Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book 13: Next by Michael Crichton

Sigh. I'm starting to fall behind in my reading. I'm gonna make excuses - working two jobs, planning a wedding, trying to get a third job, blah blah blah.


"Next" isn't a straightforward biotechno thriller like most of Crichton's work. Instead, it's a series of interweaving plotlines that almost reminds one of a Robert Altman movie. The overarching theme of the novel would be genetic experimentation/discoveries and all the moral/ethical/financial issues that they raise.

There are a ton of characters in the book, but a few major plotlines involve most of them. Rick Diehl is the founder of BioGen, a biotech research lab that has its hands in a few major developments such as patenting a "maturity" gene that causes drug addicts to straighten up & fly right and maintaining a line of cells that could potentially help to cure cancer. Those cells, however, came from a former leukemia patient named Frank Burnet, who did not know that his cells were being sold by his physician to BioGen. Burnet sues the company and loses; the judge rules that BioGen rightfully owns his cells. Meanwhile, Jack Watson, an investor with ties to BioGen, arranges for his ne'er do well nephew to sabotage the cell line at the lab in order to help Burnet... and also to help Watson be able to buy BioGen at a cheap price once their prize project goes belly up. However, this sabotage leads to Burnet's daughter Alex and grandson Jamie being chased by a bounty hunter. You see, they have the same cells as Frank, and since those cells were owned by BioGen, they were considered stolen property and the bounty hunter was called in to "reclaim" them.

There's also a story about Henry Kendall, a hapless scientist whose tinkering with genetic sequence insertion comes back to haunt him... in the form of a half-human, half-chimp son named Dave. Kendall's family takes Dave in, but his integration into human society comes with its own set of problems. Then there's Gerard, a smart but also smartass talking parrot given to quoting movies and songs. Gerard is another transgenic animal; human genes were inserted into his own as a baby bird and as a result, he thinks he's human and acts that way to his owner. Gerard's journey takes him from his home in France all the way to California, where the Burnet and Kendall storylines combine in a showdown with the bounty hunter.

There are a lot of other story lines that I'm leaving out, but those are the overarching plot lines. This book was very different from Crichton's usual fare. What stood out most to me was his attempts at humor and parody in the novel. Some of the characters were little more than stereotypes, and some were clearly meant just for entertainment, and not to move anything along. For example, there's a bit about a talking orangutan whose vocabulary is limited to French curse words. And a lot of Gerard's story is played for laughs. I'm not saying Crichton's other works are very dry and technical; it was just apparent here that he was going for laughs.

Woven between chapters were fake articles from magazines and newspapers talking about current events in science: evolutionary theories, discussions on gene patenting, a very sly commentary piece about artists jumping on the genetics bandwagon by using gene manipulation as artwork (like a dog that had the spines of a porcupine, if I recall correctly... shouldn't have taken my book back to the library so soon!).

I think Crichton meant not only to entertain with this book but to point out the dangers inherent in a new frontier of science. Plunging into a new field of exploration means making the rules up as we go, and Crichton asks, are we headed in the right direction? Should universities patent genes - can you own the right to something that is found in 100% of the population? Who really owns your cells once they leave your body - are they still yours, or are they "waste" and up for grabs? What about funding - what's more important to investors, safe products that garner effective results or the bottom line? According to Wikipedia, Crichton felt so strongly about these issues that he even gave a speech to Congressional staff members about the need to revise the laws that affect genetic research.

The book is supposedly being adapted into a movie. It'll be interesting to see how many stories get cut completely. Hopefully, it will be more "Nashville" than "Crash."

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