Friday, December 3, 2010

Book Review: Next

I recently finished reading Next, by the late Michael Crichton. It is a fictional account of the legal and moral complexities posed by genetic engineering. The biotech industry is booming and Crichton was disturbed by the legal morass that has been growing up around it. And, as is his style, he felt like addressing the issue in a fictional format would be more powerful and have more far-reaching effects than doing so in a non-fictional format would.

Michael Crichton often recycles the same plot for his novels: a new technology is created or something unusual is discovered [1], the scientists who do so are very careful to prevent it from getting out of control, it gets out of control anyway, a team of experts are called in to deal with the situation, many of the experts die, the technology is destroyed, and the reader is sufficiently warned. Next is one of the few deviations from this general formula.[2]

However, this time it doesn't really work for him. He fails to produce a cohesive plot, preferring, instead, to hop around and examine lots of unrelated events that are only related because of the theme of genetic engineering. There are lots of characters, most of whom are patently unlikeable (though many of them eventually get their comeuppance). And even the tolerable ones get so little ink that it's hard to really care about them.[3]

My verdict: This book really wasn't a pleasure to read. And while he does raise some issues that are worth a vigorous debate (such as whether or not genes should be patentable or whether the Bayh–Dole Act[4] is detrimental). If you're interested in the moral and legal ambiguity surrounding biotechnology and genetic engineering, then you'll find some interesting information and ideas in Next; otherwise don't waste your time.


[1] With this formula he has addressed an extraterrestrial microbe (The Andromeda Strain), mind control (The Terminal Man), a device which (basically) grants wishes (Sphere), genetic engineering (Jurassic Park), video editing software and computer graphics (Rising Sun), virtual reality (Disclosure), time travel (Timeline), and nanotechnology (Prey).

[2] Other notable deviations from this formula are The Great Train Robbery, Eaters of the Dead, Congo, and State of Fear.

[3] My favorite character was a genetically engineered parrot, which I find rather unfortunate.

[4] The Bayh–Dole Act, passed in 1980, gives universities, non-profit organizations, and small businesses the right to patent technologies that they developed using government funding. In other words, you the taxpayer have to pay for the research and development of their product, but they get all the profits. Before the passage of the act, however, the patent was held by the federal government and licensed out to businesses. So either way someone else is making a profit off of your tax dollars.

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