One discovery that I made as a teenager was a battered paperback novel with a skeletal dinosaur on the cover: Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton. I hadn't seen the film at that point, but I devoured the novel, aided by Crichton's lightning-fast prose and his descriptions of dinosaurs eating people. I moved onto the rest of his back collection: Timeline, Sphere, Congo, Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, electrified by his tales of science and where things went bad. Throughout my teenage years, a Crichton novel meant one thing: exciting entertainment.
John Michael Crichton was born on October 23rd, 1942, the first of four children. His father worked in the advertising industry, at one point the president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Crichton became interested in reading and writing at an early age, supported by his parents, who exposed him and his siblings to the arts. Favored books included William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. Starting in his teens, he wrote and submitted his own stories, including one published in the New York Times, and he worked to develop his writing skills at his high school and college newspapers.
Crichton attended Harvard University, where he initially studied English with the aim to become a writer. According to an article in Time, early on, one of Crichton’s professors criticized his writing style and goals: Harvard "was not the place for an aspiring writer, it was the place for an aspiring English professor." He shifted majors to anthropology, and graduated at the top of his class in 1964. After graduation, he was named a Henry Russell Shaw Travelling Fellow, and taught anthropology at Cambridge University in England before returning to the states to attend Harvard Medical School in 1966. While studying medicine, the urge to write called to him, and he returned to it. He published his first novel, Odds On, in 1966 under the name John Lange, and in 1967 he published Scratch One under the same name. In 1968, Crichton published A Case of Need under the name Jeffrey Hudson. Its story follows a doctor as he investigates the death of a woman following an abortion, which was illegal in the 1960s. The novel earned Crichton an Edgar Award for Best Novel the following year. Another John Lange novel, Easy Go, about an Egyptologist who discovers a hidden message in hieroglyphics, was also published in the same year.
Crichton graduated from Harvard Medical School 1969 with his M.D., spending the following year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk institute for Biological Studies. He was beginning to find that medicine wasn't for him: he was more interested in writing. He wrote at a tremendous pace, structuring his writing process for efficiency. After graduation from Harvard, he completed three more novels: Zero Cool and The Venom Business each appeared as John Lange, but the other, The Andromeda Strain, was the first to appear as Michael Crichton in 1969. It put his name on the map. Crichton had sent his early draft to Robert Gottlieb, a senior editor at Knopf books. Crichton mentions in an interview, which appears in The Paris Review Interviews Vol. 1, that "he said he would publish it if I would agree to completely rewrite it. I gulped and said OK. He gave me his feelings about what had to happen on the phone, in about twenty minutes. He was very quick. Anyway, I rewrote it completely."
Gottlieb convinced him that the key to the book was to write it factually, as if the actions were part of the real world. "Finally I began to think about what I would do if the story were real. Suppose this had actually happened and I were a reporter, what would my book look like? There was a book on my shelf at the time by Walter Sullivan called WE ARE NOT ALONE. I started thumbing through it, noticing the vocabulary, the cadences of nonfiction and how the structure of the sentences conveys a sense of reality that is not found in fiction."
The novel follows a group of researchers working to contain a lethal pathogen that came to Earth by way of a damaged satellite. The novel was an immediate hit, and established Crichton as an author of fast-paced, scientific thrillers. The Andromeda Strain was quickly optioned for film to be directed by Robert Wise, who directed such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still. The film hit theaters on March 12th, 1971, and was nominated for a pair of Academy Awards. During the production of the film, Crichton met an up-and-coming director named Steven Spielberg, who had been working as a director for Universal Television.
Crichton was busy at work, writing at a relentless pace. In 1970, he wrote a nonfiction book titled Five Patients: The Hospital Examined, as well as three more novels: Drug of Choice and Grave Descend as John Lange and Dealing: or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues along with his brother under the name Michael Douglas.
In 1972, Crichton directed a TV movie called Pursuit before completing another pair of novels: Binary as John Lange, and a new technological thriller, The Terminal Man. The novel was simultaneously published in the March, April, and May issues of Playboy Magazine. The story involves a computer scientist who suffers from debilitating seizures that prompt violent rages. Fitted with a device in his brain to control the seizures, the scientist becomes a cautionary tale against men and machines in a modern Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. Crichton noted that it was partially inspired by a patient he once saw, but that of all his works, it was his least favorite, and required nine separate drafts.
Beyond writing novels, Crichton became heavily involved in the adaptations of his own works, often contributing to screenplays or writing them himself and even sitting behind the camera as a director. In 1973, he wrote and directed his first science-fiction film, Westworld, a movie about a futuristic theme park staffed by robots in the ultimate wish-fulfillment story. The film was notable less for its story and more for its pioneering digital effects. The film was a moderate hit, and earned Crichton further credit as a director and screenwriter.
Crichton worked on a number of other projects besides his thrillers: he turned to historical fiction in 1975's Great Train Robbery (he would direct the film adaptation in 1978); a retelling of Beowulf in Eaters of the Dead; and a nonfiction book about artist Jasper Johns in 1977. He directed his second film, Coma, in 1978. A bout of writer's block sidelined him for a couple of years before he returned once more to the technological thrillers for which he was becoming known. In 1980, he published Congo, about an expedition to the Congo in a modern day version of King Solomon's Mines by Sir H. Rider Haggard. Crichton pitched the story to 20th Century Fox, who offered a $1.5 million dollar advance. The film stalled in the 1980s, and it would be nearly 15 years before it would be produced.
