Saturday, January 13, 2007

"Next" by Michael Crichton, A Review

Crichton, for those unfamiliar with his work, is a modern day Aseop or Grimm Brothers. The primary purpose of most of his writing is not to entertain, which he does, but instead to write cautionary tales with a moral and ethical lesson, about scientific and/or technological issues of the day. In previous works he has commented on subjects ranging from global warming ("State of Fear"2004), to extraterrestrial pathogens, ("The Andromeda Strain"1968), to Nanotechnology ("Prey"2002), to behavior modification through cybernetics ("The Terminal Man" 1972), to the dangers of genetically recreating extinct organisms ("Jurrassic Park"1990, and "The Lost World"1995), to the unreliability of photographic evidence in the age of digital imaging ("Rising Sun"1992), among many others. Often his bibliography is as enlightening as his novels which generally attempt to straddle the line between what is current reality and what may be possible in the near future. Crichton weaves current research with extrapolation and tries to blur the line of what is real and what is fiction. He is usually good in doing so, but occasionally he overreaches (Prey being a prime example.) resulting in what is clearly fanciful rhetoric.
In "Next" Crichton takes on the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by genetic manipulation and it's potential effects on behavior and intelligence, as well as the ethical and moral implications of genetic patents. Crichton examines how close, genetically speaking, our closest relatives, the Chimpanzee and Bonobo, are to us and what it means to be human and the ethics and rights of transgenic species that show human intelligence and sentience. He also looks at the societal implications of blaming behavior on genetics instead of taking responsibility for our actions. He examines what it means to own someone else's genetic material and the legal implications of genetic patents. Finally he examines the ethics of genetic manipulation of humans, as well as wild animals when there is no full understanding of the implications of such manipulation. This is one of Crichton's better offerings. The science involved is certainly possible although the difficulties are somewhat glossed over. Certainly Crichton's medical (he interned in Dr. Jonas Salk's lab before leaving to become a writer) and anthropology (he was the Henry Russell Shaw Travelling Fellow, 1964-65 and Visiting Lecturer in Anthropology at Cambridge University) background shows in his mastery of the medical and social aspects of the issues. The novel is a weaving of several separate plot lines that merge at the end of the story.

SPOILER WARNING, Plot lines and elements will be revealed below.

Plot line #1: A man finds that his tissue biopsies taken while being treated for cancer have been found to be efficient manufacturers of a potent cancer fighting peptide and have been patented without his knowledge or permission by a state funded university who in turn licenses it to a biotechnology firm. When the firm's cell lines are sabotaged by a competitor, they decide that they have the legal right to collect more of them from the original donor who is currently suing the university and the biotech company for the theft of his genetic material. When the original donor manages to disappear to prevent the harvesting of more of his tissues, they decide that they have the right to obtain the genetic material from his offspring. And even manage to have the courts declare eminent domain over the donor and his descendants tissues. His daughter and her son find themselves on the run from a pair of bounty hunters who are out to take biopsies without their permission, and are willing to kidnap their quarry to do so.

Plot Line #2: The same Biotech company is doing research into the gene that appears to modulate maturation. They have genetically engineered a mouse virus to turn this gene on in mice. One of the lab technicians is called away during the dosing of a batch of mice with the virus in order to bail his drug abusing and good for nothing older brother out of jail (yet again). He takes the aerosol dosing tool with him to ensure that it does not leave his possession, even though it violates a number of safety protocols to remove it from the lab. While the technician is busy getting gasoline after bailing his brother out, his brother starts playing with the dosing tool and inadvertently doses himself with the modified virus. The younger bother discovers he has done so and is very angry and scared but then reasons that the virus is specific to mice and does not infect humans and decides that his brother is probably in no danger. Soon thereafter his brother kicks the drug habit, gets and holds a good job and is soon living a model life. His mother, who sees the change, interrogates the older brother and learns that he was exposed to this virus. His mother then in turn insists that he dose the drug abusing son of one of her friends as well. He too cleans up his act and goes straight. He tells his boss who is angry but at the same time sees this as a possible way out of the company's problems with the lawsuit and sabotaged cell lines which were on the brink of becoming a commercial success and gives his tacit approval to move forward. Soon others have been dosed as well in a very unsafe and uncontrolled experiment. But trouble comes when the full effects of the virus are learned.

Plot line #3: A genetic researcher working with chimpanzees illegally creates a Human/Chimp Hybrid using his own DNA as the human donor, but thinks the female chimp pregnant with the fetus was killed by an outbreak of encephalitis, when in fact she was transferred to another lab and he is transferred as well to a different lab. Fast forward a few years, he is contacted by the director of the original lab when it is discovered that the offspring is genetically a human/chimp hybrid during routine bloodwork. The offspring is sentient and able to talk. They deduce that the chimp is a human/chimp hybrid and that the researcher is the "father" based on gestation times and who had access to the mother. He is told that the experiment is illegal and the chimp/human hybrid must be destroyed in order to protect the lab's funding. Instead of allowing the hybrid to be destroyed, he instead steals the hybrid, takes it home, shaves him and attempts to pass the chimp off as his adopted son who suffers from an exceedingly rare (and ficticious) genetic mutation that makes him look apelike. Even to the point of enrolling him in school with his human son. The researcher, his family, and "Dave" the chimp finds that chimpanzee instincts and human social interactions can lead to a dangerous mix.

Plot line #4: A genetic researcher studying the mimicry and language abilities of parrots creates a human/parrot hybrid but does not realize the bird's sentience and intelligence until it is discovered that the bird has been helping her son with his math homework. The researcher, discovers that her husband has been cheating from the bird's mimicry as well. The husband steals the parrot and sells him in a fit of rage. But the bird is angry and wants to be returned home to his family, he is mean and hateful to a succession of owners leading to the bird being set loose to survive on it's own in the wild.

Plot line #5: A transgenic orangutan with similar traits to Dave, apparently the result of a copycat experiment by the lab director where Dave was born, is discovered living in the wilds of Sumatra.

Plot line #6: The "inside man" that perpetrated the sabotage of the biotech company's cell lines is set up and accused of having sex with a minor. He is a pedophile and his lawyer instructs him that he will use a genetic predisposition defense and that he suffers a mutation in the "thrill seeking gene" despite the fact that the research in the subject is superficial at best. And to help bolster his defense he should go forth and ride roller coasters and have dangerous and unprotected sex (legally!) and drive fast and recklessly (and be sure to be ticketed for same) in order to document his lack of control. This leads to him committing murder.

Plot line #7: An ecoterrorist and artist wishes to protect sea turtles from roving jaguars during egg laying after being prodded in that direction by a nature preserve guide in South America. He researches how he might genetically modify the turtles so that the Jaguars would be scared away but learns that it is far more complicated than he thought when he attempts to perform said modifications at a home built lab. Meanwhile turtles with glowing shells are washing ashore and laying eggs. The ecoterrorist is arrested on suspicion of doing the modification, but he is however a patsy for the real culprit.

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