Originally created 12/13/04

Michael Crichton plunges into environmental debate



NEW YORK - Michael Crichton is a big man with big ideas, a storyteller of nearly 7 feet who turns popular science into popular fiction.

In "Timeline," he sends characters back in time using quantum physics. Aliens deliver a threatening disease to the world in "The Andromeda Strain," and in "Jurassic Park," perhaps his most accessible novel, dinosaurs are created from ancient DNA.

Now he's questioning global warming in his new thriller, "State of Fear," about eco-terrorists who plot a series of natural disasters - earthquakes, underwater landslides, a tsunami - to prove that global warming is a threat to humanity. A ragtag band of scientists and lawyers uncovers the scheme.

"State of Fear" sounds like a typical Crichton thriller, but this time he's using the novel as a platform, tacking on a five-page message stating his notion that the theory of global warming is speculative at best, and a 14-page bibliography of works supporting his views.

"It was very difficult to get my head around the idea that this widely held belief may not be true, and I thought, 'If I'm going to do a book, how would I structure it so that someone could even hear it a little bit?" he says, crammed into an armchair meant for size regular at his hotel suite, his youthful face dimpled as he yanks out different graphs to illustrate his point.

Crichton, with more than 100 million copies of his books in print, is ready to defend his view - he's armed with a tape recorder, a steep pile of colorful graphs, scientific data and text books. Pushing rimless glasses up higher on his nose, he's eager to discuss the environment and he's certain his ideas are right. But he doesn't allow ego to swallow him and is quick to laugh at himself and back off when his lecture becomes overbearing.

More than three years ago, the 6-foot-9-inch Crichton read about global warming and grew curious. Having a conventional view that global warming is a threat, he began to study climate data and charts, expecting to find proof. However, the more he hunted, the more unsatisfied he became with the evaluations and speculations.

"I have a lot of trouble with things that don't seem true to me," Crichton says, his large, manicured hands gesturing to his graphs. "I'm very uncomfortable just accepting. There's something in me that wants to pound the table and say, 'That's not true.'"

He spoke to few scientists about his questions, convinced that he could interpret the data himself. "If we put everything in the hands of experts and if we say that as intelligent outsider, we are not qualified to look over the shoulder of anybody, then we're in some kind of really weird world," he says.

Crichton, though, may have more experience than most in working with science. The 62-year-old writer grew up in Roslyn, Long Island. His father was a journalist and young Michael spent much of his childhood writing extra papers for teachers. In third grade, he wrote a nine-page play that his father typed for him using carbon paper so the other kids would know their parts. He was tall, gangly and awkward, and used writing as a way to escape; Mark Twain and Alfred Hitchcock were his role models.

Figuring he would not be able to make a living as writer, he decided to become a doctor. He studied anthropology at Harvard College, and later graduated from Harvard Medical School. During medical school, he cranked out books under pseudonyms. (One that the tall author used was Jeffrey Hudson, a 17th-century dwarf in the court of King Charles II of England.) He had modest success with his writing and decided to pursue it.

Some books take a long time to write, such as "Disclosure," which took five years. Others require less time, but Crichton has a pretty rigid writing schedule: He gets up early and writes from about 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. or so, taking a break for lunch. And, oddly, he's never confident in his work.

Many of Crichton's books have been made into movies, including "Rising Sun" and "Jurassic Park," which was directed by Steven Spielberg. Crichton created the TV hospital series "ER" in 1994. Now in its 11th season, "ER" has won 21 Emmy Awards and the George Foster Peabody Award. He's even had a dinosaur named for him, Crichton's ankylosaur.

He is the kind of celebrity celebrities want to be: rich and famous and prolific but not too recognizable - although his staggering height does attract attention.

"Of course, the celebrity's nice. But when I go do research it's much more difficult now. The kind of freedom I had 10 years ago is gone," he says. "You have to good table manners. You can't have spaghetti hanging out of your mouth at a restaurant."

His HarperCollins editor, Marjorie Braman, says Crichton's books are a joy to edit, even with the science tinge.

"He has a gift to translate science for the reader, and not only translate it but work it into the midst of an exciting novel," said Braman, who has never before seen an author's message like Crichton's.

"I think it's entirely appropriate because it is a novel of ideas," she said. "Michael Crichton, because of his stature and fame for not only writing books, but TV and movies - well people do wonder what he thinks."

Crichton's books are a guaranteed sell, which is good news for independent book sellers such as Books & Books in Miami.

"I think when people are buying fiction, they're buying authors who they can feel confident in the entertainment value of their work," Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, said. "With Michael Crichton, people have come to expect that. At the same time, they can learn about subjects they may not know a lot about."

Crichton's author's statement is new even for Crichton. In it, he argues that a political agenda, not scientific evidence, is the foundation for predictions that the planet's climate will warm by 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. World powers, he says, use global warming to keep citizens in a state of fear, just as they did with the Cold War. But Crichton is noticeably vague about who these powers are.

Yet many climate scientists have endorsed climate change predictions. Climate records continue to fall as many different regions experience warmer temperatures than they have in centuries. While it is always possible that the experts are wrong, that possibility diminishes with each passing year as evidence mounts for a connection between carbon dioxide emissions and climate warming.

Crichton considers himself an environmentalist, no matter what. "Why are we not feeding people in this world who are hungry? Why are we not giving clean water to the almost billion people who don't have clean water? The greatest sources of environmental degradation is poverty. Why aren't we cleaning up poverty?"

That's a mystery for someone else to solve, he says; he's just content having brought it to the masses.

Crichton expects critics will jump on him for his views on global warming and it won't be the first time. In 1992, he was called a "racist" for his novel, "Rising Sun," which spotlighted U.S.-Japan relations amid fretfulness about the Japanese incursion into the American economy.

"The initial response from the (Japanese) establishment was, 'You're a racist,'" he recalls. "So then, because I'm always trying to deal with data, I went on a tour talking about it and gave a very careful argument, and their response came back, 'Well you say that but we know you're a racist.'"

But in the end, "State of Fear," like "Rising Sun" and "Jurassic Park" and other Crichton works, are stories. Although the author says that inevitably someone will think the story true in a "War of the Worlds" sort of way. He's seen it happen before.

"Somebody was going to pass a law preventing research leading to the creation of a dinosaur after 'Jurassic Park,'" he says. "I was just holding my breath hoping it would happen, but I guess somebody finally whispered to him, 'It's a novel.'"



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