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Home / India / Fact and fiction: a double helix

Fact and fiction: a double helix

Genes and genomics are Michael Crichton?s latest fodder in his novel Next.

india Updated: Feb 08, 2007, 18:00 IST
Hindustan Times
Hindustan Times

Author: Michael Crichton
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 431
Format: Paperback
Price: Rs 195

There are people walking among us who don’t care for works of fiction. For them, make-believe makes little sense in a world that is real and far more interesting than the ones constructed in other people’s heads. In other words, they take Oscar Wilde’s dictum, “All art is quite useless”, quite seriously.

But what if they get their hands on the latest Michael Crichton novel? The very fact that it is a novel will make the fictionophobe automatically roll the shutters down. But if he or she does take a chance on Next, Crichton’s imaginative investigation into the bubbling world of cutting-edge genomics, the sceptical reader will travel the road paved with facts, data and information that could
all have been culled from scientific journals, newspapers and technical literature. The only problem is that the reader will not be able to tell which parts are real and which parts are bovinefaeces.

The Michael Crichton we fictionwallas relish, of course, is the master of this ‘confusion’. From the time he came out with The Andromeda Strain (side-stepping a period of writing Ian Fleming-type spy thrillers under the name, John Lange), a techno-thriller in which a government satellite brings back to Earth a mysterious, deadly organism, Crichton has used facts and contemporary scientific discoveries and debates the way eggs are used to make omelettes.

The 1990 Jurassic Park, most famously, made his fact-fiction concoctions available to a mega-mass audience (the book actually being more ‘scientific’ and less ‘special effects’ than the Spielberg movie). In Next, Crichton has zoomed in on the still churning, still unsettled (and unsettling) world of genetic research and Big Biotech. He picks up and polishes the sort of ‘gene story’ items that we read in the world pages of newspapers. Scientists isolating a gene that they believe is responsible for drug addiction. Researchers conducting experiments
that are illegal in their own countries but kosher in others.

We get very believable strands in the novel dealing with transgenic animals (the genes of two different species ‘mixed’ together in one organism) that include a foul-mouthed orangutan in the jungles of Borneo, an English-speaking parrot
with a serious attention deficit problem, a transgenic ‘humanzee’ that finds fitting into his family and school a problem. And all this is pulled off by Crichton
not in a fantastical Island of Dr Moreau way, but in a matter-of-fact — though frenetic — manner that gives you a good idea of how science fiction-like the genetics scene is today.

The real excitement in Next, however, is not so much in the scientifically
grey zones that Crichton mines, but in the corporate cloak-and-dagger games and boardroom shenanigans that make the modern biotech industry tick, tick, tick less like a clock and more like a bomb. Committees and CEOs and Senators
are described pushing and pulling Bills and fundings and grants to get their share of the immense spoils that new genetic drugs can offer. Loopholes which angels fear to pass through become gangplanks for biotech firms and their posses of
lawyers to take ‘custody’ of patients’ cells. Crichton takes us to the seamier side of Big Biotech as well as to the eye-popping shows of cutting-edge labs.

As in his previous novel, State of Fear, which dealt with the possibility of global-warming being a hoax to ‘allow’ acts of Greenpeace-style eco-terrorism, there will be readers who will take Next all too seriously. In the end of the book, Crichton actually puts his ‘faction’ on his sleeve in an author’s note that presents a point by point conclusion that he has arrived at while researching for
this novel (‘Stop patenting genes’, ‘Avoid bans on research, ‘Rescind the Bayh-Dole Act’, etc). He even peppers the book with news items (including the report, ‘The Delhi “Monkey Man” — A New Case of Gandler-Kreukheim?’ that quotes the Hindustan Times.)

Next is not for readers who get nervous about whether they’re reading a book of non-fiction or fiction. It is a novel that feeds off real things. Or at least things that could be real or appear to be so. Ask Kiran Mazumdar Shaw.

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