Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park Is a Terrible Masterpiece

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In the three years between its release and its film adaptation, a novel about paleontology, theme park logistics, and the ethics of genetics science in the hands of private corporations sold around nine million copies. Jurassic Park (1990) was a banger. A novel by the late twentieth century’s preeminent airport thriller writer, Michael Crichton, it transcended even his usual wide readership—bored businessmen and others craving some semblance of intelligent-but-not-square “high octane” plotting—and spawned a franchise worth billions. Yet Jurassic Park’s success has always been predicated less on the novel’s actual content and concerns—Can and should we clone dinosaurs? If we do, are they really dinosaurs? What happens when we try to put them in a theme park?—and more on the bare fact that it has dinosaurs. Who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

Given that our collective obsession with dinosaurs has helped fuel trends in popular culture since the 1800s, Jurassic Park’s success as a novel makes some sense. The novel has always remained in print and was a bestseller, but it was never acclaimed and isn’t remembered with much fondness. It was, for all intents and purposes, a mediocre thriller novel. But it asked big questions and it started something even bigger—a franchise, spearheaded by Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film adaptation, that became a global phenomenon and shows no sign of extinction three decades after the novel’s release.

Plenty can be said about the Jurassic Park franchise, which includes five films and dozens of video games and comics—with more of all three on the way! As a franchise, Jurassic Park (or Jurassic World, as it’s now styled) offers necessary meditation on the changing dynamics between science, entertainment, corporate capitalism, and government regulation over the past three decades. While some of the texts make these aspects more explicit than others (think John Hammond musing about the illusion of control while sadly spooning melting ice cream, or the militarization of genetic science in the form of the Indominus rex or Indoraptor), Jurassic Park has raked in billions while offering some of the sharpest critiques of neoliberalism in the blockbuster mainstream.

All of that started with Crichton’s novel. It’s a book that cares very little about the dinosaurs, except as thriller plot devices, but has quite a lot to say about how those dinosaurs came to be, what corporate forces made prehistoric cloning possible, and what these storyworld changes mean for the future of science. Jurassic Park is not only a smart novel, it’s Crichton’s smartest novel, and it’s an important look at scientific ethics and possibility that deserves to be reconsidered as a masterpiece of science fiction–or, to be more precise, a terrible masterpiece of the genre. “Terrible” both in the sense of bad and shoddy writing, when looked at from one angle, but also in its extreme effectiveness in inducing dread and uneasiness about the present and the future alike.

Crichton fascinates me. Any author as popular as he is fascinates me. Even if you never read his work, you know his books. His 28 novels have sold more than 200 million copies since 1966, been adapted to dozens of movies, and spawned a franchise or two. Crichton’s niche was techno-thrillers that proselytized the dangers of a rapidly advancing technological landscape beholden to unregulated private corporate interest. In the airport author club, Crichton was the intelligent Clive Cussler, the impatient John Grisham, and the sexually unimaginative Nora Roberts.

It’s hard not to consider with fascination what it means when millions of people are reading, thinking about, and basing worldviews on one person’s novels. Critics love to mock hyper-popular middlebrow writers like Crichton, Dan Brown, Paulo Coelho, or any of the airport author club named above—hell, I do, too, from time to time—usually on account of their “bad writing.” But in doing so we ignore or write off what authors like Crichton are saying and doing in their novels, and more importantly why they resonate with millions of people we live, work, and vote with.

Still, Crichton is an awful writer. Though perhaps he’s awful with a purpose, and one that suits both his genre and the existence of a macho readership that identifies the opposite of his qualities as effeminate (and thus negative). Three things strike me about Crichton’s writing, his craft. First, he’s bad with words: he doesn’t pay attention to how his prose sounds, the impact of  his word choices, and so on. Second, he has no sense of character: most of his men and women are interchangeable, identified only by spare and caricatured physical features and by profession. Third, he has no appreciation for or employment of nuance: characters and actions are good or bad, there’s no in between. These three aspects achieve one goal common to the most basic airport writing: the worlds of his novels are black and white (and very white) and guaranteed to operate only as needed by the demands of his loose plots.

This means that while Crichton is impressively bad at the craft of writing (and, to be fair, there are authors impeccably skilled at craft, but bad at writing a novel worth reading; many of them are trained in MFA programs), he is also impressively efficient, since his bad qualities are precisely the functionality behind his genre and his brand. They allow him to set a scene with minimal detail by drawing on a small set of clichés, expectations, and the consumerist props of late-twentieth-century life. Within a set scene, he then moves his dull, interchangeable characters beat by beat with the efficiency of a computer program, not lingering on the atmosphere, the fine-grain, or the feeling of the moment. Hence, his characters do and act only as befits the plot; there is nothing extraneous, nothing between the lines. It’s Mad Men not as an aesthetic, but as a terrible, demented reality.

