20 February 2012

Honey, I shrunk the grad students

Posted by Callan Bentley

On the airplane ride back from Texas, I bought a copy of Michael Crichton’s semi-posthumous final novel, Micro, which was co-authored by Richard Preston after Crichton’s death in 2008. Preston wrote a superb book about Ebola virus in the DC area, so I was intrigued to see his influence. Plus, and of utmost priority, I just wanted some light reading for the plane.

It was mediocre. If you’ve read Sphere, Congo, Timeline, Prey, Jurassic Park, or the Andromeda Strain, you’ve already pretty much read Micro. A band of diverse characters encounter adversity in a world where natural processes meet high technology, and only those who are both brave and lucky survive.

In this case, the adventurers are a team of graduate students from MIT, and they get tossed into a plot on Oahu, Hawaii. The big bad company (a standard Crichton trope) has developed shrinkage technology, and they are using it to shrink people and machines so that they can more efficiently access the microscopic world for the purpose of finding drugs and other useful biomolecules. Plus, they’ve got a side business going to weaponize the technology to create micro-assassins.

The head of the company is megalomaniacal and doesn’t mind killing people who get between him and his business plan. So the bodies start piling up, and when the grad student gang tries to intervene, he shrinks them all to about a few millimeters tall, and throws them into the jungle. There, they encounter the extraordinary diversity of very small organisms, and start getting killed by things like centipedes and wasps and ants. (As opposed to gorillas in Congo, jellyfish in Sphere, dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, microbes in Andromeda Strain, nanobots in Prey, or the British in Timeline). It’s always something!

Quibble: if you shrink someone to that tiny size, what happens to their mass? Do they retain their full complement of atoms, or are some of those atoms removed from the system? If so, to where? The tiny grad students are pretty much weightless (they “fall” through the air like ants would, and land without harm from “great” heights), so that doesn’t mesh very well with the idea that they retain their same mass. I guess this is just one of those details that a reader is supposed to suspend disbelief about, but it does undermine the entire basis for the plot.

Highlight: bugs are fascinating, and they appear quite alien when we view them through a macro lens. They do amazing, freaky things, both biochemical and behavioral, and it’s worth indulging in an implausible plot if only to reveal some of those things to a wider audience. My favorite scene was when the most unlikable character (another Crichton standard, who previously appeared as Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park) gets his arm parasitized by a wasp. She lays eggs in there, and the eggs hatch into larvae and consume his arm, bulging against the skin while he is still alive. This horrific occurrence is standard fare in the natural world. As you might have heard, it’s red in tooth and claw. Parasitism as a way of life for such a large proportion of the Earth’s species is a beautiful, brutal distillation of evolution’s “anything goes” attitude to differential reproduction. It’s a good reminder for us humans, I think, to spend some time contemplating that. Bugs are extraordinary and amazing and they remind us of the fundamentals of natural selection. This would be my #1 reason to recommend the book for your reading.

Spoiler alert: A major flaw in the book is that the death of one character about 2/3 of the way through the book feels very much like the point where Crichton stopped writing and Preston took over. Up to that point, it really felt like Crichton was setting up the whiny environmentalist for a gruesome death (Crichton was a global warming denialist) and the even-tempered leader for the “last man standing” role. But then their roles pretty much switch most of the way through the book, with the good guy getting killed, and the blowhard greenie making it to the finish line (with the girl, of course: gotta have the token romance thrown in!).

All in all, I’d give it a 5 out of 10 possible.