The barcode superimposed over the silhouetted monkey would have piqued my curiosity anyway, but the fact that it had "MICHAEL CRICHTON" printed in big red letters on the front cover certainly didn't hurt any either. I've been enjoying Crichton's stuff for about fifteen years now. Maybe over the holidays I'll check out State of Fear, which "Weird" Ed said was a whompin' good read. But I enjoyed Timeline and Prey plenty enough, so I figured this was worth a gamble. So without knowing anything else about the book other than what it read on the inside of the jacket, without even knowing that this book existed at all before finding it in Wal-Mart, I plunked down eighteen bucks and bought Next.
With each novel Crichton takes what subject matter that his interest is focused on at the moment, researches the hell out of it, then churns out a rollickin'-good story that's part techno-thriller and part cautionary tale. Crichton has run the gamut of topics over the year with animal behavior (Congo and The Lost World), quantum physics (Timeline), nano-technology (Prey), Japanese-American relations (Rising Sun), sexual harassment (Disclosure), and whatever it was that The Andromeda Strain was about in addition to being a damn scary story.
With Next, Crichton returns to the topic that he found huge success with in Jurassic Park: genetic engineering. But instead of being mostly a polemic against tinkering with DNA as Jurassic Park was, Next is instead about the ramifications that are coming with the industrial craziness of selling and patenting genes and other bodily tissue. That's what the book is "about", but Crichton usually uses one subject to spin into a confrontation on multiple fronts and Next is no exception. He makes us think about what it means to be in a world where your own DNA may be the legal property of somebody else, where companies plot to genetically emblazon the McDonald's logo on the shells of sea turtles and where "wet artists" are attempting to cook-up foot-long cockroaches for household pets. That's the stuff you definitely can't miss. But Next is also about how modern people are too susceptible to believing everything they read simply because they see it on television or the Internet (the book's running gag about blondes going extinct and the part where one character "plants" false data to be found on Google illustrates the point).
Next has so many multiple plotlines that it would seem you would lose track of them all, yet Crichton always keeps the story coherent and focused on the disparate stories until they ultimately find convergence. It's like Syriana meets Jurassic Park. Just as the tagline of last year's film Syriana was "Everything is connected", that could easily describe Next... even though the probability of all these plots dealing with corporate genetics overlapping with each other does take some suspension of disbelief. The dominant storyline involves Frank Burnet, a 51-year old cancer survivor whose body is discovered to be producing unique proteins that vigorously destroy cancerous cells. What Burnet didn't realize until it was too late was that he had unwittingly signed off on ownership of his protein-producing genes to his doctor, which then wound up in the possession of genetics research firm BioGen. Burnet loses his bid in court to regain legal ownership of the cell lines and BioGen is naturally exultant to have won against the $3 billion claim. But when Frank Burnet is found to have disappeared following the destruction of the cell lines in an act of sabotage - coupled with the mysterious vanishing of all the lines' backups and genetic data - BioGen brazenly assumes their legal ownership of Burnet's cells regardless of where they may be found. So it is that Burnet's daughter Alex and her young son Jamie become the prey of a bounty hunter hired by BioGen to track them down and have them biopsied.
That's one of the things that made Next so thrilling a read for me: I'm not saying here that Crichton is a "hack writer" at all, but his more techno-centric novels do tend to follow a pattern (i.e. Jurassic Park, Timeline and Prey). With Next, Crichton amply shows that he can dispense with his tried-and-true formula and still be on top of the game so far as this genre of fiction goes. In some ways I thought that Next was the most un-Crichton-ish of any of his novels that I've read. But the maddening mixture of true-life fact and what-if speculation in Next is definitely vintage Michael Crichton.
This may be the most wild assortment of characters that Crichton has ever jammed into a single novel. There is the typical entrepreneur who dances around matters of ethics that's found in most Crichton novels. The billionaire venture capitalist. The evangelical Christian geneticist who enjoys considerable political clout. A single-mother attorney. The unscrupulous hospital pathologist. An eco-anarchist. The researcher who's been investigating autism. A sixteen-year old girl caught using fertility drugs for bizarre purpose. A Sumatran jungle guide. A young scientist and his neer-do-well older brother... and their nosey mother. The security guard who enjoys looking at seventh-grade girls too much for his own good. Gerard: one of the best characters that Crichton has ever come up with. And Dave: a chimpanzee with unusual parentage, to say the least. All of these and more make for an off-the-map oddball Greek chorus in the tragi-comedy about genetic commercialism that is Next.
Next is a novel loaded with both horror and hilarity. There are some parts of the book that will positively keep you awake at night from fear. And there are others that had my wife hearing me hysterical with laughter from a few rooms away. Mostly frightening regarding the repercussions of commercial genetics, often funny, always educational and very entertaining, Next is one of the best novels that I've read in recent memory. It's one of Michael Crichton's better books... and that's saying quite a bit.
Next is absolutely recommended reading. A book well worth picking up now before waiting for the paperback to come out. And no doubt a lot better than the inevitable movie will be (though I think that Gerard would be a heck of a great character to see realized on the big screen).