Monday, July 27, 2009

Michael Crichton's Sphere

Sphere, the 1987 thriller, by ER writer Michael Crichton, certainly lived up to Newsweek's rave that it's a page turner.

Yep, I turned page after page and gobbled the book off in a Jiffy. But when I was done I had indigestion.

The nail biting suspense, the action, the juicy science fiction - like a Stephen Hawking lecture come alive -had me telling Angel Girl and the Little Gentleman "No I can't look now" until all 371 pages had been downed.

But afterwards I hissed my teeth- like I often do after I've stayed up late watching some crappy movie and must deal with the consequence the following day when I'm sluggish getting out of bed - and said "I could beat myself". Chruups.

I'm sorry, any novel about time travel is going to end up with all sorts of issues that can never be resolved. You can never sort them out and say yeah well that makes sense, not even in the context of the world created by the writer. And if mankind ever achieves time travel, we can't credit Crichton the way we did Verne - for Crichton has the benefit of all sorts of physicists and what not saying it is possible we just haven't figured out how to do it yet. Whereas Verne concocted a spacecraft and submarine out of his own imagination; truly avant-garde.

Then a couple of things that seemed to have significance just petered out to nothing, leaving me saying "huh?". For instance there is something that keeps gradually changing appearance, and I thought, surely this must have some bearing on the outcome of the novel, Crichton will tell me in a little while why this thing is changing and show me some connection with the action taking place. Wrong, that never happened.

Then the pschological conflict gets resolved in a way that New York Times says is "exactly the way [it] should be". Sure, it's the way it should be, but it's certainly not the way it would be; come on, which human being is going to come in possession of dizzying amounts of power and voluntarily give it up for the good of humanity? And here not one, not two, but three characters say, 'Gee, it's not good that I should have such an inordinate amount of power, let me destroy it'.

So after reading this novel, I wonder if Sphere isn't riding on the popularity of Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain and The Great Train Robbery.

8 comments:

Daisy Soap Girl said...

I hate when a book does not live up to it's review. And you keep reading hoping to get to the good part.

Anonymous said...

I am a fan of Michael Crichton Jay, I enjoyed "Disclosure" and the movie based on the novel. Last week I was in a hair dressing palour browsing through a magazine and low and below there was an article reporting his death!Did you know that he had recently passed away?

Stunner said...

Sphere... wasn't that a movie? I'm so outa touch with novels.

Reinhart said...

I know this is probably a bit late seeing as how you wrote this months ago. But I was looking online for some discussion about the end of the novel and found this.

SPOILER:

I felt that the end illustrated that Beth did not in fact give up here power. I'm assuming your comment on the character who kept changing in appearance was about her and it was mentioned at the end. Norman commented on how she looked beautiful, as if he hadn't noticed before and she "slowly turned her head and smiled" seems to be a rather indirect way of saying she didn't wish her powers away. Further, she hesitated the most when they were agreeing on surrendering the powers given to them by the Sphere.

Jacqueline Smith said...

Oh thanks for engaging me on this Reinhart, you've supported your insight quite well. In that case the ending is a clever cliff-hangar. I'll revisit the novel to see if I feel the same way. But tell me your opinion on this, is my attitude toward the human condition with respect to how most people view power unduly cynical, or is it realistic? How much power do people satisfy with? Do people tend to want more, the more they get?

Reinhart said...

Well, first I just realized I read what you wrote wrong. You said 'something' I remembered 'someone' you were referring to the sphere itself. I also found that odd, but it seemed to change every time someone went inside of it. Maybe in a way it took on a new shape in accordance with the personality of the person who entered it. It was also an early hint that someone else went inside of it. When Harry entered it, someone (Norman?) noted that the pattern changed. But it changed later without it being stated that someone went inside of it (Beth) and then later when Norman went inside the sphere, he noted the change again.
I will agree with you on that being a loose end though. Crichton could have done much more with that.

Anyway, to address your question about power. It's matter of perspective, a great many people seem to pursue power throughout the course of their lives. That power can be attained through control over others, money, political influence or what have you. Once we have it, I would have to say that we want more, we're never really satisfied. Money is a good example. I don't make much money but I make more than a lot of people in the world, I complain that I don't make much and I want more. I see other people who make a great deal more than myself that are used to a lifestyle a great deal richer than mine and they are complaining about how they need more. Even though I'm surviving and (in reality) content with my income, it doesn't stop me, or the person with more than me, from wanting more, it seems to be in human nature and this is also the way with power; even if you have a great deal, you always want more or to quote a popular cliche "You can never have to much of a good thing", which most rational people know is actually not true.

