Book Reviews: The Lost World by Michael Crichton

In the interest of sharing other books I love with you, and so this blog doesn't just become an advert for my own stuff, I have decided to start posting reviews of some of my favorite stories, typically things that have greatly influenced me. We continue with The Lost World, by Michael Crichton. This was the sequel to his most famous book, Jurassic Park. I've probably read it 50 times. It's a great, humbling lesson in how to basically write a scientific thesis will telling an action/adventure thriller. In short, it's classic Michael Crichton. 


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Michael Crichton is the king of the conceptual thriller. While the current trend in modern sci-fi is to not look to the future, but instead to find ways of explaining what is awry with the present, Crichton instead stands firmly on the event horizon between present and future times, and it is on that cutting-edge where he shows us, again and again, that man's attempts to partition and control nature will invariably fail, and often with horrific consequences. Jurassic Park perfectly highlighted humanity's ignorance--not just with the Frankenstein-esque dangers of playing God, but also how rote, reductionist thinking could not possibly account for all the dangers inherit in bringing back prehistoric animals into a controlled environment. Jurassic Park was as much about the nuances of chaos theory and topological thinking as it was about dinosaurs. It is fitting then that Crichton finds away to meld these topics even further with Jurassic Park's sequel, The Lost World.

The title is of course a homage to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle classic, and appropriately Crichton's own tale ostensibly has the same premise: a group of scientists determined to find a rumored "Lost World", a remote corner of the world where dinosaurs never went extinct, and where a new theory of extinction could be tested--one that posits that the behavior of the dinosaurs themselves resulted in their own distinction, a self-organizing event that could be explained by chaos theory. But this is just the surface premise. The truth is that this "Lost World" is Isla Sorna, erstwhile secret laboratory for the bankrupt genetics company known as Ingen, and that the dinosaurs that live on this island are factory floor survivors of the disastrous Jurassic Park, which was bombed and destroyed at the end of the first novel (for those who only know Jurassic Park via the films, keep in mind that the books follow their own storyline). 

Among the scientists leading the expedition is Ian Malcolm, who comes off far more severe here than he did in Jurassic Park, but you'll end up picturing a grizzled version of Jeff Goldblum playing him anyways. Malcolm is among those who wish to study the dinosaur population on this island to see if anything can be gleaned about extinction. But when greedy corporo-scientists also arrive on the island to try and steal some dinosaur eggs (WE GOT DODGSON HERE!), the legacy of Jurassic Park begins to play out in a bloody way once more. 

This is a fabulous book. It is leaner than Jurassic Park, which at times would stop to let characters have a dialogue to conveniently explain the more intricate scientific problems at stake--which was totally fine, and worked. But Lost World does this with a bit more nuance. The scientific discussions are still plentiful, but they are couched within the dynamics of the characters talking. This is largely because the characters feel more believable here, and less as devices to espouse certain viewpoints--you care more about the characters in The Lost World than you did in Jurassic Park, and I think that makes a huge difference. 

AN ASIDE: Crichton also seems to go out of his way in The Lost World to retcon certain things he didn't like retrospectively from Jurassic Park: for instance, Malcolm's death in the first book turns out to just have been fake news (aha), and we are assured, quite graphically, that the Tyrannosaurus CAN see you if you don't move. Indeed, all of Isla Sorna (Site B) itself is a retcon to an issue that must have bugged Crichton from writing the first book: Jurassic Park's laboratories were too sterile, too neat and tidy, to be the real thing. Bringing dinosaurs back to life would be a messy process with a ton of failures, and that's what The Lost World gives us. As Malcolm calls it, it is John Hammond's dirty secret.

The action scenes and suspense in this novel are really great, especially in the second half--but the mystery plot early on about just WHERE the Lost World might be is, in my opinion, very underrated and fits into the 'revised classic adventure' feel that I think Crichton was going for. You really feel like this is an expedition into prehistoric times. And naturally, when the dinos finally show up, they do not disappoint. The first time a T-Rex shows up is an iconic moment, and it's a shame the film 'adaptation' (in the loosest sense possible) didn't use it. 

