While America was celebrating the coming of one man on Tuesday, it lost one of its greatest. While Michael Crichton will be known for his blockbuster movie Jurassic Park, it is his lesser known intellectual contributions that the world will miss most. In his later years through his books and speeches, Crichton injected several public debates with his singular combination of a scientific and philosophical background, his independence, and his understanding of pop culture.
His death from cancer at only sixty-six is the loss of one of society’s most exceptional critics and consciences. He never fit the box of an ivory tower dweller, although he did once lecture in anthropology at Cambridge. He never fit the stereotype of a Prius-driving, Lear Jet flying Hollywood environmentalist, because his novels often ended with 30 pages of references to scientific journals, and he disagreed with most of that trendy set anyway. His talents kept him out of all boxes.
To understand Crichton’s talent, you have to understand that he was an award-winning author while an undergraduate and used proceeds from his works to help fund himself through medical school. To be a doctor or a profitable author seems an impossible dream for many, if not most. After Crichton graduated as an MD he went on to sell over 150 million books, not to mention his various writing, producing, and directing roles in shows like ER, which he created. He even pioneered computer programming by writing a commercially successful computer game in the early ‘eighties.
One product of his dizzying commercial success was a certain independence when it came to social commentary. It is very hard to buy off a man who is already a household name with several hundred million dollars, even if he says things that are controversial. Quite far from being susceptible to improper influence, Crichton was more than capable of defending himself and his views. One pundit who launched a scathing attack on a Crichton book found that Crichton’s next book contained a strikingly familiar character whom nature had endowed sparingly and who also happened to be a pedophile.
Another product (or perhaps cause) of Crichton’s success was his understanding of society. You don’t sell 150 million books or create award winning movies and TV shows without having some insight into what sells, and therefore how people think. With this rare combination of scientific literacy, independence, and a finger on society’s pulse, Crichton was able to say some provocative things from his TV interviews, to his literary works, to the US Congress, where he was called to testify on matters du jour.
Perhaps most famous statement was his speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, where he made the case that environmentalism has all the weaknesses of a religion while it is not an area where the strengths of religions can be helpful. With a typical mixture of original insight, fearless assertion, and a lot of research behind him, Crichton did what no academic would dare to do and what no other Hollywood star would know how to do. While it’s inappropriate to re-litigate his argument here, few reasonable people who have seen it can deny he has a point.
His second to last book, State of Fear was a more comprehensive critique of the environmental movement. In his later life, Crichton came to see the movement as a fascinating social phenomenon that, like all the technologies and movements in his many novels, is perilous when treated with deference and naïveté. Again, Crichton’s unique bundle of talents transcended the political correctness of his Hollywood amigos and the limited communication ability of the scientific community. In so doing he presented perspectives that might still have never seen the light of day.
That he should die now, and so young, constitutes divine robbery. In a time when the confluence of science, policy, and politics is making a Gulf hurricane look calm, Crichton was a uniquely qualified commentator whom we desperately needed. Fortunately he has one more book set for posthumous release next year, after that we will have to make do celebrating the time that he was here.