Michael Crichton and the origins and nature of the technothriller

January 14, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 14, 2019 2020

Any history of the technothriller subgenre is bound to include Michael Crichton, the Harvard-trained physician who penned multiple bestsellers and created the hit television drama ER. For the last three decades, Crichton has been best known for his pair of dinosaurs-run-amok novels, Jurassic Park and The Lost World.

The splashiness of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie adaptation and its four (!) sequels (not to mention three pinball tables) makes it easy to forget that Crichton’s flair for combining science and thrills has been on display ever since 1969.

That’s the year that Crichton, who died in 2008, published The Andromeda Strain. This story of a research team desperately trying to stop the spread of a mysterious disease was both the first book to appear under Crichton’s own name and his first bestseller. But it represented an important commercial — and dare I say literary — development in its own right.

Ian Fleming’s 12 James Bond espionage thrillers, which made their debut with Casino Royale’s 1953 publication, were popular for many reasons. Certainly the gadgets in the Bond novels, and the subsequent movies, were part of the appeal. These can be thought of as forerunners to the technothriller.

Crichton’s innovation was to make some aspect of science or technology central to the story. Fancy devices don’t just make cameos to help the hero get out of a jam; they’re integral to the plot, and often the menace around which the tale revolves. That’s the case in Crichton’s Jurassic Park (dinosaurs brought to life by genetic engineering overwhelm the resort’s safety protocols), Congo (a high-tech expedition that includes a talking chimpanzee tries to ascertain the fate of a group of earlier explorers) and The Terminal Man (a man with a brain implant that’s meant to prevent seizures starts killing people).

All of which raises the question of what distinguishes the technothriller from science fiction. The easiest answer is that the former is part of the latter. I’d argue, however, that a defining characteristic of this subgenre is that it features a contemporary or near-contemporary setting. Many Crichton books fit the pattern, including Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Sphere (a research team explores what appears to be a 300-year-old spaceship submerged in the ocean), Rising Sun (a Los Angeles detective uses his knowledge of Japanese culture and cutting-edge technology to solve a murder) and Prey (a swarm of deadly nanobots escapes from a state-of-the-art factory in the Nevada desert).

I should note that Crichton — who’s the focus of this post for reasons that will soon become obvious — didn’t just popularize the technothriller through literature. He directed seven feature films between 1972 and 1989, the first three of which seem to fit squarely in the subgenre.

Crichton’s debut movie, the TV feature Pursuit, concerns a stolen shipment of nerve gas; it’s based on Binary, a novel that Crichton published that year under the pseudonym John Lange. The 1973 movie Westworld, which Crichton wrote, has amusement parks populated by robots that go rogue. Coma involves the organs of healthy patients whose deaths are faked at a sinister hospital being harvested to prolong the lives of rich people; Crichton scripted this 1978 adaptation of the previous year’s Robin Cook medical thriller.

(1984’s Runaway, which Crichton also wrote, also features robots going rogue, although not to my knowledge in an amusement-park setting. I’ve not seen this or any version of Westworld, which includes an ongoing HBO television series, but I gather that Runaway’s setting is different enough from the time it was made that it does not meet my technothriller criteria and is simply a science fiction thriller.)

I’ll have a bit more on Crichton in a very near future post!

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