Finally, as usual, Crichton really pushes some unique ideas behind the story, and here I think were some things really ahead of their time. There's a scene midway through the book, where Malcolm argues that there's a lot still to be explained about evolution, about how life forms--that obviously creationism isn't the answer, but that 'natural selection' and microgenetics isn't enough. No doubt some people thought Crichton was picking hairs here, but I think this was brilliant. To point out that ideas of self-organization, chaos theory, and topology could tell us a lot about evolution and why life evolves the way it does was, for 1995--before the human genome had been mapped and it became clear that there was no way there could be a 1-to-1 relationship for every phenotype and gene--way ahead of its time. "Life is like a crystal", Malcolm tells us at one point, and he is right, and the Lost World hammers this point home at every level, from the dinosaurs, to the dire straits the characters find themselves in, to the plot itself. 

Fittingly, the story is like a fractal through which to view the ideas Crichton wanted to share with us. I think The Lost World is a masterful example of true science-fiction, and should be lauded a lot more than it is. 

PS The movie isn't the greatest, but I think it gets a bad rap--God knows it's better than Jurassic World. Also, Roland Tembo is awesome. 


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Book Reviews: Star Wars: Dark Disciple

In the interest of sharing other books I love with you, and so this blog doesn't just become an advert for my own stuff, I have decided to start posting reviews of some of my favorite stories, typically things that have greatly influenced me. We continue with Star Wars: Dark Disciple, by Christie Golden, which is an adaptation of unaired scripts from one of my absolute favorite TV shows, and what I consider to be the best incarnation of Star Wars, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. 


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For those of us who loved the TV show Star Wars: The Clone WarsDark Disciple is an absolute joy to read. It feels almost like a reunion show for a series that should never have been cancelled in the first place. Fortunately, the Clone Wars live on in this wonderful book, as Christie Golden perfectly captures the tone and feel of the show. 

Dark Disciple is based off scripts for episodes that never aired. The screenplays were written by none other than Katie Lucas--yes, daughter of that Lucas--who had written several excellent arcs for the show. This story primarily features Asajj Ventress, the erstwhile wannabe-Sith and disgraced pupil to Count Dooku; as well as Quinlan Vos, essentially the Jedi Order's resident hippie. To be brief, the novel takes place late in the Clone Wars. Count Dooku has more or less committed genocide on several occasions now, and well, the Jedi Council is fed up. Feeling frustrated and guilty over one of their former kin being responsible for such galactic-wide mass death,the Council begins to toy with an unfathomable idea: orchestrating Dooku's assassination. While some Jedi, such as Obi-Wan, are mortified by such an idea--Anakin, of course, is totally down with it!--ultimately Master Yoda gives his reluctant blessing on the operation (hesitant, yet ultimately capitulating... doesn't that really sum up Yoda in this era?). To conduct the mission, the council gets Master Quinlan Vos, a goofy, enigmatic Jedi who nevertheless exceeds at stealth and undercover ops. Vos in turn reaches out to Dooku's former apprentice, Asajj Ventress, who the Jedi calculate would be eager to exact revenge upon her old master. But when Ventress and Vos unexpectedly develop feelings for one another, their deadly mission becomes dangerous in more ways than one. 

The fact that the Jedi would even entertain assassination is a brilliant way of demonstrating how far they've fallen in the Clone War. Many people who have seen The Last Jediare shocked by Luke's brusque dismissal of the Jedi as arrogant and hubristic, but it's really nothing new. This subtext was throughout the prequel trilogy, and it is brought entirely to the fore in the Clone Wars TV show, and this storyline demonstrates how far astray they really went. Of course the assassination attempt goes horribly wrong, and Dooku--who never comes across more evil than he does in this book, by the way--ends up turning Vos and Ventress against one another, which in turn exposes the Republic and the Jedi to further danger. 

