Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Next by Michael Crichton

Imagine a future when a corporation owns your very genes as intellectual property. What rights would you have? What rights would your children have? Crichton imagines such a future and explores its legal and moral aspects. He also explores the repercussions of gene therapy and follows the lives of three animals who have had human DNA grafted into their genes. Throw into that genetic cauldron the hodgepodge lives of various characters and you have a novel that is a fascinating exploration of future tech. However, Next isn't so much a story as much as an essay on the dangers of traveling uncharted genetic waters without a moral sail.

As usual, the various characters and their stories that Crichton introduces in the beginning convalesce into a tighter narrative towards the end. His character development is thin as well, which I have begun to expect from his writings. Crichton is a scientist first and a novelist second. Consequently, one does not pick up a Crichton novel to experience picturesque settings and rich personalities who are lovingly cultivated by the plot. His books are about ideas, and Next is no exception.

As a series of ideas, Next is thought provoking and insightful, especially when coupled with the author's own comments at the end. Of particular note is Crichton's criticism of the current trend of patenting genes and giving them cute, little, marketable names. He also criticizes the over simplification of declaring one particular gene as being solely responsible for one human trait or another. The real mechanics of human behavior are much more complex.

As an interesting side note, the very next morning after I finished the book I read in the news about a new "after-hours gene". Yes, apparently there is one gene, or mutation of that gene, that controls whether one is a night owl or not. Poor sleep habits are genetically determined. I can't wait to tell my wife "It's not my fault. I'm a mutant." I'm not sure why "night owl gene" was not chosen as the name. A mutant "after-hours gene" sounds like something the cast of "Cheers" would joke about.

Why you should read this book: You love science fiction that reflects the world just around the corner. The legal issues Crichton explores in Next are very plausible and troubling. If you enjoy legal drama and find complex genetic issues riveting, then this book will thrill you. I found the content fascinating in that regard.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You consider reading about lawyers a pain second only to having your ears pulled off with tweezers. To add discussions about genetics and morality to conversations with lawyers could be considered by some to be cruel and inhumane punishment. I didn't find it so, but I know many who would. Another reason you may not want to pick up this book is Crichton's interesting use of the F word. Large sections of the novel will be uncluttered by profanity then suddenly, as if Crichton realized he was behind quota, pages will become buried in it. All characters suddenly spew filth from their mouths regardless of personality, including the women and children. Well, OK. Not the children, but the irregularity of the usage does seem suspicious.

AD/HD Friendly? No. At least for me, there were too many stories and too many dilemmas being explored. At times I had to turn back a page or two to keep people straight. I was able to finish the book in one sitting, however, so the book is not terribly difficult to follow.