no pleasurable release of cognitive energy, have that solid banister or safety rail of clear description there for them. Everything can be explained, everything leads neatly to everything else.

This isn't about intelligence.

You are all skilled at reading. You probably got rewarded for it at school. Not only are you skilled at it but you are good enough at it that you can easily draw pleasure from it. The difficulty of normal writing, like this blog post, is not hard enough for it to be meaningful. It's like walking for you.

And you probably work in a nerd industry or in one of the culture fields where reading and comprehension ability is essentially like fitness for an athlete. You just have to have it and to have it at a high level to be in that industry or to do that job. You probably aren't fully aware that reading is a high level skill for you, any more than someone who went straight from school to athletics in college then to a professional sports team is fully aware that a high standard of fitness defines almost their entire social group. You know it but you don't feel it because that's just your world.

I've had a bunch of jobs and most have been shit. many have been hard. Sometimes they were hard like being punched in the face is hard but sometimes they were hard like a maths puzzle is hard.

I wasn't very good at most of those jobs. Its rare that I wasn't the most well-read person on the team. Where an aspect of the job was intellectually difficult (judging someones credit score against their payment history and inferred social background, assessing a claim for tens of thousands of pounds in charges against a chain of ten or more interacting accounts across 15 years and responding in a multi-page letter with interlocking calculations with 100% not-a-comma-wrong accuracy) I was rarely the best at it. I was usually in the middle of the field.

It's interesting to be clearly and obviously out-performed at something intellectually complex by a very pleasant person who thinks Dan Brown is 'a cracking read'. Its interesting for it to happen multiple times. I kind of suspect it isn't something that happens much to most people reading this. We get sorted in school into the social groups we will spend time with, the 'good readers' make lives, find careers and spend time with the good readers. The only time they bump into the non-good-readers after that is usually around an inter-departmental meeting in work, or at weddings.

So I suppose I got a decent education in not confusing reading level with moral decency, problem solving ability, data processing, social awareness, group management, accuracy or mathematical fluency, which are all qualities the workplace gives a lot more of a shit about than reading ability. (Except for moral decency, which is more of a liability in business really.)

When I say that Micheal Crichton or Dan Brown are writing with deliberate and continually re-stated clarity, that they are writing for people with (compared to me) poor reading skills, I don't consider it anything like an insult because I've met these people and seen them be better than me at a whole bunch of stuff.

So the presence of fiction like this on the best seller lists means a very different thing to me than it does to someone who has spend their entire life exposed mainly or entirely to a high-reading-level social circle. For them, reading level and reading fluency is a primary shibboleth, status symbol and illustration of personal and cultural competence. Its a world where to say that someone has read and enjoyed the wrong book is literally to degrade them. For them, seeing bad fiction on a popular list is like bumping into a crowd of people who proudly state that they fuck pigs.

For me it just means normal people are reading books. I'm glad they are. It's like a semi-professional footballer watching a bunch of people kick the ball around on a Sunday in the park. I don't feel like their poor football skills are bringing down the quality of my game because for these people, the choice isn't between reading Crichton and Nabokov but between Crichton and Television. I'm glad they got out of the house.

I'll be sad when there are no simple writers on the best seller lists because it won't mean that the general public has been uplifted to the UberSphere of Artistic Reading. It will just mean they have stopped entirely. Fiction will undergo a general rise in relative quality, shrink in audience, lose raw creative drive, and become a kind of boutique pursuit for members of the upper middle class.


  1. I suspect the lie that exists to be found (or the trap that exists to be detected or set off) differs from the implicit or "literary" narrative where the dream (or by extension, the fiction itself) exists to be interpreted. One presents "a cracking read" and the other provides different pleasures in relation to the reader. Several of your points remind me of this old discussion:

    Which Nabokov?

    1. Thanks. I was hoping for the particular book . . . cheers though!

    2. Ahhh, sorry. i can't quite remember and my girlfriend has it. Will try to find out.

  2. I find that Clavell (Noble House, Shogun, et. Al.) straddles that line where concrete first one thing and then the next writing can be ambigous and literary.

  3. Great post. I will probably reference it in my in-progress post on R. A. Salvatore...

    1. This:

      In this post, you discuss Art, but largely equate it with Entertainment. I would argue that the two are somewhat opposites. Generally, the more one's work approaches Art, the more it actually says something real, the less it is likely to be appreciated as Entertainment...