The best thing about the Clone Wars series was how it maintained the complex, intricate world of the prequels, but opened things up in a far, far less claustrophobic space, while telling the story through characters that were given the right time to breathe and be real. Not only are Ventress and Vos really likable through the whole book, but fan favorites like Obi-Wan, Anakin, Yoda and Mace all feel and sound like their television counterparts. You can easily close your eyes and hear and see the TV show playing out before you. Everyone 'sounds' like themselves. There are, of course, plenty of action scenes, and Golden writes them with the proper kinetic and frenetic pace that you would expect from this series. Also characteristic of the show, there are plenty of unexpected encounters between characters you never would fathom meeting--picture Ventress standing before the Jedi Council, for starters--as well as showdowns and throwdowns in properly idyllic settings. It also doesn't hurt that the prose is exceedingly clear and easy to read. Golden absolutely nailed the essence of what made Clone Wars Clone Wars, and I genuinely hope that if further adaptations of unaired shows are made, that she is tapped again to write them. 

If you love Star Wars--and especially if you miss one of the franchise's very best incarnations--then this book is a no brainer. 
 


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Book Reviews: Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows

In the interest of sharing other books I love with you, and so this blog doesn't just become an advert for my own stuff, I have decided to start posting reviews of some of my favorite stories, typically things that have greatly influenced me. We start with Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, the final installment in J.K. Rowling's seven-part fantasy series. 


 The original US cover art. Incidentally, I've always loved how the artwork for the  Potter  covers use a scene as a set piece to show off, although you couldn't figure out what until after you read the book. In this case, it's the finale!

The original US cover art. Incidentally, I've always loved how the artwork for the Potter covers use a scene as a set piece to show off, although you couldn't figure out what until after you read the book. In this case, it's the finale!

Deathly Hallows is unquestionably the best of the Harry Potter series. This is not just the 'finale' to one of the greatest stories of all time--this is a thematic masterpiece that perfectly encapsulates Rowling's greatest obsessions as a writer: the confrontation of death, and the struggle to carry on when all hope seems lost. One only needs to poorly know Rowling's background--the traumatic loss of her mother, and living in veritable squalor as she struggled to finish the first Potter novel--to easily see Harry's struggle as her own. 

Having reread this book recently with older eyes, I was struck by the nuance with which Rowling depicts Harry's paranoia over his friends' growing mistrust that he knows what he doing, a paranoia that proves largely correct. This is next-level storytelling at work, and Rowling's ability to give characters extremely primal and familiar hopes, fears, and feelings amid outstanding circumstances may be her greatest ability as a writer. 

Another great touch in this story is the deconstruction of the wise old man, as Harry learns a lot of dirt about Dumbledore in the wake of his death. By midway through the book Harry no longer believes Dumbledore ever even gave a damn about him, and that the old professor left Harry with some halfassed plan with little chance of succeeding. Deconstruction is all the rage nowadays, and one could easily see a modern writer handling Harry's frustration with his late mentor in broad, clumsy strokes, much like how the depiction of a burned out Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi feels rather hackneyed (not to mention contrary to the character). But Rowling handles the demystification of Dumbledore adroitly, for Harry's frustration over what the great wizard never told him is coupled with his sorrow that there was so much he never bothered to ask him. Again, regrets and death pervade Rowling's prose. 

Rowling's skillful deployment of deconstruction is also at play with how she handles the death of major characters, such as following an early battle in the book, when there is an awkward discussion over who will go find a fallen hero's body. There is a almost an element of Clint Eastwood's western film Unforgiven here: for Rowling, death is never a sad reaction and a quick cut to a new scene. Burials are planned, blame is bandied about, and the fallout is always palpable. 

Finally, there's the showdown between Voldemort and Harry. Without giving anything away, I will say that for me this is the most masterful part of the book, and it's a great pity that the movie strayed so far from it. There is a deconstruction of Voldemort himself, who at one point no longer feels like an unstoppable pillar of terror, but instead a cackling Saturday morning cartoon villain--a moment that is coupled perfectly with Harry's 'return from the dead' and his unstoppable march to victory, at last. After fighting a losing battle for many books, to have this swift turn of the tides, and to have the dismantling of Voldermort's mystique play out rapidly before his unceremonious death, was joyful to read. 

Many discuss the epilogue and whether it was poorly handled. To me it's of little concern. The greatness in Deathly Hallows lies throughout the tome. It is an absolute triumph, both as the capstone to Harry Potter, and to the greatness of the woman who penned it.


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