The Future Needs Us!

Prey

by Michael Crichton
HarperCollins, 367 pp., $26.95

Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton; drawing by David Levine

Prey is a thriller, well constructed and fun to read, like Michael Crichton’s other books. The main characters are the narrator, Jack, and his wife, Julia, parents of three lively children, successfully combining the joys of parenthood with the pursuit of brilliant careers in the high-tech world of Silicon Valley. Julia works for a company called Xymos that is developing nanorobots, tiny machines that can move around and function autonomously but are programmed to work together like an army of ants. Jack works for a company called MediaTronics that makes software to coordinate the actions of large groups of autonomous agents. His programs give intelligence and flexibility to her machines.

Things start to go wrong when Jack loses his job and is left to take care of the kids, while Julia is working longer and longer hours at her laboratory and losing interest in the family. She is engaged in a secret struggle to develop her nanorobots into a stealthy photo-reconnaissance system that can be sold to the United States Army. To increase the power and performance of the system, she incorporates living bacteria into the nanorobots so that they can reproduce and evolve rapidly. She reprograms them with Jack’s newest autonomous-agent software so that they can learn from experience.

Even with these improvements the nanorobots fail to meet the Army’s specifications, and Xymos loses its Army funding. After that, Julia desperately tries to convert the photo-reconnaissance system into a medical diagnostic system that can be sold on the civilian market. Her idea is to train the nanorobots to enter and explore the human body, so that they can locate tumors and other pathological conditions more precisely than can be done with X-rays and ultrasound working from the outside.

Experimenting with the medical applications of her nanorobots, she uses herself as a guinea pig and becomes chronically infected. The nanorobots learn how to establish themselves as symbionts within her body, and then gradually gain control over her mind. In her deranged state, she deliberately infects three of her colleagues at the laboratory with nanorobots. She also lets a swarm of nanorobots loose into the environment where they prey upon wildlife and rapidly increase in numbers.

The main part of the story concerns Jack’s slow realization that something is seriously amiss with his wife and with the project in which she is engaged. Only at the end does he understand the full horror of her transformation. With the help of a loyal young woman friend, he confronts Julia and douses her with a spray of bacteriophage that is lethal to the bacteria inside her. But Julia and her infected colleagues are no longer able to survive without the symbiotic nanorobots that have taken over their minds. Under the spray of bacteriophage they collapse and die, like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy throws a bucket of…


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