Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton; drawing by David Levine

According to a Haggadic legend, when God decided to create the world he said to Justice, “Go and rule the earth which I am about to create.” But it did not work. God tried seven times to create a world ruled by Justice, but they were all failures and had to be destroyed. Finally, on the eighth try, God called in Mercy and said, “Go, and together with Justice, rule the world that I am about to create, because a world ruled only by Justice cannot exist.” This time, apparently, it worked, more or less. Nor was the God of the Hebrews simply a Divine Engineer, an empiricist tinkering with the machine until it worked. He was, rather, a Celestial Scientist whose experimental failures and successes served to reveal a general law of the universe, a principle of constraint on how worlds can be put together.

The freedom to create worlds to order, ab initio, is given to few. The social revolutionaries of 1789 and 1917 tried to make new worlds while steeped in the collective consciousness and economic institutions of the old. They were, as Tolstoy said, “in bondage to history.” The Constituent Assembly was filled with lawyers and petty aristocrats. The Soviets were forced to keep the former managers of industrial enterprises in place during the New Economic Policy for want of any competent replacements, and the demand of peasants was for their own land, not for collectivization. Even divine coups d’état may have to assimilate the personnel and attitudes of the old regime, as the Olympians found when they had to keep some of the Titans on, partly for technological work like holding up the world and partly as allies in their own family squabbles.

Nor does one experiment with history. The Soviet agronomist T.D. Lysenko was accused by geneticists of ignoring the necessity of controlled experiments to validate his claims of the inheritance of acquired characteristics as a method for plant improvement. His response was that controlled experiment might be fine for the detached world of the laboratory, but that the task of feeding the people left no such leisure. Should Comrade Lenin, he asked, have left the anti-Bolshevik hetman Skoropansky in power in the Ukraine in order that a controlled experiment in socialist revolution could be performed?

One can, then, understand the hubris of natural scientists who, like the Haggadic God, are able to create experimental worlds at will, and when, after many replications, the experiment fails, can change the rules and try again. Moreover, like Jehovah, they, too, are superior to more empiricist engineers, for they derive general laws of the natural world from their constructions. The situation of the historian or social scientist, on the other hand, is even worse than that of the revolutionary, for the social scientist has no power at all to remake society along radically different lines in order to test hypotheses about the forces of social formation. At best, there are the “natural experiments,” the multiple histories of varied societies whose characteristics might reveal the effect of variation in one causal circumstance or another.

The great attraction of cultural anthropology in the past was precisely that it seemed to offer such a richness of independent natural experiments; but unfortunately it is now clear that there has been a great deal of historical continuity and exchange among those “independent” experiments, most of which have felt the strong effect of contact with societies organized as modern states.1 More important, there has never been a human society with unlimited resources, or three sexes, or the ability to communicate only by twittering like birds, or the power to read other people’s minds, or to be transported great distances at the speed of light. How then are we to know the effect on human social organization and history of the need to scrabble for a living, or of the existence of males and females, or of the power to make our tongues drop manna and so to make the worse appear the better reason? A solution to the epistemological impotence of social theory has been to create a literature of imagination and logic in which the consequences of radical alterations in the conditions of human existence are deduced. It is the literature of science fiction.

In a period when all aspects of popular culture have become valid subjects for academic critical analysis, none has become so completely integrated into the intellectual apparatus as science fiction. There are journals of science fiction analysis, scholarly symposia, series of critical studies in “speculative” fiction, and annotated bibliographies. So “Star Trek—a Philosophical Interpretation,” originally a paper at an MLA conference, appears in a section on “Philosophy in Star Trek and Problems about Persons,” in a book, The Intersection of Science Fiction and PhilosophyCritical Studies,2 which is the fourth in a series entitled “Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Widener Library at Harvard lists 1,518 titles on the subject, three quarters of which are writings about science fiction, in languages from Arabic to Uzbek. Nor is this simply the appearance in scholarly contexts of individual literary works of a particular kind that exemplify some historically interesting philosophical preoccupation, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or that are part of the larger corpus of a writer’s work, like Dickens’s mystery and crime novels. It is science fiction as a genre that is the object of so much attention, quite aside from any claims for the literary merit of any particular works, and often despite their evident lack of craft. This interest arises precisely because science fiction is the laboratory in which extraordinary social conditions, never possible in actuality, are used to illumine the social and historical norm. What Rosemary Jackson says about much of fantastic literature describes the heart of science fiction as well:


Presenting that which cannot be, but is, fantasy exposes a culture’s definitions of that which can be: it traces the limits of its epistemological and ontological frame.3

Science fiction stories are the Gedanken experiments of social science.

Not all of what passes for science fiction traces the limits of a culture’s epistemological and ontological frame. There is a body of adventure literature that uses real and near-real technology to construct a mise en scène, without in any way testing our assumptions about humanity. Indeed, science fiction originated in the rather modest technological speculations of Jules Verne, whose A Journey to the Center of the Earth and From the Earth to the Moon were in large part accurate essays on the state of mid-nineteenth-century geology, chemistry, and ballistics. The Buck Rogers space operas, whose cut-rate movie versions occupied the Saturday afternoons of my youth, and their contemporary multimillion dollar equivalent, Star Wars, are just high-speed action stories in which the cops and robbers wear funny suits and drive around in jet-propelled dinner plates. It is to this latter class that Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and The Lost World belong, although, without the costumes, they are a sort of amalgam of Indiana Jones and King Kong.4 Virtually every element of the great body of speculative fiction that is meant to test a question of social structure or human nature is excluded from Crichton’s dinosaur stories, both in print and in the movie versions. For the most part they are concerned with a variety of sharp teeth and bad smells, which cause the release of large amounts of adrenaline followed by blood, sweat, and tearing flesh.

Both novels can be described by the same scheme, because, in fact, they are identical in form and content. Only the names have been changed. The first, Jurassic Park (JP) was clearly written with an eye to its sequel, The Lost World (LW), with lots of hints that, despite the fiery destruction of their original habitat, we haven’t seen the last of the nasties. Using DNA preserved in the fossilized guts of ancient mosquitoes, molecular biologists have succeeded in recreating living, breathing, teeth-gnashing, bellowing dinosaurs. The purpose of the exercise is to make millions for their financial backers, who will display them in a theme park at a price of admission presumably somewhat in excess of a ticket to Disney World. The park is on an island in the Caribbean (JP), but the dinosaur production factory is on a different island (LW). Before the opening of the park (JP), or after its destruction (LW), there appears on the relevant dinosaur-infested island a small group whose important members are:

(1) a mathematician,

(2) a paleontologist,

(3) a macho game-park keeper (JP) or macho engineer (LW),

(4) a couple of computer nerd kids, male and female, both white in JP but a racially mixed pair in LW,

(5) a resourceful, strong female veterinarian (JP) or expert in animal behavior (LW),

(6) a repulsive evil scientist intent on stealing some dinosaur embryos for a competitive enterprise (JP), or to establish animal colonies for drug testing with creatures so unlovable that the animal rights movement will be disarmed (LW).

The problem for the characters is to avoid being eaten by the dinosaurs who have escaped from the carefully designed and computer-controlled containment facilities either because the evil scientist and a storm have interfered with the controls (JP) or because the facility was long ago shut down and abandoned (LW). While avoiding being nibbled, slashed, crunched or crushed by reptiles of a variety of sizes, temperaments, and eating habits, the good guys need to stop a ship that threatens to land on the mainland with some dinosaur stowaways (JP) or get to a helicopter landing site on time (LW), tasks that can only be accomplished by penetrating the secrets of a very complicated computer system.