As macho fantasies of how the world should be ordered—that is, predictable, ideologically unambiguous, and made for the barrel-chested men of yesteryear, now dressed as lawyers and scientists, with smart, hot, not-too-independent young women tending their needs—Crichton’s novels did gangbusters. Among Crichton’s bestsellers-on-arrival, though, Jurassic Park is unique because the popularity of the films has nearly eclipsed the novel, making the two somewhat synonymous in the public eye despite key differences. It also reads quite differently to his usually action-heavy, suspense-laden thrillers like Prey, Sphere, or Congo.

By contrast, Jurassic Park’s stakes are in its ideas, not in who gets eaten by a T. rex or escapes a Velociraptor. Sure, the novel is structured like a thriller, moving from point A to point B usually by virtue of a sudden and often inexplicable change in a character’s situation, but the action is punctuated by long chapters of introspection and scientific musing that doesn’t try too hard at being serious science, but instead philosophizes about the ethics of the science and the illusion of “nature” as something given, distinct, and untouched by humankind. The thrill is in the ideas; the action is mostly an annoyance and is so transparently paced out that there can hardly be anything genuinely thrilling about it.

Purposefully or not, Jurassic Park is an anti-thriller. This could be the genius of a masterpiece attempting to trick its way onto the bestseller list under the guise of Crichton’s established status as a thriller writer, or it could be bad writing that happens to stick a different landing and impress nonetheless. Such is the dichotomy of Crichton’s Jurassic Park, a novel perpetually caught between its author’s limitations as a writer (both his skill and his generic niche) and its breadth and ambition as a text.

I’d love to say Jurassic Park is a masterpiece on account of the dinosaurs, but no. Anyone who’s read the 1990 novel and compared it to the blockbusting 1993 film, where the dinosaurs loom large and are essentially the whole point, knows the novel has little interest in the dinosaurs themselves. To Crichton, the dinosaurs are an interesting jumping-off point for a scientific debate. Yeah, they’re cool, but there’s no emotional kick to these creatures having been cloned. It’s a plot point. It’s terrible, in large part because dinosaurs have been a source of entertainment, a thing of mystery and prehistoric wonder, for more than a century. Much of that entertainment value is predicated on the “what if” of a living experience of dinosaurs, of seeing, getting close to, or simply being in a world where these creatures exist. Where media like Doyle’s The Lost World and its many adaptations, Dinosaur World (whose author sued Crichton for grifting the idea of a saurian theme park), Dinotopia, Primeval, or Victor Milan’s Dinosaur Lords series captured the joy, terror, and (virtual) reality of encountering dinosaurs, and others, like Raptor Red and Walking with Dinosaurs, synthesize that encounter through thrilling explorations of dinosaur life, Jurassic Park the novel turns away from dinosaurs as things in and of themselves to be encountered, to have an experience of.

It’s the movie that gives us the sense of wonder that, holy shit, we’re seeing extinct animals brought back to life, living and eating and, yes, somehow fucking 65 million years after the last ones (excepting the birds) went extinct. The movie captures this wonder, awe, and, later, terror with knowing attention to camera work and excellent CGI, making sure we see and empathize with the emotions of the characters experiencing this impossibility first hand. Good job, Spielberg.

To some extent, whether the dinosaurs are important to the story and wow us as an audience is a film vs. novel issue; one medium does visuals well, another doesn’t—right? I don’t buy it. We’ve read and seen enough to know that’s not entirely true. The 1993 film Carnosaur does not capture the wonder of dinosaurs or the human-animal encounter; it’s a hollow imitation, one that even fails to fall into the “so bad it’s good” category. Raptor Red, a novel by a paleontologist about dinosaurs living and hunting and dying in Cretaceous America, does capture the experience and wonder of an encounter with dinosaurs. As do many other novels and even nonfiction sourcebooks about dinosaurs! Medium is ultimately a shallow distinction and in this case it’s a distinction that covers over what Crichton is (and isn’t) doing.

What matters to Crichton is not experiencing the dinosaurs either for the characters in the book or the readers who pick it up, thinking, “this is about dinosaurs!” Crichton wants to move past that and get straight to how the dinosaurs came to be here and what implications this has for science, entertainment, and the natural order. It’s terrible if you want the dinosaurs and a complexly crafted, narratively interesting read. But it’s also pretty smart.

For what Crichton says about the greed of the international corporatocracy, neocolonial land grabs masquerading as (eco)tourism, and the violence of the entertainment-industrial complex as it meshes with the ethically unhinged vision of blank check-funded science outside of government oversight, Jurassic Park is ultimately something of a masterpiece. On the one hand, a letdown whose dinosaurs fail to excite in comparison to other media, and whose prose and character development is so godawful as to beggar both belief and offer great amusement. On the other hand, a grim, dystopian vision of entertainment, science, and 1980s capitalism gone horribly awry.

Crichton’s Jurassic Park is a blurry vision held in amber, its lessons ripe for the taking, and one not since cloned—it remains, truly, a terrible masterpiece.

Sean Guynes is an SFF critic and professional editor. For politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.

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