Book review: State of Fear, by Michael Crichton

I first posted this review of State of Fear in 2009—by coincidence, shortly after Michael Crichton’s death. I have made some minor edits from the original to improve readability and to reflect some subtle shifts in my thinking in the intervening 4+ years. My views on the whole, though, have not changed substantially since this review’s initial publication.

Moderate plot spoilers for State of Fear follow.

When the mysterious Professor John Kenner first requests a meeting with billionaire environmentalist George Morton, Morton’s lawyer, Peter Evans, thinks little of it. But after the meeting, Morton’s behavior changes drastically. He disappears for days at a time, and he begins questioning his current pet project: a lawsuit against the United States for its involvement in global warming. When Morton dies in a car crash, Evans finds himself propelled into the midst of an environmental terrorist plot which will shake him to the very foundations of his beliefs.

I have mixed feelings about State of Fear. The plot is decent, not extraordinary; enough to keep the reader interested but not enough to carry the story all by itself.

The book’s real strength is in its discourse, and even there, it’s only a partial success. The many lectures on environmental science and on power structures are among the best and worst aspects of the book.

Many environmentalists will no doubt be infuriated by Crichton’s skepticism of global warming (or global climate change as it is more accurately known). Personally, I do not agree with many of Crichton’s conclusions (rightly or wrongly), but I feel many of his arguments have at least some merit.

The book’s Wikipedia entry contains links to several pages which will dispute the scientific points Crichton makes in his novel. But I’ve also run into other people in recent years criticizing the science behind climate change. What struck me after the first such instance was that I, personally, am in no position to evaluate the science of climate change. I don’t know it or understand it enough to have an informed opinion.

As Crichton points out, there’s a lot we don’t know about how our planet works, and that includes climate science. He obviously has made up his own mind that climate change is not a significant danger and, unfortunately, ends up imposing that interpretation upon the story. He begins by saying “we just don’t know enough about the Earth to evaluate whether climate change is really a serious threat or not,” but by the end the message has morphed into “there is no serious danger of climate change at all.” This not only undermines the original point he established, but is a much weaker one. (Certainty in general is a more difficult argument to make than uncertainty.) I think he’d have done his case more good to leave it at saying climate change is not a certain thing, and including his own belief that it likely isn’t a problem, than trying to force that conclusion onto the reader.

However, Crichton still has some insights that should make environmentalists, progressives, and radicals take note. First there’s the arrogance. A major point he raises is we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. But he also aptly displays our unfortunate habit of assuming we know what’s going on, we know what’s best, we know what needs to be done, we know better than everyone else. Am I the only one who spots the conservative stereotypes being spun right back at us?

The character of Ted Bradley beautifully illustrates the arrogance and racist romanticism of Western progressives’ ideas of life in “underdeveloped” nations. (Granted, a lot of the more “logical” characters’ responses are equally biased and problematic, but that doesn’t negate the point.)

And then, of course, there’s the young eco-terrorist who excuses his actions by saying “We’re trying to save the planet!” And his justification for implementing a plan that hinges upon getting several hundred people killed? “Casualties are inevitable in accomplishing social change. History tells us that.”

Along with the arrogance goes close-mindedness. My creative writing teacher in college 1st year once remarked that “liberals are very close-minded,” and she had a point. Crichton illustrates this fact with the various characters’ knee-jerk attempts to dismiss evidence that conflicts with their worldview (in this case, their ideas about climate change) as propaganda manufactured on behalf of industry or some ultra-right wing conspiracy. In other words, their instinctual reaction when confronted with evidence which calls their beliefs into question is to dismiss it out of hand. Do I detect another conservative stereotype being thrown back in our faces?

Best of all, there’s the lecture by Professor Hoffman where he explains the politico-legal-media complex. Hoffman’s analysis of this entity, its purpose, its methods, and the “state of fear” it intentionally creates to further its own selfish interests is correct almost down to the last detail. His worst slip-up is failing to include big business; corporations (and not just industrial corporations) in his list. The big companies have just as much to gain from the “state of fear” as the government and the judicial system (and they own the major media outlets, anyway).

Unfortunately, Crichton’s (and thus, his characters’) obsession with climate change muddies the message. The way Hoffman and Kenner hurl accusations against climate change activists seems to suggest they don’t realize that if the PLM didn’t have climate change to manipulate people into submission, it’d use something else. The powers that be are doing far too well staying the course while the rest of humanity suffers (and occasionally prospers) just to give up because their prime source of fear has dried up. To modify a line from James Donovan: “If there were no existing crisis to terrify the people, the establishment would have to invent one.” Hoffman’s allusion to the transition from Cold War to climate change as main focus for the “State of Fear” suggests he knows the truth, but this quickly gets overshadowed by his and Kenner’s rhetoric about the Great Climate Change Deception.

