Many people can teach. Many people can tell great stories. But few people can teach by way of telling a great story. Dr. Michael Crichton, physician-turned-novelist-turned screenplay-writer is one of those few.
State of Fear (HarperCollins Publishers, 2004, 603 pages) is actually three books in one – a fast-paced thriller, like Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park; an explication that’s too rarely seen in fiction of scientific arguments, complete with 18 pages of references, and, finally, a five-page policy brief of the author’s conclusions drawn from the science he learned while writing his novel.
Let’s take a look at the three books within State of Fear one at a time.
First and foremost, State of Fear is, like most other Crichton thrillers, more about people than it is about technology. While some sort of technology run amok is often at the heart of a Crichton thriller, it’s rarely (if ever) the technology per se, that causes or cures whatever disaster Crichton concocts. Rather, it’s the evil or hubris of the people behind the technology that leads to destruction or salvation. People who misunderstand this point have occasionally branded Crichton a Luddite, someone who fears technology (particularly after his portrayal of the dangers of nanotechnology in Prey). But his faith in science and technology is evident in its implacable progression, and especially in the positive role it plays in the lives of his various characters. Far from a Luddite, Crichton is more of a cynic, believing that whatever technology is used, someone is likely to abuse it – an idea that’s hard to dispute given the sweep of human history.
The basic plotline of State of Fear is pretty straightforward: a globe-spanning cabal of radical environmentalists is trying to spur the adoption of greenhouse gas emission controls by creating “natural disasters” that they can link to manmade climate change. The bad guys have stolen or purchased all the coolest toys of the terror trade, from rocket systems that can create superstorms, to explosives and giant “cavitators” that can trigger landslides, to lightning-bolt projectors, and, yes, to poisonous octopi used to kill people they don’t like in a particularly unpleasant manner. This nefarious gang is challenged by the too-cool-for-school Dr. Richard John Kenner who is both the lead agent for a super-secret anti-terrorist group and also happens to be a brilliant professor of Geoenvironmental Engineering at MIT.
Kenner and his assistant, Sanjong Thapa, follow the basic sidekick archetypes: one suave and debonair, the other reliable, adaptable and combat-ready. Not surprisingly, they regularly kick butt. Other good guy characters in State of Fear include George Morton, a philanthropic environmentalist who comes to realize that his donations have been redirected toward violent mayhem, and Peter Evans, the somewhat na—ve lawyer-cum-stalking horse used to smoke out the baddies. Heading up the bad guy side is Nicholas Drake, the Machiavellian head of NERF (National Environmental Resource Fund), showing once again that you can’t have a global cabal of bad guys without a proper acronym. Drake is aided by an actor, Ted Bradley, who combines the most annoying elements of Martin Sheen’s presidential portrayal in The West Wing and environmentalist/actor Ed Begley Jr.’s performance playing, well, Ed Begley Jr. One of the few downsides of the fictional element of State of Fear is that the bad guys aren’t exactly the brightest bulbs in the chandelier; they have more wallet and weaponry than wit. Still, if you want to see who wins, who loses, and who gets eaten by cannibals, you’ll have to read the book.
The second book interwoven with State of Fear is the one that has generated the most controversy, sparking both trenchant attacks and staunch support for Crichton. Using numerous charts and graphs, Crichton (through the slightly pedantic lectures of Dr. Kenner and company) reveals the limitations in the so-called science of climate change, which has up to now convinced many people that human beings are going to destroy the world by using their SUVs to take their kids to hockey practice.
Among the lessons taught by Kenner and company: temperature records from around the world aren’t particularly reliable; that global average temperature has changed independent of the level of greenhouse gases throughout history; regional temperature trends vary widely, from stability, to pronounced cooling, to pronounced heating. Crichton’s characters also explain that most of the world’s ice is not melting, as Antarctica, with some 90 percent of the world’s ice, is getting colder – only 2% of Antarctic area has melting ice, the rest is getting icier.
Crichton also hits other climate- and eco-myths, explaining that the world’s sea level is not rising faster than normal, the world isn’t experiencing more storms or other extreme weather phenomena; DDT doesn’t cause cancer, and that native people weren’t noble savages living in harmony with nature.
Critics have singled out the mini-lectures within State of Fear for particular scorn, and it’s true, some can get between the reader and the primary plot line. But with all due respect to my own more-than-capable teachers, I’d have given a lot to have had professors who could so clearly, efficiently — and entertainingly — convey as much complex information as Michael Crichton does in State of Fear.
Finally, Crichton’s third book within State of Fear is something that I’ve never seen from a fiction writer before: a policy study explicated through the science revealed within the tale, and an Author’s Message, explaining what Crichton thinks we should do based on what we know about climate change. Among Crichton’s many logical conclusions three stand out:
- “We know astonishingly little about every aspect of the environment, from its past history, to its present state, to how to conserve and protect it. In every debate, all sides overstate the extent of existing knowledge and its degree of certainty.
- Nobody knows how much warming will occur in the next century. The computer models vary by 400 percent, de facto proof that nobody knows; and
- Before making expensive policy decisions on the basis of climate models, I think it is reasonable to require that those models predict future temperatures accurately for a period of ten years. Twenty would be better.”
Great storytelling has been a vehicle for education throughout the history of humanity, and, in our times of increasing scientific illiteracy, State of Fear may be a particularly appropriate way to expose common people to the scientific problems that plague the arguments supporting greenhouse gas regulations. State of Fear is an excellent novel that concisely and clearly presents the arguments long asserted by those who are skeptical of claims that we know the climate is changing, that we know what causes the climate to change, and that we know enough to take control over the global climate through the manipulation of greenhouse gases.
Dr. Kenneth Green is senior fellow at Reason Foundation and Chief Scientist at Frasier Institute.