Next by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton
(Harper (HarperCollins), New York: 2006)

READ: February 2008

I didn't have quite the visceral reaction to this book as I did to The Da Vinci Code, but almost. My mom left this book behind after coming to visit one weekend, and so I figured I'd read it.

In his book, Crichton states that Next is a work of fiction, "except for the parts that aren't." He then leads the reader through a dizzying whirlwind of genetic science events. A drug addict is cured by a gene therapy that causes accelerated maturity. A cancer patient who donated some of his cells for gene therapy to a university loses control over those cells, and those of his descendants. A monkey-boy is created when a researcher injects some of his sperm into an ape. You dream it up, Crichton's probably already put it in his book.

According to a review in the New York Times, "oddity after oddity in 'Next' checks out, and many are replays of real events." To which I respond, "Sure, but so what?" Just because something is true, doesn't make it worth reading. I've studied enough law and read just enough science to know that certain genetic procedures are still currently operating in a Wild West as far as patent law is concerned. I even agree that some, if not all, of these developments are troubling. But if you're trying to bring the issue to the forefront, why not do so in a less tabloid-esque way?

And that, I guess, is my main problem with this book. Fundamentally, I can agree with Crichton's main thesis. A novel with a thesis, you may ask? While certainly not every work of fiction can be said to have a central thesis, in an Author's Note to Next, just in case you didn't "get it", Crichton clearly lays out his five conclusions:

1) Stop patenting genes.
2) Establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues.
3) Pass laws to ensure that data about gene testing is made public.
4) Avoid bans on research.
5) Rescind the Bayh-Dole Act [which grants universities, small businesses, and non-profit institutions in the U.S. the control and ownership of any intellectual property on inventions resulting from federal government-funded research, rather than the IP rights going to the government].

On their face, these are laudable goals. And a novel, of course, does not have to be neutral in its politics. However, I find Crichton's method of hammering the reader over the head with example after example of why our current legislative scheme (or lack thereof) is faulty, to be tedious, deplorable, and even somewhat insulting. Next is geared to prove that these five conclusions are inevitable. While this may or may not be true, a proper exploration of the issues would have been more appropriate. A proper exploration could very well, in fact, lead to the same five conclusions, but without me feeling like I've been dragged through 300+ pages of bias to get there, leaving me a happier reader as a result, and perhaps more concerned about the issues.

But Next dismisses any need for a proper debate. It says, "It's so obvious," and then throws 37 different examples my way. It portrays the guys (yes, mostly guys) in the biotechnology business as cowboys, bent on getting the results they want at any cost. Everything is black and white. Even those issues that could have been dealt with more subtly are painted with fat brushstrokes: Alex - whose father is the cancer patient mentioned above whose cells, and those of his descendants, are now "owned", as it were, by the university who developed a particular gene therapy - is a lawyer. But wait! - she's not a blood-sucking, money-leaching lawyer, like all the others in the book. She is nice and cuddly, and prefers to settle matters out-of-court whenever possible, rather than dragging everything out into a prolonged court fight. She only starts to get mean when her son is threatened. I mean, c'mon - it's her son! And then there's David, the 4-year-old "monkey-boy", who is rescued by the researcher who created him when it turns out David is scheduled for termination (due to the lab being worried about the ethical ramifications that may arise if David's existence is discovered, though why that hadn't happened earlier when David first started showing signs of being anything other than a regular ape is a good question, but I digress). He is brought to live with the researcher's family in California, and things only come to a head when another young boy starts challenging David. But this boy is not just your average neighbourhood bully, not just that kid who didn't get enough hugs from his mother when he was very young - oh, no, this kid is mean, escalating from a brief schoolyard scuffle to an actual gunfight in the blink of an eye. Shed no tears for the bully; David needs them all.

Crichton dumbs down the issue by using such broad, obvious strokes. In addition, the style of the book, with its short, fast-paced chapters, cutting from storyline to story line, and interspersed fake news articles written to look as if they are real, further debases the actual importance of these issues. Really, all I ever needed to know about cloning, I did not learn from Jurassic Park (to be fair, I have not read the book), and I am dismayed at the thought that people will think they have "learned" about genetic testing from Next.

Final thought: For an example of how to rewrite Next - even in such a way that it has almost exactly the same plotlines - but with less bias and more exploration of actual issues rather than the panic-stricken tone adopted here, take a look at Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. In it, Stephenson clearly and concisely sets out the history of cryptography, and also explores future possible developments of the technology of cryptography, both good and bad. It's a big book, and will take you longer than 3 days to read (which is roughly how long it took me to get through Next, mostly while commuting to and from work), but there are certainly worse things on which you could waste brain-cells and time.

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