The kids, fresh from years of Nintendo practice, figure it out, and they escape, while the evil scientist becomes the just dessert of a voracious lizard. Chapter after chapter, one hair-breadth escape follows another, including a literal cliffhanger in which a car hangs from the boughs of a tree, descending jerkily as each branch breaks (JP), or a trailer hangs from an escarpment, unwinding from a connecting cable that breaks strand by strand (LW). The immense popularity of the books and the movie (presumably to be followed by another film version) must flow from the unfamiliarity of the animals, at least in the simulated flesh. A great deal more variety in gore can, after all, be produced by encounters with extant creatures. One can be trampled by an elephant, mauled by a lion, torn limb from limb by a gorilla, squeezed and then ingested whole by a constrictor, and nibbled to death by swarms of ants. All we need is a novel about being trapped in the Central Park Zoo with all the doors left open by a mad animal lover.

The key elements in Crichton’s novels also appear in works of speculative science fiction, but there they serve structural rather than simply narrative purposes. Alien life forms usually appear in either of two roles. In one they are endowed with a mixture of human and non-human characteristics in order to “test” the effect of particular traits on social organization or to confront ordinary human beings with the problem of forming some social relation with those who are not quite like us. In Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, everyone spends part of life as a biological male and part as female. Dr. Spock has human form, intelligence, and morality, but no emotions. The other function of alien life forms is to be so powerful and inimical to all of human life, and so extraordinary in their properties, that our social organization is tested in the extreme. H.G. Wells in 1898, not having yet seen a real enemy that threatened civilized society, could only invent one in The War of the Worlds. But his Martians, unlike the National Socialists, had no doctrine, no hate, no pride, no desires, and so could not be opposed by any historically understood means. They were, for Wells, a scientific instrumentality. As the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem wrote, “The Martians function as a tool, committing a horrific experiment on behalf of the writer, in order to open his readers’ eyes.”5 In the end they were defeated only by an equally mechanical and unselfconscious species, alien to them, the measles virus.

The island, often in the form of an isolated and physically alien planet to which the original colonists have been exiled, provides the opportunity for the development of a new society in radically new circumstances. The canonical works of modern science fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, are just such explorations of utopias and dystopias that are consequent on imagined expulsions from familiar worlds to barren and hostile planets. Indeed, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is dystopian science fiction without the technological trappings, in which we see an isolated world of adolescents, freed of all adult constraint, forming a society de novo that must nevertheless promote survival in a primitive and hostile environment.

Jurassic Park and its sequel are not part of this body of science fiction. In them, the island and the alien, by their very construction, are deprived of any force beyond thrills and titillations. The island contains the aliens, preventing them from threatening the wider world. The only people in danger are the intruders and all that is tested in them, or in the reader, is stamina and an elementary familiarity with home computers. Nor are the aliens, even those who may escape to the tropical rain forest of Central America, any threat to human existence. We have long passed the time when very large animals with sharp teeth can threaten widespread catastrophe. The sign of their impotence is that the entire collection of dinosaurs is wiped out by the Costa Rican Air Force. King Kong at least threatened Manhattan Island and it took the most advanced military technology of the time to get rid of him. Jurassic Park and The Lost World use some science in creating a fiction, but they are not Science Fiction.

And what of the science? Blood-sucking insects may, in fact, have feasted on dinosaurs, at least young and tender ones, and some remnants of that dino DNA might indeed be preserved in amber. It would not be in very good shape, however, so that only relatively short stretches of gene sequence would be intact, certainly not enough to spell dinosaur. Those of us who use the technology described by Crichton to duplicate DNA from a few original molecules are constantly plagued by the problem of incomplete sequences. Some missing stretches that are highly conserved in evolution could certainly be made up from frogs, as Crichton suggests, and even from fruit flies, but lots could not, certainly not enough to specify a living animal.

But this is nit-picking. We do not ask of fictional science that it be good enough to get a grant from the National Institutes of Health, but only that it approximate the possibilities sufficiently to make the story work without absurdity. The suspension of disbelief is much more difficult in matters of economics. No matter what the cost of admission and however pricey the T-shirts, it does not seem credible that the immense capital cost of the research and production of the animals would be repaid rapidly enough, if ever. For one thing it would take the Berlin airlift to bring in paying customers to the island at a high enough rate to keep the cash flowing. Moreover, people who can pay thousands for an exciting trip to the Caribbean don’t generally care for crowds. I would have thought far more could be made by bringing a few specimens to Orlando or Anaheim.

