Saturday, October 16, 2010

Jurassic Park

About a year before the movie came out, I read the Crichton novel Jurassic Park.  At the time, I had two things about it I didn't like.  One is simple: the character of the daughter had nothing to do and was totally boring.  (In the movie, they improved this somewhat by splitting up the traits of the son and giving half of them to the daughter.)  The other one I found hard to express, and when I tried, it never really worked.  So I thought I might make another try here.

Crichton does a fair amount of research into his subject matter before he writes, so he presents a number of interesting facts, so that while you're reading, you can even learn a few things.  But sometimes, and never as much as in this book, he uses this as a trick to make the made-up science that is the premise of the story seem more plausible.  He'll present a number of interesting facts in the text in a tone that telegraphs to the reader that these are real, honest-to-goodness, "you can look it up" bits of fact.  For instance, he talks about the number of bird species in Costa Rica, and tells a little about their status.  The reader definitely gets (correctly) the impression that these are real facts that the author researched before writing the book.  And then, without any transition (intentionally) and in the same voice, he slips into presenting his made-up, premise-of-the-book "facts" with just as much certainty, with a very real danger of giving the reader the impression that these, too, are real things.  It's a very effective technique for giving the reader the sense that the book's events are plausible, at the price of standing a very real chance of disinforming the reader.

When I describe this, everyone's reaction is to think I'm being absurd.  Virtually all science fiction does this.  There's always references to real facts mixed in with the made-up ones that are necessary to make the story go.  It's easy to take my criticism on the surface but there's a distinction that's harder to express that explains why Crichton is doing something that other authors usually don't do.

It's pretty subtle how it's done in most books, but there are subtle cues given about which things are real facts in the real world and which are invented for the book.  Sometimes it's as simple as quoting the pedigree of each fact: something attributed to Copernicus or Einstein is probably a real thing, and something attributed to Dr. Hans Freidrich of the University of New Berlin, Mars is probably not.  (In between, something attributed to "a long lost, forgotten paper by Einstein" is probably not real, too, and the reader knows this without having to think about it, it's just genre convention.)  In Golden Age science fiction it was very obvious due to the formula: in the first chapter, our plucky hero talks to the learned science professor, who explains the theory behind something that is going to coincidentally happen during the second chapter, and the professor spends half of his talk discussing the historical precedents (speaking of other scientists and their work) and the other half talking about his own personal theory, and the divide between real fact and premise of the story is made obvious.  In other books the distinction is far more subtly made using countless techniques that are somewhere below conscious observation, but which nevertheless serve to telegraph to the reader a usually clear divide between real world facts and ones the author made up for the story.  You don't notice yourself noticing, but when you come away from the book, if pressed, you could separate them out easily enough.

Since you don't notice yourself noticing, when Crichton deliberately (I assume) uses those same techniques to mislead you in the interest of making his books more gripping through a sense of plausability, you won't necessarily notice that he's done it.  And when you hear my criticism you'll think I'm being ridiculous, because you'll stick to the idea that every author juxtaposes real and fictional facts, but the real issue isn't that, but the technique (which I can't deconstruct exhaustively) by which everyone else separates them and he doesn't.

The book itself was entertaining and engaging (though inferior to the movie in almost every regard, in my opinion), despite this.  But I bet a lot of people came away from it thinking some things about genetics are true that are not, and more importantly, having no way to distinguish those from the real things they learned along the way.  Maybe this is no big deal.  Crichton never set out to teach a course on genetics.  So am I being a jerk for feeling like maybe he was doing the world a small disservice by muddying up the pool of scientific knowledge, so scarce already, possessed by the general public, for the sake of his own success?


Siobhan said...

I didn't read the DaVinci Code, but I know that a lot of people thought a lot of it was real. Do you know if there was a similar mixing of fact and fiction in that? Or were those people just completely nutters?

Hawthorn Thistleberry said...

There was some. But while Brown was positing a lot of things as real, he was also making at least some distinction between "and hardly anyone knows it, but this is real" and "and this is not only real but widely accepted and published fact" which is more what Crichton was doing.