From Jurassic Park to ‘Micro’ robots
Three years after the death of Michael Crichton, an American writer has completed his last book, a nanotechnology thriller called 'Micro', reports Philip Sherwell
Published 11/12/2011 | 06:00
When Michael Crichton died of cancer in 2008, the author left behind an unfinished manuscript on which he had been working feverishly, even as he received chemotherapy. He also left several pages of notes scrawled in two artist's sketchpads and on hotel stationery.
With those fragmentary clues and the guidance of Crichton's widow and his long-time personal assistant, a remarkable piece of literary detective work has been completed by another writer drafted in to a highly unusual posthumous collaboration.
The result is Crichton's 17th novel, Micro (see review on right). A bout the first third of the 424 pages were written by the bestselling science fiction author himself, the rest by Richard Preston, a former veterinarian turned novelist.
Set in the rainforest of Hawaii, the techno-thriller features murderous micro-robots, a villainous nanotechnology entrepreneur, and Harvard biology students shrunk to less than an inch tall and then exposed to the terrors of killer bugs, among other lethal threats of the natural world.
It is, in many ways, a miniature version of the man-versus-dinosaur scenario of the Crichton classic, Jurassic Park.
Preston, best known for his book The Hot Zone, the true story of an Ebola virus outbreak in Africa, was identified by Crichton's agent and publishers at HarperCollins for his background in science and bio-terror writing.
He was a long-time fan of Crichton, who also devised the long-running television hospital series ER, though the two had never met. But he was reluctant to try to replicate the voice and style of a writer who had sold some 200 million books worldwide, until he sat down with the partly written manuscript.
"I clearly sensed that this was a man in a race with death," Preston told the Sunday Telegraph in an interview. "He was writing at the top of his game and with great intensity, but also with a sense of uncertainty about whether he would finish the novel."
Once I read the pages, I wanted to follow him into the micro world. What he had written was fairly complete and it was terrific. But I felt like I was looking at a Swiss watch that was only one-third assembled and I had to put the rest together.
"It was pretty intimidating to be finishing a Michael Crichton novel with the quality that would have made him happy and would make his fans happy. It was almost a matter of ventriloquism and initially I was really not sure at first that I could pull it off."
Preston, who lives near Princeton, New Jersey, was invited to California by Sherri Alexander Crichton, who had been six months' pregnant with the couple's son when her husband died, aged 66.
There she presented him with the notebooks and hotel paper on which Crichton had jotted down thoughts and ideas for the book. "They were not the blueprint, but they were beautiful parts of the puzzle that I was facing," said Preston, although his first challenge was simply to decipher the terrible handwriting.
Some notes were obvious, such as which characters were to survive and who was to perish, and a list of confrontations with the terrors of the micro world such as tropical downpours, insects, birds and ants.
Others were more opaque. "Romantic?" was one, so Preston ensured there was a love interest.
"Odysseus/Polyphemus" read another, so he developed a plot line that mirrored the encounter in Homer's Odyssey.
There were other sources of help. He pored over the 75 books on Hawaiian flora and fauna assembled in the Santa Monica study of Crichton, who was famous for meticulously researching his projects. And he also turned to another inspiration for Crichton, Isaac Newton, using his equations on kinetic energy as a guide to the physical capabilities that the miniature humans should possess.
It turns out that tiny stature has its advantages under the laws of physics as the shrunken students could run much faster and jump much further, in relative terms, than full-size people.
Not that this saves several of them. Indeed, one problem that did not challenge Preston was describing in suitably chilling detail the horrendous demise of some of the students to soldier ants and venomous spiders.
"I love gruesome deaths and have specialised in them over the years. Michael Crichton liked grossing people out and I guess I share that quality."
Crucial input was also provided by Bonnie Jordan, Crichton's assistant. "She has a very keen sense of his voice," he said.
Jordan line-edited Preston's final version, eradicating all uses, for example, of "meanwhile" -- a word that she said her late boss hated.
Preston declines to say exactly where he picked up the prose. "I decided not to let people know where the sutures are as I think that will interfere with the magic of reading the book," he said.
And among the notes, he also found what appeared to be a dedication -- "For JR", underlined twice. "I phoned up Bonnie and we were wracking our brains trying to think of a friend or relative with the initials JR. And then it came to us both. It was for Junior, his unborn son. That was a very emotional moment."
Crichton, who was intensely private, only told his closest family when he was diagnosed with lymphoma in early 2008. Even when he was sick, he took his laptop to the hospital to work on Micro, which his wife said he viewed as one of his most significant works.
But his doctors had been hopeful for his prospects before he died, suddenly and unexpectedly, on November 4 -- possibly explaining why he had not entrusted his plans for the rest of the book to anyone.
He also left behind a finished book, Pirate Latitudes, which was published in 2009. And among his papers are other part-written works -- offering the tantalising prospect that he may continue to excite and thrill his readers from the grave.