It's the Little Things
By Michael Crichton.
367 pp. New York:
HarperCollins Publishers. $26.95.
Like most writers of hugely successful commercial fiction, Michael Crichton has a propensity to attract ridicule from highbrow critics. His characters are said to be made of cardboard. They have an anti-talent for dramatic dialogue. His plots always hang from an alarmist peg and get worked out according to formula. And so on.
There are perfectly good answers to all of these criticisms. Crichton is not particularly interested in the inner man. When he writes a book, he says, it's as though he were watching a movie: he sees his characters externally. These characters may talk in clichés, especially the unprintable kind, when they get into tight spots, but then, so do actual people. As for his alarmist pegs, Crichton genuinely believes there is good reason to be alarmed at the prospect of greedy and unscrupulous people getting their hands on powerful and unpredictable technologies. And he deploys his considerable storytelling talents to make us feel this too.
From a purely techno point of view, ''Prey'' may be Crichton's most ambitious techno-thriller yet. He has never been a slouch when it comes to research. In ''Sphere'' (1987), we got the intimate details of black holes and submarines. In ''Jurassic Park'' (1990) and ''The Lost World'' (1995), we got dinosaurs, DNA and chaos theory. Now, in his latest book, Crichton sets out to generate suspense from a truly daunting trio of applied sciences: nanotechnology, genetic engineering and computer-based artificial life. Has he at last bitten off more than he can chew?
Nanotechnology, the newest and least familiar of the three, aims at producing molecule-sized robots that can manipulate matter at the atomic level. (Its name comes from nanos, the Greek word for dwarf.) To date, nanotechnology has been more science fiction than science; despite much research and federal funding (a billion dollars over the last two years), it so far has to its credit mainly stunts, like forming the I.B.M. logo out of 35 argon atoms. Yet its boosters promise that within the next few decades, fleets of invisibly tiny nanobots will be doing all our work for us, repairing damaged cells in our bodies to make us immortal and converting our garbage into foie gras. They will also be manufacturing copies of themselves, and therein lies a danger: what if the little things run amok and start transforming the entire world into a pile of gray goo?
Nano-techies spend plenty of time worrying about the gray-goo scenario. But as an alarmist peg it is too trite for Crichton's purposes. It would make a lousy movie. (In fact, it already has made a lousy movie: ''The Blob.'') Presumably, that is why he brings in the two other technologies, genetic engineering and computer-based artificial life. ''What all three have in common is the ability to release self-replicating entities into the environment,'' he observes in his introduction. When they are merged, there is no telling how horrific the unintended consequences might be.
Unpredictability is meant to be the great theme of ''Prey.'' As our narrator, Jack Forman, ominously tells us on the first page, ''Things never turn out the way you think they will.'' Jack is a 40-year-old programming manager in Silicon Valley who has recently been sacked from his job after detecting some shady business practices at his company. Now he is reduced to being a soccer dad. Meanwhile, his wife, Julia, is becoming ever more powerful at the company where she works, Xymos Technology. She is the kind of ambitious woman who is usually up to no good in a Crichton novel. Along with a dodgy male colleague, she is in charge of a team that has been trying to develop a kind of nanotech spy plane -- a swarm of micro-robots that can fly to remote places and, acting in concert, send back a visual image.
Now, molecular-sized entities are bound to be fairly dumb individually. So how do you get a large number of them to act together to accomplish a complex goal? As it happens, that is Jack's speciality. Before he got fired, he had written a computer program called PREDPREY, which simulated the behavior of groups of predators in nature pursuing their prey. Unbeknown to him, this program has been licensed to Xymos to control the swarms of nanoparticles. Bad idea.
Odd events create a queasy atmosphere almost from the beginning of ''Prey.'' Jack and Julia's baby develops an angry red rash, which miraculously clears up when she undergoes an M.R.I. Memory chips in household devices start to disintegrate. Julia grows tougher, tenser, more aloof: is she having an affair? As Jack tries to make sense of these portents, he finds time to give us little lectures on how ''distributed intelligence'' can arise in networks of artificial agents. At one point he even delivers a technical aside while he is having lunch with his headhunter, who finally asks him in exasperation, ''Jack, did you hear anything I just said to you?'' He explains to other characters, and they to him, the fine points of molecular self-assembly, of genetic algorithms, of co-evolution. It may sound like a lot for us to chew; but in truth the scientific stuff, drawn from the latest journals, goes down quite easily and is always enlightening. Whether it makes the rest of the story believable is another matter.
''Prey'' gets cinematically scary when the scene shifts to the middle of a torrid Nevada desert. That is the site of the Xymos molecular fabrication plant, to which Jack is lured on the pretext that his expertise is needed to regain control over some runaway swarms of nanobots, which are wandering the desert like dust devils. When he gets there, however, he finds that a series of deliberate decisions -- to use genetically engineered bacteria to fashion the molecular components, to make the nanobots self-powering, to endow them with a learning algorithm so they can collectively innovate to solve problems -- has resulted in something that is fiendishly protean.
As he leads the battle against the shape-shifting nano-swarms, Jack keeps invoking the catch phrase ''emergent behavior'' to make each new plot twist seem plausible. Automatons can surprise their programmers by acting in ways that are utterly unpredictable, he reminds us several times. Unpredictable? Maybe, but more than a little familiar, at least if you have seen movies like ''The Birds,'' ''Alien,'' ''Night of the Living Dead,'' even ''The Vampire Lovers.'' The problem with ''Prey'' is not that Crichton puts in too much science; it is that the science is of an anything-goes variety that allows him to indulge his tackier imaginative impulses. When the nanobots start invading the bodies of the characters, causing them to say malevolently sarcastic things and to pucker their lips to administer fatal kisses -- well, much as I appreciated the technical verisimilitude, I could not help groaning a bit.
Yet I kept turning the pages feverishly. Despite its absurd moments, ''Prey'' is irresistibly suspenseful. You're entertained on one level and you learn something on another, even if the two levels do ultimately diverge. Of course, I cannot say I was entirely surprised to see the good-guy narrator beat the odds in one terrifying situation after another until, amid big explosions, the nano-menace was vanquished. Crichton notwithstanding, sometimes things do turn out the way you think they will.