One consistent theme that runs through both of these adventure novels does link them to the body of philosophical science fiction. A major preoccupation of utopia/dystopia fiction is the problem of limits to human understanding and control of the natural world. The model for science that we all learn in school, reinforced in undergraduate courses, is exemplified by Newton’s Laws of motion and Mendel’s Laws of heredity. There are simple equations that govern the orbit of planets and simple proportions that predict the outcome of sexual reproduction. Chemical reactions occur according to the Law of Combining Proportions. Electrically charged bodies attract with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Science is a collection of simple laws prescribing predictable behavior, dependent only on the values of a few variables like mass, distance, and charge.

But difficulties arise when we try to apply this model to events smaller than planets or larger than individual atoms or to real organisms that may produce exactly five offspring and so cannot obey Mendel’s prediction of a 3:1 ratio of offspring types. No equation that we can write will predict the shape of the stream of water that comes out of a tap, or of the stream of air that produces our weather, or how those shapes change as we watch them. If in disgust with my writing I should crumple up sheet after sheet of this manuscript, no two will have the same pattern of creases. No two organisms, even identical twins, are identical at birth, and two bacterial cells that arise from the division of a single parental cell will have different life histories.

The contrast between the behavior of middle-sized, heterogeneous systems like people or thunderstorms, and the body of classical, simplified, law-like science has been profoundly disturbing to scientists for whom Newton and Mendel remain the ideals. Somehow the messiness of the world must be tamed and brought under the aegis of theoretical simplicity. This imperative has given rise, over the last thirty years, to three distinct theoretical developments whose very names reveal the epistemological angst in which they were born: “catastrophe theory,” “chaos theory,” and “complexity theory.” In Jurassic Park and The Lost World they are jumbled together in the mathematician lan Malcolm’s smug explanations of why all hell keeps breaking loose.

Catastrophe theory concerns the changes that occur in some quite simple dynamical systems which, as predicted by the equations that describe them, change their development drastically at a critical point in an otherwise smooth unfolding. A simple example is a stick that is bent more and more as increasing force is applied to it until, at a critical intensity of force, it snaps, or breaks into frayed ends. Despite what appears as a radically different behavior below and above the critical value, this entire process is predicted by a reasonably simple mathematical expression. Chaos theory analyzes a peculiarity of some very simple systems of temporal change which appear to be wandering at random—as with turbulent atmospheric pressures—but in which the state at some moment is completely determined by the state at the previous moment. So the history of the process never repeats itself and will seem completely chaotic to an outside observer; but the possessor of the appropriate equation can predict the next step perfectly. It is the Faustian fantasy realized. Finally, complexity theory is as yet only a set of metaphors and a rudimentary sketch in the dreams of some venture capitalists of the mind at the Santa Fe Institute for the Study of Complex Systems. It proposes that sufficiently large systems of parts with enough interactions will generate totally new, but simple, “laws of organization” that will explain, among other things, us.

Crichton’s invocation of these trendy theories, although in a confused form, is a reaction to the unlimited epistemological optimism of triumphant nineteenth-century science that still marks our world view. Crichton, through Malcolm, warns us that complicated things are full of nasty surprises and instabilities so we had best leave them alone lest they blow up in our faces. The irony is that the theories he invokes have exactly the opposite intent. They are the latest expression of the belief that all things, no matter how complex they may seem to the surface observer, are simple to those who know the secret. There are no epistemological barriers. Everything is knowable. The population biologist Richard Levins was once approached at a meeting of the Society for General Systems Research by a man who said that he had in his briefcase the ten most pressing problems. A few moments later he met a man who said he had “The General Solution,” but it was too late, for the first man had disappeared in the crowd. In the ultimate science fiction story they would have met. Then what?

This Issue

February 29, 1996