Crichton took another extended break from writing as he directed a couple of additional films: Looker (1981) and Runaway (1984). He returned to fiction in 1987, completing a long-gestating project that he began almost 20 years earlier, Sphere. The book is about a psychologist named Norman Johnson who was recruited by the U.S. Navy to investigate a spaceship discovered on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and the strange effects it had on its investigators.
For his next book, Crichton picked up another long-running project, a screenplay about recreating dinosaurs using genetic engineering. As noted on Crichton’s official website: "I wrote a screenplay about cloning a pterodactyl from fossil DNA in 1983, but the story wasn't convincing. I worked on it for several years since, trying to make it more credible." The story changed over time, eventually including a theme park in which the dinosaurs were created for the public's amusement. His early readers hated the story, and it wasn't until he switched the point of view from a child to an adult that it began to take off. While he was working on the novel, he was collaborating with Spielberg on a screenplay for a television show about a hospital. Spielberg asked him what he was working on: "I'm writing this thing about Dinosaurs and DNA,” he said. “My eyes went wide, and I coaxed the rest of it out of him," Spielberg notes on the Jurassic Park DVD. He began thinking seriously about how a movie would be made out of the project.
Crichton released Jurassic Park in November 1990, and it became an immediate bestseller and the novel for which Crichton is best known. The book followed paleontologist Alan Grant and his graduate student Ellie Sattler as they are brought in to consult on the park before it opened. A saboteur shuts down the park's defenses, allowing the cloned dinosaurs to roam free, and the team races to escape from the park's more dangerous offerings. Spielberg acquired the rights to the book before it was published, bringing on Crichton to write the screenplay. The film began production in 1992, and the film was released in June of 1993, when it became one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Crichton earned a significant advance for the options, as well as a portion of the film's proceeds.
The success of Jurassic Park prompted Crichton to pen a sequel in 1995. He considered it a challenged to work within the constraints of one of his own worlds. The Lost World, named for Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel of the same name, saw a return to dinosaurs, but on a different island, as a team from InGen travels to an alternate site to investigate the status of the ecosystem there. They discover that the dinosaurs have adapted well to the island. The novel was published with much fanfare and Knopf printed a record two million copies for the book's release. An adaptation of the novel was again helmed by Stephen Spielberg, although it differed significantly from the original novel.
Crichton’s next science-fiction thriller was Timeline, in which he tackled a long-standing science-fiction trope, time travel. The story follows a group of graduate students who are sent back in time to rescue their professor. In 2002, Crichton wrote Prey, which dealt with the arrival of nanotechnology. Crichton's 2004 novel, State of Fear, is one of his more controversial works (earlier novels such as Rising Sun and Disclosure drew their own complaints). Upon publication, it drew criticism from climate scientists over Crichton's views about climate change. In it, ecoterrorists plot several disasters aimed at drawing attention to their cause. In 2006, his next novel, Next, returned to the subject of genetic engineering and biotechnical research. Crichton drew fire for using the name of one of his critics as the character of a pedophile in the novel.
Next was Crichton's last novel published during his lifetime. In 2008, Crichton died due to complications from cancer at the age of 66. His long career as a novelist was hardly over: while examining his notes, his staff discovered several unpublished books. The first, a nearly completed manuscript called Pirate Latitudes, had been in the works for decades, and was published in 2009. The workings of another novel was discovered, "scrawled in two notebooks and on scraps of hotel stationary," according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, and required more work. Crichton had been working on Micro since 2001, continuing his notes while he was hospitalized. To complete the book, Crichton's estate brought in a number of other authors, eventually settling on Richard Preston, known for his nonfiction thriller The Hot Zone and fictional The Cobra Event, to write it. Working with Crichton's former team, Preston finished the novel and it published in 2011. While nothing else has been published, additional projects have been hinted at, so don’t be surprised to see another Michael Crichton novel at some point in the future.
Crichton's works are notable for their popularity, something he was often uncomfortable with. He noted that among literary circles, he was dismissed for his use of science; in scientific circles, he was dismissed for his fantasies. Nonetheless, his stories became extremely popular in the four decades that he published his books, often aided by film adaptations. Crichton tapped into a cultural worry about technology: his fast-paced thrillers often looked at the limits of where technology was headed and the ways in which it was used, as well as the tendency for its abuse at the hands of larger organizations and companies concerned more with profit than with ethics. Yet, while he sought to make his books as realistic as possible, his works never strayed far from a commercial template that was guaranteed to entertain the general public. He also brought common science-fiction tropes, such as genetic engineering, time travel, cyborgs and nanotechnology, into the wider reading audience.
Crichton's books have remained popular, and continue to be adapted into film and television projects. A third installment of the Jurassic Park franchise appeared in 1997, and a fourth, Jurassic World, directed by Colin Trevorrow, is due out in June of 2015. Later this year, Crichton's film Westworld is due for an update at the hands of HBO. Both projects bear the hallmarks of Crichton's works: they’re dark, thrilling stories of technology and its misuse.