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19 August 2004
Michael Crichton's Prey deals with an inscrutable life form that defies human control and bids fair to destroy the world, or at least parts of California. The Columbus Dispatch called it "a cross between Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain," which suggests more than a little self-imitation at work.
Like those previous Crichton novels, Prey is fast-paced and good fun. Like them, it presses the moral that humans are not in control of their environment by a long chalk. And like them, Prey conjures up a new organism to be afraid of: artificial, numerous, and very very small.
Small malevolent things are scarier than big ones. Would you rather be chased by a Rottweiler or a pack of miniature Dobermans? By a T-Rex, or by a flock of The Lost World's compsognathus? By the Michelin Man or by a closetful of evil dolls? One of the scariest adventure stories I read as a kid involved a wheelchair-bound hero trying to escape from an onslaught of army ants. Give me the man-eating tiger any day.
Little tiny enemies gone amok are not new in science fiction. If Data and Geordie battled nanites on Star Trek a decade ago, they must have been anticipated in the SF literature long before; I just don't know the genre well enough to say where or when. The little evil creatures in Crichton's Prey are not original; but his settings, the specific field in which he presents his itty-bitty predators, are characteristic of his work.
Crichton is the author of corporate-intrigue thrillers like Disclosure and Airframe. In Disclosure,he blends gender conflict and office skullduggery. These themes carry over into Prey. Hero Jack Forman is a stay-at-home dad, redundant in Silicon Valley while his wife Julia pitches the products of a nanofab company. Jack suspects that something is amiss in nanoland when Julia starts showering after overlong days at the lab. (She's washing away nanocritters, not the sweat of a lustful affair.) Their family is falling apart. Julia is put out of action by a car crash – and Jack vaults back into the corporate saddle to save firm and family alike.
When the lone human hero faces the inscrutable menace in fictions of this sort, he is supposed to save the day either by stumbling on a banal weak point (The Thing, Signs) or by disrupting the bad collective's code (Independence Day, Data vs. the Borg). It's somewhat disappointing, then, that Jack defeats the nanoswarms by dumping sewage on them and setting them on fire. But this isn't conventional SF; it's a corporate parable about technologies spiralling out of control. Crichton's favorite hard science is evolutionary biology, with all its unpredictable contingencies. He gets a lot of mileage out of those contingencies in the corporate thriller Prey.
Crichton, Michael. Prey. 2002. New York: Avon, 2003.