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.
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.