Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Crichton's `Next': Profiteers, Chatty Chimps in the Gene Pool

Crichton's `Next': Profiteers, Chatty Chimps in the Gene Pool

By Edward Nawotka

Nov. 28 (Bloomberg) -- In Michael Crichton's ``Next,'' universities forge billion-dollar deals with Big Pharma, humans are mined for their genetic code, animals are bred to emulate the higher functions of humans, venture capitalists conspire to ensure the success of their investments and lawyers make fortunes litigating the whole resulting mess.

The story revolves around a legal battle over the ownership of a sample of cancer-fighting cells taken from Frank Burnett, a 51-year-old construction worker battling leukemia. Burnett unsuccessfully sues to prevent the sale of the cells by the University of California to a biogenetics startup called BioGen for $3 billion.

Soon after, however, the startup discovers that the cells have been contaminated, rendering them worthless. A Hummer- driving bounty hunter is dispatched to procure new tissue samples from Burnett, his daughter and her young son with a big, scary needle. Then it's back to court to litigate whether BioGen has a right to pursue its ``property.''

Elsewhere, genetic oddities are manifesting themselves. An Indonesian orangutan is heard swearing at tourists in French and Dutch and is soon hounded by reporters; a chatty African gray parrot helps a Parisian boy do his math homework; and a San Diego researcher sires a human-chimp crossbreed that he brings home and sends to grade school in baseball cap and jeans. At school, the ``humanzee,'' named Dave, defends his human half-brother from a group of bullying skater punks, bombarding them with his own feces.

Silvio Soap

Crichton's 2004 polemical novel, ``State of Fear,'' sought to debunk evidence of global warming. Crichton again has an agenda and again goes to great lengths to indoctrinate his audience. He collates recent genetic research, loads the story with statistics and cuts down the most hyperbolic conclusions, such as the widespread report that blondes are genetically predetermined to go extinct in 200 years.

He also sprinkles the text with ``News of the Weird'' stories, some false, such as the swearing ape, and some merely dubious, such as one about the artist who turned former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's liposuctioned fat into a bar of soap and sold it for $18,000.

When the villainous evangelical Christian in charge of genetics at the National Institutes of Health is gunned down after co-opting another researcher's project, and a wealthy investor contracts a rare form of cancer and is told that no cure is available because the potential for profiting from it wasn't there, Crichton's slant becomes all too obvious: He wants to convince us that the genetic research industry is run exclusively for profit and needs reform. (If you miss this point in the novel, Crichton spells it out in an epilogue.)

A Little Sex

Though ``Next'' is informative, it's also a tepid read. The straw characters flit in and out of the action, have a little sex and serve mostly as mouthpieces. Certain plot lines, including a potentially provocative one about a researcher who administers a drug in the hope it will cure drug addiction, never truly resolve -- a death sentence for a thriller.

``Jurassic Park'' was also set in a world of genetic engineering run amok, but that book was rooted much more in fantasy than in reality. In ``Next,'' Crichton has mounted a bully pulpit and seems loath to give it up. That's placed him a long way from the smart, high-octane stories we expect from him.

``Next'' by Michael Crichton is published by HarperCollins (431 pages, $27.95).