Ending the threat of climate change (whether real or only imagined) will not put an end to the horrendous loss of human life that Hoffman and Kenner lament—only dismantling the diseased politico-economic structures which are the source of the titular “state of fear” will do that.

One more positive piece of discourse: As Morton points out at the end, environmentalist groups have been assimilated into the establishment and are, therefore (to an extent at least), now part of the problem. In many ways, the cooptation of environmental groups mirrors the cooptation of labor unions a century earlier. True, the unions’ ostensible purpose should put them in direct conflict with the establishment, but they’ve been built within a framework which requires the establishment’s existence, even if it’s only as antagonist. In much the same way, national militaries require a national enemy (usually external) to validate their own existence. So the labor unions, and the environmental groups, have a vested interest in keeping the structures which necessitate Crichton’s state of fear in place.

At other times, though, the discourse is less successful. Ted Bradley is obviously too hard-headed to accept even the idea that climate change is unproven. After his first argument with Kenner, the reader has got the formula down cold. Bradley is the straw man, continually offering up weak arguments about climate change as well as other Euro-American myths about the “natural” world for Kenner to knock down, but not satisfied with Kenner’s arguments no matter how strong they are.

By the end of it, the reader is left feeling nostalgic for Kenner’s conversations with Evans and Sarah, problematic though they were. It’s painful to watch Bradley go up against characters like Kenner, Sanjong and even Henry, knowing full well he’s going to be steamrollered. At least Evans and Sarah were capable of intelligent discourse, rather than sticking to dogmatic drivel.

In “The Science of Science Fiction Writing,” author James Gunn cites rationalist Isaac Asimov as saying that generally his (Asimov’s) villains were as rational as his heroes. Asimov’s reasoning, as quoted by Gunn, runs as follows: “If it were a western, where everything depends upon the draw of the gun, it would be very unsatisfactory if the hero shot down a person who didn’t know how to shoot.” There’s a lesson in there Michael Crichton would’ve done well taking to heart.

The other problem with using Bradley as the main voice of opposition for the last part of the book is that since Bradley is so extreme in his views, Kenner and the other author surrogates end up taking the opposite extreme. Bradley has a romantic view of native life, native villages, and native peoples. In seeking to prove Bradley wrong, Crichton has his characters cite the most horrific counter-examples he can find … thus giving the impression that all village life is savage and terrible, and the backward villagers would much rather live in cities/be better off with a Western education.

… In other words, in his attempts to puncture the “Noble Savage” myth, Crichton makes himself into a colonial and neocolonial apologist. (Crichton neglects to mention that the misery of modern village life is partially due to centuries of past colonial oppression as well as present neocolonial economic oppression—often aided and abetted by the local governments; Crichton is correct that you can’t put all the blame on the Big Bad West.) This colonial-era racism is even more blatant when you consider that the only person of color on the protagonists’ side is so thoroughly Westernized that the book makes a point of mentioning his British accent. Contrast with the ultra-traditionalist natives of Gareda Island who hate white people and eventually eat Ted Bradley (as heavily foreshadowed earlier in the book). Yes, the racial politics in this book are really that bad.

The only other notable characters of color in the book are a femme fatale in the beginning, and Henry, the educated islander. On the one hand, he has a Western education, and argues for the benefits of, essentially, Western civilization over native savagery. On the other hand, he apparently betrays the main characters to the savages in question (or something). I’ll leave it to the reader to make up their own mind what all that is supposed to signify.

And on top of all that, some of the discourse (mostly the scientific lectures) is just plain boring.

Okay, that’s probably more than enough of that, let’s talk about the story.

Like I said, the plot is decent but hardly thrilling. Basically, it involves Evans, Sarah (Morton’s secretary) and Kenner, traveling around the world like James Bond thwarting the dastardly schemes of the Environmental Liberation Front. The tension is occasionally exciting, and some of the conventions—such as the mini-octopus as assassination tool—are compelling enough to keep a modicum of interest, most of the time.

Peter Evans is a bland character, with such traits as his weak-willed manner and somewhat quirky love life doing little to flesh him out. He’s okay as a protagonist, though the part where he contemplates the moral implications of Kenner having killed three eco-terrorists and concluding “Screw ’em,” irked me.

His reasoning runs thusly: “There were bad people in the world. They had to be stopped.” From there, Evans and Crichton immediately jump to the conclusion that “stopping” said “bad people” can only mean killing them, without even considering the possibility of another alternative. It’s an outrageously narrow-minded and self-serving position to take. Yes, killing is wrong, but they’re the bad guys, so that makes it okay.

Granted, this facile and, if you think about it, downright terrifying reasoning for ejecting some human lives from the moral universe is a staple of Western culture, and hardly unique to Crichton*. Still, given all Crichton’s moralizing elsewhere in the book, the fact that he not only concludes “some people just need to be killed,” but utterly fails to explore the implications of who gets to make that call and by what authority and by what means their unworthiness for continued existence may be established is even more reprehensible than in most such cases.

