Review - Michael Crichton's "State of Fear"

My post here and here remind me that I should review the book I just finished --Michael Crichton's State of Fear.  In this book, a group of environmental activists are trying to help mother nature along by creating some natural disasters to draw media attention for the global warming crusade.

I really wanted to like this book.  For once, the villain was not some greedy dastardly businessman trying to increase profits of his corporation at the expense of people's lives.  I have always felt that novels with a political ax to grind were tedious, particularly when they got to the preachy parts.  Clive Cussler, for example, has gotten bad about this in his later books like Shock Wave.  In this book, like in most, the crime is usually so over the top that it is just illogical that anyone would go about business that way - the same time and money spent on less villainous activities would yield far more profit.  It's like those James Bond movie villains who create a $100 million laser satellite and underground control facility only to extort $10 million.

I had thought that the reason I did not like these books was that I disagreed with most of political polemic in them.   However, "State of Fear" has taught be a valuable lesson - I hated the polemic in this novel too, even when I agreed with it.  Crichton makes the same mistake I have railed on Cussler and others for - the cost and elaborate planning that go into most of the planned terrorist attacks make no sense in proportion to benefits.  While I might agree that too many people are mindlessly marching to the global warming drummer without any real thought or consideration of the facts, I thinking blowing some of these folks up into out of control monsters does not help make that point - it just makes you look like you have an ax to grind.  Its also unfair to give the global warming point of view such a poor advocate, the sum total of whose analytical arsenal consists of saying "well, everyone believes it".

<rant>  By the way, a quick word to all you statists, socialists, liberals, and environmental freaks who seem so worked up all over the web about the above admittedly poor literary techniques:  Get over it!  First, global warming is seldom represented by its advocates as the messy, unclear, chaotic, hard to predict thing it really is.  You advocates of global warming have constantly exagerated your case, so get over it when someone does it in the other direction.  Second, I have probably read over a hundred novels where the advocates of capitalism, markets, business, and individual responsibility are just as incompetant as the advocates for global warming are in this book.  Let me see you complain about a book with polemic that you agree with, as I have done, and then I will listen to you. </rant>

So I rank the book as OK, with some pretty good scenes and plot marred by some tedious expositions and diatribes (and remember, this is coming from someone who agrees with the diatribes!)  Tom Clancy does a much better job of evenhandedly dealing with eco-terrorists in Rainbow Six, probably his last good novel. 

By the way, if I wanted to novelize a rant against global warming's bad science, I would choose about anyone except for Crichton, whose middle name is "bad science".  I enjoy his novels, but did you ever ask yourself why all the doctors had to go through all that decontamination in Andromeda Strain, when they were never going to come in contact with the objects under study anyway?  Or, in Timeline, if they are really traveling to parallel but out of sync alternate universes, then how do changes they make in the other universes (such as the dropped glasses) propagate to our universe?  And don't get me started on the science of Prey or the use of chaos theory in Jurrasic Park.

UPDATE

Well, the emails are already coming in.  Since this is getting a lot of hits already off search engines by people who do not normally read this site, and to save writing a number of individual responses, I will give the elevator version of where I am on global warming:

  • The world has probably warmed over the last several decades due to man-made CO2 production, but less than is generally reported because
    • Global warming advocates, out of several available data sets, always pick the one that shows the most warming, while other data sets show less.  The data set they choose (ground temperatures) is not without issues.
    • Advocates tend to ignore other influences that might be raising temperatures in addition to man-made CO2, including natural climatic cycles, increased solar activity, and urban heat island effects.  These effects were apparently substantial in the first half of the century.  To argue that they are not part of the story in the second half of the century, you have to argue that they stopped at the same time that CO2 began having an effect.
  • The world will warm further due to man-made CO2, but the models for future warming are almost certainly overstated, for at least two reasons:
    • While I can't judge the science, I sure as heck can evaluate an economic model and the models for the amount of CO2 produced in the next century are basically economic models.  And they are hugely flawed.  The models have made assumptions that grossly overstate CO2 production in the future.  As just one example, the models assume that many of the least energy efficient nations have huge growth booms over the next 50 years, so that their economies grow larger than that of the US (for example, South Africa is shown to have a larger economy in the future than the US).  These models also assume that these countries do not get much more efficient, so you end up with models showing enormous, absurdly energy efficient economies in the future -- which of course grossly overstates CO2 production
    • As I said, I don't have the science to dispute the models in depth, but one has to be concerned when the models do not match history, and in fact predict historically a much higher temperature rise than we have seen to date.  Advocates will argue that this is fixed, but it was fixed with fudge factors, not science.  People have tried doing this with financial models as well, fudging theoretical models that aren't working to match history, and have gone broke doing so.
  • When and where warming occurs does matter.  Crichton was dead wrong about this - things do not warm evenly.  Models show most warming is in the coldest areas in winter at night.  Since having warming night-time winter temperatures in Siberia does not really panic anyone, this does not get much coverage.
  • The Kyoto treaty is hugely flawed, leaves out the countries causing the most CO2 production increases, is ridiculously anti-American, will cost economies a ton, and will have little affect on future warming, even by advocate's models.
  • I worry that the science being done on global warming is not as good as it could be, as the field has become so politicized.  Any scientist who dares to even introduce data that might soften the global warming catastrophe message is marginalized.
  • Those who report on global warming, including the media and the administration of large projects like the UN climate change project distort scientific findings, substituting complexity and questions with certainty

This is just a summary, without dueling citations.  I covered the same points, but marshaling evidence and citations here.

MORE REVIEWS

More blog reviews, both positive and nevative, linked here.  Other folks who are skeptical about global warming seem to have liked the book a lot.  I still think that this is more of a reaction to finally having a novel that is skeptical of progressive causes rather than a reaction to a quality adventure book.  I continue to maintain that it is better for action books to just stick to the action.  I will be very upset if this starts an arms race among writers to get more and more heavy handed with their politics in their novels.

  • Gav

    I agree with you about the book, if not on Global Warming.

    Have a look at these if you'd like to read a rebuttal of Mr Chrichton's views by some actual climate scientists.

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=74
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=76

    Hopefully you'll change your mind on this one.

  • Max Lybbert

    I seem to remember some fundamentalist Christian groups that actually wanted to start wars in the Middle East during Clinton's second term specifically to "hasten the Second Coming." My point? That real life can be pretty incredulous as well.

  • "In this book, like in most, the crime is usually so over the top that it is just illogical that anyone would go about business that way - the same time and money spent on less villainous activities would yield far more profit. "

    This is totally perfectly true! Thanks!

    (Only a politician would do something so irrational 🙂 )

  • Mathias Backes

    BTW, check your spelling on Jurassic...

  • You write: " First, global warming is seldom represented by its advocates as the messy, unclear, chaotic, hard to predict thing it really is. You advocates of global warming have constantly exagerated your case, so get over it when someone does it in the other direction."
    ~~~
    I'd love see you come up with instances where the serious science is exaggerating the situation. I'll bet you come up pretty empty handed.

    Preemptive anticipation here….. It's garbage to attack the scientific community for the sins of media personalities and well meaning but under-informed non-experts.

    I'm serious, describe where serious climate science have seriously exaggerated the situation. It would be most interesting to examine those cases… that's if you can come up with some.

    I can think of many instance where climate scientist have been way conservative - such as what we are seeing with our global cryosphere dwarfing their worst expectations.