Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jurassic Park, Part I

Title: Jurassic Park
Author: Michael Crichton
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (1990)

Michael and I are once again bringing you the joint post series you've come to know and love. This selection is a personal favorite of mine and, in celebration of my deep and abiding affection for Jurassic Park, I'm pulling out all the stops with three(!) posts about Jurassic Park. To start off, this post will be what it always is: a review here of the novel and a review of its film adaptation at It Rains... You Get Wet. However, as the Memorial Day Weekend unfolds, parts II and III will be posted.

Jurassic Park, Part I: One Fan's Love Affair
Jurassic Park, Part II: But What About the Science?
Jurassic Park, Part III: TMT

Jurassic Park is my favorite Crichton novel and the one I still read today. My favorite characters and scenes have changed over the years but what hasn't changed is my enjoyment of the story, my continuing patience with the technical errors, and my personal conviction that if I was in charge of the Park I could have done it right. The story is pretty simple: some super smarties have cloned dinosaurs from recovered DNA to make money off a dinosaur zoo. The folks who have ponied up sizable chunks of money for the project are getting worried about things on the island so an audit of sorts is being conducted by various experts.

As was his way, Crichton sets the whole scene up with enough fancy words and interesting graphs to make you really think what is happening could happen. Or at least it gets you excited to believe in it because you want to be smart and use big words and make nice graphs and be a part of the cutting edge. The experts are always the best in the field who remember every random tidbit of information that has ever been uttered in their presence. And that's cool because it's nice to root for smart people. Also, Crichton does a great job of keeping his characters on task. As in, when an expert is running around experting I don't have to worry about him or her suddenly breaking down for a melodramatic moment of personal back story. You'll get some back story as the book progresses but the main focus is always about the expertise and the action: sgwordy likes!

I remember fondly that this was the first book I read that started outside the action and circled in. I'm sure Crichton didn't invent the technique but I dug it and will always remember getting ever closer to the heart of the story. These days books are more likely to start in the middle of someone falling off a cliff and it's rare that you'll get a lot of talkie talkie at the beginning as a way to pique interest. Crichton does it well here (and in his other novels I think) so it's not boring, it's just not immediately full of action.

This is certainly not a perfect book but my love is so great that I tend to ignore the annoying instances when the "other" is marked, the over-use of 'shocking' as a descriptor, the cliche of men not being able to behave professionally when exposed to an attractive woman in a professional capacity, the creation of the world's most annoying character in Lex (this is probably the book's worst sin if I had to give a vote) and a glaring plot device that I will leave for Part II. In the end, it's a great yarn and that's what keeps me coming back. The action is well-paced and filled with variety due to the behavior of the dinosaurs; the characters are easy to buy into because they react to the situation as you would expect given their backgrounds and personal agendas; and the writing is good enough to mostly stay out of the way of why you're there: to see dinos rampage and to puzzle over whether or not Jurassic Park could happen.

Speaking of dinos rampaging, there are some really cool scenes in this book but one of my favorites has got to be the rather ridiculous (but still scary as shit) scene with the T-rex and the kids hiding behind the waterfall. That nasty tongue acting as kid snatcher is creepy and a cool way to think of a T-rex trying to explore despite the tiny arms. Even with rampaging dinos there is still the impressive ability of Crichton to make a computer system failure full of dramatic tension. The pacing is well-served by the various groups not having equal access to information and by the groups trying to solve problems in various locales (like in the aviary vs. the control room vs. the maintenance shed with the raptors).

As you can see, I've got a lot of love for this novel. But, in addition to the spiffy action and the nifty (if flawed) science, an awesome aspect of this book that I don't think gets a lot of comment is its highlight of how the expected can hinder one's ability to observe. Character-wise, this is best exemplified by Hammond (owner of the Park) with his hubris and arrogance. Scene-wise, the critical danger of being focused on expected outcomes reveals itself when the computers are asked to start looking for more dinosaurs than have been released from the laboratory. The scene is a good one in and of itself but the underlying message of observation being the most important tool for assessment is clear. If one only looks for what one expects one might miss the reality.

If you haven't already read Jurassic Park, I'd say 2011 is as good a year as any to do it. In the meantime, don't forget to head over to It Rains... You Get Wet for the film review.

I'll leave you with my favorite quote from this book.

So they [scientists] are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something.

See you soon for Part II: But What About the Science?


  1. This book has a special place in my conscience because it was one of those I read during my formative years (does it still count as reading if you listened to the audiobook?). It had a great impression on me and the way the story is constructed is informative and entertaining, a potent mix.

  2. Excellent book review, as always, Rachel. This may very well be Crichton's best work. It took something everybody would love to see (dinosaurs) and made it a plausible scenario we'd buy into with ever growing horror at what that could mean. I think the other thing that readers enjoyed about the techno-thriller in general (something you can credit to this author), at least I did, was the fact you'd feel smarter by the time you finished the book. Whether that was true or not, you enjoyed the experience.

    Isn't it a coincidence that Lex is annoying in both the book and film? Among the aspects that didn't get adapted from book to film, that was? Since Crichton co-wrote the screenplay, with David Koepp, he must have felt something toward her. Also, it's been so long since I read the book, I forgot about that waterfall scene. Good call. Now I definitely want to re-read the book -- really the unabridged audiobook since I found out that William Roberts did the narration (and yes, Ronan, it does count as reading when you listen to the complete and uncut version).

    Speaking about comparative characters, what was your thoughts of Ian Malcolm in the book and film? I'm looking forward to the next parts in your examination of your favorite MC novel. Thanks, Rachel!

  3. Ronan - thanks for stopping by and for your comment. I feel just as you do about this book - it made quite an impression on me, as well. It remains one of my favorites even now. And I do think the audiobook counts as reading! :)

    Hey Michael! Your review was so fantastic! I do think it's Crichton's best but I also really like THE TERMINAL MAN and SPHERE.

    Agreed on why techno-thrillers are so fun to read. A good one is such a pleasure and does make you feel smarter.

    Re Lex - maybe it's because I compare her to the book version but she didn't bother me at all in the movie. I was so relieved it wasn't that whiny, useless stereotype of a little girl that I didn't care if she did something only slightly annoying. What I found more interesting was the switch to Grant not liking kids. It made for some very convenient jokes on Sattler's part (which I still laugh at) and gave you the feel-good scenes with him and the kids towards the middle/end but I found his thoughts on kids more realistic and endearing in the book.

    Malcolm is interesting for me because I liked book Malcolm a lot more when I was younger and now I find him to be a bit of a windbag. When I had less experience in the scientific world he sounded very sharp to me. Now he sounds like he's honing his polemic which doesn't work as well for me now. Movie Malcolm I've always liked because he brings just enough sarcasm and insight to make for a great character but he doesn't bog down the action or get in the way of my conviction that I could run a Park like that. :) Ultimately, I think it was smart to tone him down for the movie but I don't think it compromised what he stood for in the pantheon of experts.