State of Fear by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton’s latest novel State of Fear is an ambitious experiment: to fuse an anti-global warming polemic with a techno-thriller. Did he pull it off? You ask. Well, yes and no. He has certainly combined the two, and both are compelling at times, but the connection is a little rough. It is an interesting attempt to weave cultural, political, and scientific arguments into a fast paced thriller, but in the end the polemic drags down the thriller and the thriller adds little to the polemic. The author would have been better off separating the two threads so the argument could stand on its own and the thriller could keep its focus and its pace.

The basic story line centers on the activities of a non-profit environmental organization called the National Environmental Resource Fund, a.k.a. NERF. NERF’s director Nick Drake is a former litigator turned environmental crusader. His chief concern, besides preventing the apocalyptic end of the earth, is fundraising. Environmental activism, it turns out, is an expensive endeavor. Drake’s biggest patron is George Morton a dedicated conservationist and fabulously wealthy philanthropist. Morton has promised to bankroll NERF to the tune of $10 million. $1 million is designated to a lawsuit against the United States Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of the tiny island nation of Vanutu and another $9 million will finance future research and lawsuits on behalf of the environment. The Vanutu suit claims that the actions of the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide are causing global warming and thus the flooding of this South Pacific nation. This flooding will force the eight thousand Vanutu residents to flee. NERF is pushing the Vanutu case as a way to focus media attention on the issue of global warming.

Before the papers for this massive gift can be finalized, however, Morton begins to have second thoughts. Into the picture comes the mysterious Dr. Kenner, a M.I.T. professor and research director on extended leave and with mysterious ties to various government agencies. Also pulled into the intrigue are Peter Evans, a lawyer who works almost exclusively for Morton; Sarah Jones, the highly attractive assistant to Morton; and Jennifer Haynes, the equally attractive jury consultant on the Vanutu case. As the novel develops these characters are thrown together to solve the mystery of Morton’s death/disappearance and to prevent a series of environmental terrorist attacks.

As is the case with most thrillers, the characters are not that deep. Kenner is a sort of “man of mystery” who seems to know everything and has contacts everywhere. He is constantly arguing with the environmentalist true believers he runs into as the plot unfolds. Frequently the story is put on hold so that Kenner can launch a lecture or a Socratic teaching session on the myths of global warming. The Peter Evans character is also used to cast doubt on the doomsayers. Evans assumes global warming is the threat his friends and acquaintances believe it to be. For him it is a given. Kenner, Haynes, and others take it upon themselves to force Evans to see the truth. This is a crisis of conscience and intellect for him, but eventually he too is questioning and doubting the conventional wisdom. Not content to pick on activists, Crichton brings in Hollywood liberals to act as foils for Kenner and Evans. One particular character, Ted Bradley a actor whose claim to fame was to play the president on TV, plays the role of the limousine liberal who arrogantly blames corporate industry for bringing the planet to the drink of destruction while living a life of luxury. To add insult to injury Bradley is a misogynist jerk. The highly attractive women also add to the anti-global warming arguments, but they also add romantic tension especially for Evans.

The thriller part of the story is actually rather interesting: a group of radical environmentalists are planning a series of technologically forced natural disasters around the world to stimulate interest in, and more importantly, fundraising for environmental groups; namely NERF. The action is global: Antarctica, Canada, Paris, the South Pacific, and the Arizona desert. The challenge the characters face are unique and exotic, a blend of science and terrorism. Kenner is like the master spy while Evans is the everyman learning to toughen up and act courageous while his worldview is revealed to be a fraud. The women are not only highly attractive but also whip smart, but hey this is a techno-thriller not a feminist novel.

So the question is does the book work? Is it entertaining and educational? Does it cast doubt on global warming? Again, yes and no. Perhaps I am not the best judge because I am rather suspicious of much of the global warming hype anyway, but I felt that much of the dialogue and polemic in the novel raised legitimate questions about the severity of the phenomenon. While some of the material seemed cherry picked and a few characters seemed a bit over the top, Crichton’s skewering of the liberal true believer and the Hollywood left is deliciously on target. One only has to surf around the internet or watch cable news (or heck talk to college students) to run into the arrogant, closed minded, and yet ignorant dogmatism of many on the left these days. These types believe that disastrous global warming is as true as gravity and that anyone unwilling to join the cause is a captive of “industry.” The Hollywood and media elite are particularly ripe for satire given that, despite their faith, many of them feel free to drive expensive SUVs and live in giant mansions sucking up energy like mad. The extremism of environmental groups is also well documented. Any compromise, no matter how practical and realistic, is viewed as betrayal of mother earth. Like any other political group, they must ratchet up the rhetoric to raise money and keep their high profile. This sub-culture and its impact on the mainstream culture is a valid and interesting setting for a novel.

The problem with State of Fear, however, is that it tries to hard. Instead of using environmental extremism and the culture that surrounds it as a setting for a thriller, Crichton has awkwardly inserted academic and political arguments into the middle of what would normally be a fast paced adventure. Not content with just dialogue he inserts charts, footnotes, and even two appendices and an author’s statement. All this clutters the story and distracts the reader (or at least this reader). Is this a novel or a textbook?

Had I been Crichton, or his editor, I would have separated the two. It seems clear that the author has done substantial research into the issue and has strong feelings about its political, cultural, and scientific ramifications. He has given speeches on the issue in the past and written Op-Eds as well. He could have simply written a non-fiction argument about global warming and public issue science. Granted it would have been attacked as dilettante science and right wing sophistry, but State of Fear is already getting the same treatment. By removing large chunks of the polemical argument, Crichton could have focused on making the thriller part of the story tighter and more focused. This way you would have two interesting books loosely connected rather than two types of writing forced together.

This is not to say that State of Fear as it exists is complete bombs that some would have you believe (see here and here for example). The techno-thriller part is interesting and fast paced. I enjoyed reading the unique adventures this group got into and the scientific background gave the scenes a new gloss. Are all of the scenarios particularly plausible? Not necessarily, but plausibility isn’t always crucial to a work of this nature. Was Jurassic Park plausible?

The passages that are skeptical of the danger of global warming are also interesting in that they force you to think about your assumptions and attitudes toward this topic; to unpack how you think and why you think that way. Obviously, your position on the issue will have a big impact on the way you read these passages, but if the subject interests you I think you will find at least some of the debates and discussions interesting. It is also worth noting that Crichton is not some anti-science reactionary. The author believes science is a crucial part of a healthy and improved future. His arguments are based on science and with scientists. There is a cultural component, the State of Fear or the title, but it is about how to conduct science and how to use science not a rejection of science.

In the end, I give Crichton credit for an ambitious and creative attempt to use his chosen medium to make an interesting and important argument. I think he would have been better off separating the two strands, but even so State of Fear is worth a read just to come to your own conclusions about the issues discussed. If you are going to read about global warming why not do it with a little action adventure thrown in?

*added to the Beltway Traffic Jam.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


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