*Brandon Sanderson’s second “Mistborn” book, The Well of Ascension and the climax of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins are two face-palmingly blatant examples from recent years.

Sarah is also fairly dull; her most interesting moments come during the action sequences. The relationship between her and Evans is the painfully standard romance you can find in practically any Western literature.

George Morton is an eccentric gentleman, and probably my favorite character in the book. A well-intentioned person, he’s apparently far enough removed from Crichton himself that the latter can bear to portray his hypocritical side, which adds dimension to the character. His ambitious plans for the future outlined at the end of the book at least somewhat make up for Kenner’s extreme pessimism (more on that in a minute).

Morton’s idea for an environmentalist group “Study the Problem and Fix It,” is not only amusing, but it raises some important philosophical points. The idea of an organization whose purpose is to work itself out of a job certainly has merit—better that than an organization which stagnates by an obsession with continuing its existence over and above fulfilling its’ mission statement.

Nicholas Drake is a two-dimensional villain: he has to raise a certain amount of money for his organization to keep his salary. He probably believes in the threat of global warming, too, despite all the counter-evidence in Crichton’s universe. Ideologues can be like that. However, the question of what Drake believes doesn’t come up either way. The fact that this aspect of his motivation is apparently insignificant to the story indicates the extent of his characterization. When I first began to suspect Drake would turn out to be a villain, I hoped that at least he would retain some amount of character beyond simply being the opposition for our intrepid heroes. No such luck. Crichton could’ve learned a thing or two from Dan Brown.

Ted Bradley is an obnoxious, self-satisfied, sexually harassing jerk and perhaps worst of all, is convinced he knows The Truth. In other words, he’s probably the most multi-dimensional character in the book. Sure he’s flawed and dangerously naïve (or arrogant, or both), but he also genuinely cares about the good of the planet and of his fellow human beings. In other words, he’s a lot like most real life heroes, villains, and people who are morally neutral. And unlike his fellow rich environmentalist Ann, he had the courage or conviction or both to stick with the main characters even after learning about the cannibal natives. I dunno that I liked him, exactly, but he was an interesting character and I didn’t want him to die, if only because he’d already taken so much flak as Crichton’s Straw Environmentalist punching bag already. Which, of course, is why Crichton killed him off and no one else. A little vindictive there, Mike?

In a note at the end, Crichton says that a book where “so many divergent views are expressed, may lead the reader to wonder where, exactly, the author stands on these issues.” That note led this reader to wonder who, exactly, the author thinks he’s kidding. John Kenner is obviously Crichton’s mouthpiece in State of Fear, in much the same way that Socrates was Plato’s in the latter’s famous dialogues. Except that Crichton is no Plato, and he doesn’t pull it off nearly as well. Socrates the character is pretty cool, Kenner is … a Mary-Sue; he’s clearly only there to be the stick with which Crichton bludgeons his view of reality into the other characters, and the reader.

Even this might not be so bad, except that Crichton sacrifices characterization for discourse. Kenner is not only Better Informed Than Thou, he’s also Holier Than Thou, “I have an apartment … I do not own a car. I fly coach.” Wait, I thought you were the one who didn’t believe climate change was a real danger, so why not own a car? But anyway, while Crichton is right to point out that celebrity environmentalists can be very hypocritical, it’s not like the rest of us are pure as snow, either. We all have flaws, including Crichton, and (if he were a real person) including Kenner. But no, Kenner in the book is blissfully free of any intentional character faults.

All that aside, I spent the last third of the book hoping desperately for Kenner to be wrong. Not about his views on climate change, I knew Crichton was too wedded to his mouthpiece on that score, but about something, anything. But no, Kenner, it appears, had to be completely right about absolutely everything.

And to top it all off, he’s so damn negative. His little speech to Bradley towards the end about everything you do having unexpected, negative consequences was supposed to be an argument for cost-benefit analyses, but it came off sounding more like “Nothing you do can ever really make things better because any positive changes you make will be balanced out by negative changes somewhere else” the implied corollary being “so why bother trying?” Again, I’m sure that wasn’t what Crichton meant to say, but it’s what he said. Thank goodness for Morton.

Sanjong is Kenner’s token POC, good little colonized sidekick. That pretty much covers the extent of his personality. At least he didn’t die, though. Or turn out to be evil.

Bottom Line: There’s some good discourse in here (even if I disagree with a lot of it) but it’s often mishandled, and the plot and characters are too generic and mediocre to carry the story by themselves. A good time-waster, but if you’re looking for a thrilling narrative, compelling characters, or deeply thought-provoking philosophical arguments, I advise you to keep looking.

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