State of fear

Stephen King once said,

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

He’s right of course. The only way to improve as a writer is to learn from the best. I confess I read a lot — a serious amount. But much of this is following my pet research projects. I know I don’t read enough fiction. Mental note for New Years resolution to improve my fiction reading count.

So when I received a copy of Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear” for Christmas I started to read it on Boxing Day. It’s an amazing eco-terrorist thriller over 700 pages long. But it didn’t take me more than a couple of days to finish. I have a huge amount of respect for the late Michael Crichton — his imagination is remarkable as demonstrated by the blockbuster movies based on his novels such as Jurassic Park.

But what really amazes me is his attention to detail. At the back of the book is a bibliography of the books and journals he found useful in preparing the novel – over 166 citations on the contentious subject of environmental science (climate change). He notes that readers shouldn’t assume that any of the authors listed agree with his views. Quite the contrary: many, such as the IPCC, disagree strongly with his skeptical views on climate change. And he encourages readers to review his thinking and make up their own minds on the subject.

If you’re an eco-zealot, you might find the story a little hard to take as witnessed by some of the negative reviews on Goodreads. One of the characters, Professor Kenner, debunks some of the more over-hyped political claims associated with climate change. He’s a bit like the character of Ian Malcolm played by Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park — the all-knowing scientist who has to be proven right. But whatever your beliefs are on climate change, the “State of Fear” is still a jolly good read with the good guys fighting the bad eco-terrorists in Antartica to the jungles of New Guinea in a roller coast thriller.

If you’re a writer what can you learn from “State of Fear”? Attention to detail is certainly one point. Another is if you’re writing a 700 page thriller it’s helpful to have short chapters. Some of Crichton’s chapters are only 2-3 pages long and some of the scenes, particularly at the climax of the story, are literally one or two paragraphs. This is the way he switches between the actions of different characters who are all involved in the climax to the story. Another point Crichton gets right is to put his small cast of heroes through pain and suffering, whether it’s been lost in an antarctic crevasse, paralysed by a rare octopus venom, or being caught by cannibals, Crichton won’t let his characters rest for one minute.

What does Crichton get wrong? Some would say that the story reflects too much of his skeptical views on global warming. I would disagree. It would be difficult to have eco-terrorists unless they were motivated by some of the more extreme views of that political movement.

One might also argue that it was difficult to identify and connect with the main character of the story until you were well into the story. Evans, a solicitor, I would suggest was the main character through which we experienced the story, but he was very much a reluctant team member, while Professor Jenner drove the story line along. Maybe the reason we don’t connect so well with the main character is because Crichton doesn’t do emotion well, or maybe it’s just because of the cold and clinical nature of the thriller genre.

If you’re looking for a good techno-thriller then I would certainly recommend “State of Fear”.

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