Historically there are indeed very few examples of people presented with more power refusing it, one prominent example is General and later President George Washington. The man could have been king, a lot of early Americans wanted him to be king, but he refused. What kind of a person, what great measure of moral character does it take to refuse absolute power? Also, with more power (often) comes more responsibility and I suppose this is a matter of personal ambition.

All that said, as a rule, I would say you are being realistic. In the novel, when Harry, Beth and Norman are presented with this dilemma of should we cast aside these god-like powers or surrender them? I'm not entirely sure they would have. None of them were bad people persay, neither Harry or Norman ever exhibit a particular desire for power but they're also human the promise of being able to do essentially anything you want is an attractive proposition. If my take on the ending is correct, Beth couldn't resist that temptation.

If you aren't an ambitious person, you probably don't have a use for great power. But if you are, history shows us there does not exist enough power to quench that thirst. All great (though not all good) rulers wanted more, Alexander the Great conquered the known world, Julius Caesar conquered vast tracts of land and basically never stopped until his assassination, Adolf Hitler consolidated lands taken during World War 1 and then took more, Napoleon Bonaparte was well on his way to conquering Europe, would he have stopped there? Probably not. Genghis Khan united all Mongols, conquered huge tracts of land and was stopped only be death, Shaka Zulu united or conquered most African tribes and then put up an unbelievable defense against technologically superior invaders, nearly winning; if not for them, he would have likely conquered all of Africa.

I would seem power is combustible, that is the more you throw on the fire the hotter the fire burns and the faster the fuel is consumed. In order to keep the fire burning or quench your thirst for more power, you need more power.

*Deep breath* Sorry for that long winded reply, but you got me thinking, hahaha.

Jacqueline Smith said...

Longwinded? No. Elaborate? Yes! And I am sure there is much more you could say on the topic.

I'm glad you touched on the sphere’s changing, I wanted to point that out but since the details of the novel are so sketchy in my mind now I wasn't sure what to say.

Thanks for being my sounding board on this. I was worried that I had become jaded.

We can’t really know what is in us until presented with opportunity, but most of us will never be presented with some kinds of opportunities. So most of us walk through life, clean and respectable, without ever knowing what we are capable of, (which is not a bad thing for society). That’s what was happening to Norman and the others. Until they come in contact with the sphere.

This is one of the good things about the better kind of fiction don’t you think? Like the study of history of mankind, it’s an excellent way of trying to get at what is in man. Here is why I find fiction useful in this respect; since we can’t really know ourselves until we are placed in situations and given opportunities, and since in reality we will never experience certain things, nor is it feasible or even possible to, then drafting up scenarios, like Crichton does here, helps us to think about who we really are. Of course we must draw on what we already know about ourselves to help us find out the answers. For instance, you showed from history that when a person is really thirsty for power, there doesn’t exist enough power to satisfy that thirst. But what about ordinary people, not exceptionally ambitious, like Norman? As you said the proposition of being able to do anything, is a huge temptation. A few can resist. (Oh, I didn't know that about George Washington, good on him!) But the majority? I don’t think so.

I mean, power comes in all sorts of shapes as you mention- power over others, power over the environment, power over our own existence. Look at us already. Look at the price we sometimes pay for just a small measure of power. We pay to stay young, if we could, we would pay to live forever. Some of us try anyway. We use all sorts of guises to get just a little bit of edge over the next guy – but societal norms and other checks restrain us, so most of us can function in the pecking order we fall in at work and so on. So when Crichton asks, what if god-like power were just within your reach? I’m disposed to believing that most of us would really find it hard to resist.

Anonymous said...

Beth did not relinquish the power. This is proven by her miraculous beauty in the end and also, most importantly, by the lone female found in the ship. This crew member had a remarkable resemblance to Beth as was noted by her fellow scientists.
This leads me to believe that Beth is the nude woman's ancestor and therefore retained her knowledge of the sphere.