11 September 2012

Monkeying about

Thriller / Science fiction | Michael Crichton | Congo

About a month ago, I found that rarest of objects: a book lying in my house, which I hadn't yet read. I'd bought this in a sale, along with a bunch of others, and then rearranged my bookshelf, and other assorted chaos, which meant it went unread.

And then I thought to myself, why on earth did I buy a book by Michael Crichton? Frankly, I think the first book he wrote was the best. And if you've read The Andromeda Strain and know how clunky the writing was, you'll wonder if I'm nuts.

Naah, I shall explain by the by. Anyway, I read the Introduction carefully, and with a sense of unease. Was M Crichton writing about an actual expedition? But when we reached the bit about the chatty ape, I drew a sigh of relief. Fiction, after all. Thank goodness for three decades of science between then and now.

This book was published in 1980, and is putatively about an expedition into the jungles of the Congo, to discover blue (boron-doped) diamonds, natural semiconductors. For unreal reasons, the government there has decided to award all the mineral exploration rights to the first conglomerate that finds the minerals. In today's day, that would be called a Crony Capitalism Scam, and I find it only barely plausible that people in the 80s were stupider than we are now in these matters. Of course, Africans were assumed by Americans then to be fairly stupid and/or corrupt, very Dark Continent and all, despite new democracies, which were there only to be subverted, right. The Japanese were the competitive villains by then, having edged out the Russians, and not yet been replaced by the Chinese. Ahem, less of the 20-20 hindsight, right?

I'll pull out a sample of M Crichton's predictions soon enough--it's eerie to see what he got right and what he got wrong, but you have to admit his research was cutting-edge, even if he picked and chose.

Anyhow, the first expedition in gets killed. A second expedition goes in, while pretending to be the first, so enters sneakily. With a gorilla in tow, who has the world's biggest sign language vocabulary (for an ape), and who is expected to interpret for the humans with grey gorilla-like animals who've been spotted on the last video transmission from expedition 1. This was normal to expect in the early 80s, ok, don't laugh. Any day then, we had expected to talk to dolphins.

Anyhow, the company, ERTS, does work for clients, and is looking for a natural source of boron-doped diamond to make optical computers with. The expedition had found a ruined city near the diamonds, which the researchers in the USA feel could be the Lost City of Zinj, famed for its diamonds. Amy the ape, in the meantime, has been having dreams, duly reported via crayon drawings, which, with cries of discovery, are found to be exactly the same as old stories of the city. [Gaah moment]. And the city is discovered easily since it has new forest near it instead of old old growth, which shows an albedo difference of 0.03 on a scan of satellite data. So simple.

Karen Ross, in her twenties, and a mathematical prodigy, heads expedition 2. She has the help of Peter Elliot, who is the trainer of the gorilla Amy, and Capt Munro, who specialises in backdoor entries into African countries where the opposite party has bribed the government into preventing the ERTS guys from entering, and ERTS hasn't managed the counter-bribery with quite the same finesse.

To the tech predictions:
In 1977, IBM announced it was designing an ultra-high-speed computer the size of a grapefruit, chilled with liquid nitrogen. The superconducting computer required a radical new technology, and a new range of low temperature conducting materials. ... Experts anticipated that by 1990 there would actually be one billion computers--most of them linked by communication networks to other computers. Such networks didn't exist, and might even be theoretically impossible (A 1975 study by the Hanover Institute concluded there was insufficient metal in the earth's crust to construct the necessary computer transmission lines.) ... The 1980s would be characterised by a critical shortage of computer data transmission systems... Within ten years, electricity itself would become obsolete.
By the way, all the italics above are Crichton's. (I suspect we'd have had optical computers by now if only that expedition had succeeded. Curses.)

The client wants an edge for the next 5 years -- "in an industry where competitive edges were measured in months".


Which is why the head of the company, Travis, chooses her to lead. Because he's the ruthless corporate type too. Capt Munro, the callous mercenary, is the teddy bear in contrast, Peter Elliott the innocent, and Amy is the mystical solution to their ills, the one with oracular dreams. [Gaah.]

Crichton's novels would have you believe that corporations and scientists have no conscience, and no common sense either. The tech is high, indistinguishable-from-magic high--some of it I have yet to see in real life, or even in movies. Company drones hop to execute, and never think for themselves. Change happens only when someone is killed, usually by intent. Is that what American companies are like? Occupy Wall Street by all means, then!

The tech, oh, the lovely tech: A portable camp has this: a low-throbbing electrified fence, the sentries armed with LATRAPs aka "laser-tracking projectiles, multiple LGSDs attached to sequential RFSDs." In English? The sentries had lasers to home onto the target, and tripod-mounted "marlan-baffle silencer" equipped automatic guns would do the rest, panning and homing and blasting with elan.

(Oh, yeah, against vicious grey gorillas that kill everything in sight? Mwahahaha. You know no Crichton novel can let tech, be it ever so high, win against Nature, don't you?)

Not to mention swallowed tracking devices that don't get (ahem) eliminated, mylar tents from NASA tech that fold down into hand-sized packages, teeny satellite receivers, lasers that can pinpoint the city over long kilometers, and many other wonders. Still, they have to walk in. Nature for you.

A lot of Lara Croft the tomb raider may have come from this book. There is the hidden lost city, with weird architecture, its history carved into rock glyphs (a trope that was rapidly old after HP Lovecraft), mysterious dream visions, high-tech decoding (radar reads below the moss and gets processed and sent back via satellite), evil opposing parties (not that with Karen Ross you have an empathetic character), high tech gadgetry, data hacking, honey trap computers, the lot. You even have a guy who can write a program to distinguish gorillas from other apes with 3 seconds of tape. And he does this practically overnight, and as a bonus, decodes the sounds and pronounces them to be language. But he needs a few more samples to translate. Shame on Google, then, their machine translation is still so bloody clunky in 2012. What are all their PhDs doing anyway, if they can't even handle human-to-human languages, eh? All programmers will be allowed a few minutes at this point to go bang their heads. Hee hee hee. Enough with 20-20 hindsight, I'd say, except that Hollywood movies still 'code' this way. Usually with cool graphics, too.

I haven't changed my mind about the misogynistic undercurrents in Crichton's books. Karen Ross destroys much, and then seems strangely bewildered by it all, for a genius. I suppose you couldn't write a book without token women in it in the late 70s, but the main target was still the Male Reader. Balance is therefore provided by the good guys and Amy, the feminine and nurturing ... gorilla. See, this is what an ape can do, modern women should learn a thing or two. Gaah. Don't believe me? Check out all his books and show me an empathetic woman character in the lot. They are either wicked and evil, stupid and evil, ambitious and evil, or misled and evil, or some combination of that. OK, there was one female and not-evil in one book, but that was the book which was anti-environmentalist, so she's misled by the author at least. The one saving grace is that Crichton novel women are not delicate darlings and can trek in jungles as well as the next person. I shall next read a Michael Crichton book only when I'm feeling a lot more masochistic and anti-woman.

Though hey, a fast-paced book, more credible than the Hollywood scientists' "the alien's blood is composed of molecular acid" withal. Read it for the thrills, but beware the science or social commentary.

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