The Great Train Robbery, Michael Crichton, Giving The Devil His Due

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Never let it be said that I won’t give the devil his due. Though I prefer not to.

Michael Crichton wrote some very good books, some even being candidates for having been transformative in the world of science fiction. He wrote Jurassic Park, after all. When I was in graduate school, Crichton was on Harvard’s “Vising Committee,” a gaggle of notables with some credentials who provided wise oversight of things, including the Anthropology Department. During this time he hob-knobbed with my at-the-time best friend and advisor, Irv Devore, so I was constantly hearing stories of how movies are actually produced, and such. Crichton was generous. A significant part of my graduate research in what is now PR Congo was funded from his pocket (along with NSF and other funds). Interestingly, the field site I worked at, along with a few dozen other scholars over a decade and a half, seems to have served as a model for much of the framework for his novel, Congo. We did not have odd apes or missing jungle fortresses, but we did experience many of the other things in the book, including pods of hippos, corrupt customs officials, and various jungley things.

Then Michael started to go off the rails. Or, maybe, he started to rub against a third rails (racism and feminism) and caught on fire, in a bad way.

In 1992, he wrote Rising Sun, which touched on Japanese-American relations and contrasts. It might have been insightful and informative. Or, maybe it was a poke in the eye to an emerging American liberal philosophy. One review noted, “he knew Rising Sun would ruffle feathers, the vehemence of the reaction came as a surprise. Challenges to his economic premise – that the United States is selling its future to Japan – failed to materialize. Instead, he recalls with obvious annoyance, American critics labelled him racist.”

We now, of course, recognize eye-poking “I was only asking questions” racism for what it is. Looking back, it seems a little like Crichton helped invent that. Indeed, Crichton’s published response to this criticsm, noted in his AP obituary (oh right, should mention that: he’s dead), included “because I’m always trying to deal with data, I went on a tour talking about it and gave a very careful argument, and their response came back, ‘Well you say that but we know you’re a racist.'” The Wikipedia article on this book, from which I liberally steal the quotes I’m using, notes that “Crichton has gone on record as saying that he intended his novel to be a “wakeup call” to U.S. industry and that he is more critical of the United States than Japan.”

The movie Rising Son met mid-level reviews, and re-ignited the discussion of anti-Asian racism.

Then Crichton really stepped in it when he wrote Disclosure in 1994. This was in a way the reaction by the established patriarchy to the very very early days of the #MeToo movement.

An all too common story is that a man rising in the ranks of power has some sort of initial relationship with a woman, he then exploits her and tries to force her to do his bidding, possibly in a sexual relationship, possibly in a professional setting, or possibly both. This is one of the things HR rules were designed to address.

In Disclosure, Crichton takes this issue head on as the central theme of the novel, but he reverses the sexes of the protagonists, and ends up with the rising woman harassing the poor hapless man. Of course, that happens. But that is an unusual reversal. Unusual reversals are great material in a novel, right? So when Crichton dreams up this scenario for his novel, later made into a movie, he is just being a clever author, right?

Well, one reviewer would not agree with that:

Towards the end of my review of Rising Sun, I said, “Michael Crichton was kind of an asshole, right? I’m not off-base in saying that?”. With his follow-up novel, Disclosure, I can, without reservation, firmly assert that I think Michael Crichton was unquestionably an asshole.

Disclosure … tells the story of Tom Sanders, a department head for Digicom… Sanders’ hopes for a big promotion are foiled by the hiring of Meredith Johnson, an old girlfriend and, now, new boss. On their first day, she sexually harasses him. On her second day, she maneuvers him into being late for a big presentation and accuses him of sexually harassing her. What follows is a convoluted part-time techno-thriller … that is equal parts sermonizing condescension and sexist proselytizing about the evils of women in the workplace.

God. Fuck this book.

My memory of the reception of this book, and the movie made out of it, conforms to this review. (I quickly note that the current Wikipedia page on Disclosure does not fully grok this problem. Any Wiki-writers out there want to look into this?)

Then in 2004, he went and wrote State of Fear. This novel was structured as a sort of documentary, with graphs and data and footnotes, and is a clear and absurd counter-argument over the reality and importance of global warming.

State of Fear was widely criticized by the community of climate scientists, scientific organizations, and science writers. To give a flavor, I’ll quote my friend Chris Mooney:

In the end, State of Fear bears little resemblance to Crichton’s most successful sci-fi thrillers, like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain. Instead, it’s far more reminiscent of Disclosure, Crichton’s perverse attempt to address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace by focusing on a case in which a woman harasses a man, rather than vice-versa. Similarly, in State of Fear the specter of a vast environmentalist conspiracy—a problem even less significant than sexual harassment of men by their female superiors—gets trumpeted while real concerns (climate change, for instance) get scoffed at. By the book’s end, one can only ask: What planet is Michael Crichton living on? Because this one is clearly getting warmer.

God. Fuck this book.

Crichton was not only on Harvard’s visiting committee, but he had been an anthropology major in my department, and his undergraduate senior thesis was to eventually turn into a novel, one I strongly recommend. That novel, Eaters of the Dead, was his 14th novel by most accounts, but it was really written far earlier as the thesis.

Published just before Eaters, was “The Great Train Robbery.” It is that novel to which I refer you now. The term “great train robbery” is confusing. There were more than one great train robberies. This one, the one in the Crichton novel, happened in England in 1855. Because the event, which really happened (and was known at the time as the “Great Gold Robbery”) involved the paraphernalia of burial of the dead, Crichton goes deeply into that practice as it was in the mid 19th century. The problem was, dead people regularly came back to life in those days, owing mainly to the preponderance of Type II errors in estimating a person’s live vs dead status. For that and other reasons, I found the novel really fun and interesting to read.

So all this leads us to this: At the time of this writing, and probably for about a day, the Kindle version of The Great Train Robbery is available cheap, for two bucks.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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Links to books and other items on this page and elsewhere on Greg Ladens' blog may send you to Amazon, where I am a registered affiliate. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, which helps to fund this site.

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One thought on “The Great Train Robbery, Michael Crichton, Giving The Devil His Due

  1. Rising Sun came out in 1992. The late ’80s and early ’90s were a time when people who should know predicted that Japan was about to eat America’s lunch, economically speaking. A prominent book of the time was The Japan that Can Say No (Simon & Schuster, 1991) So, whatever he did in his novel, Crichton had some basis for the theme.

    Not so with State of Fear — as you note. Here’s what I wrote about it, back in the day:

    Those interested in Crichton’s treatment of global warming can scroll down to the link “Bogus science in State of Fear

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