State of Fear

by Michael Crichton

HarperCollins, 603 pp., $27.95

IT'S ALL SO IMPROBABLE. A stray group of unprepared people suddenly joined together to save the planet from catastrophe in a matter of days? A world of pre-September 11 airports, through which they can make hassle-free sprints from Iceland to Los Angeles to the Solomon Islands? A much-married philanthropist, a left-leaning actor with a disturbing resemblance to Martin Sheen, and all the other endlessly beautiful and smart people who invariably inhabit a Michael Crichton novel? I'm hooked instantly. Michael Crichton is, well, Michael Crichton. There's no one else like him, thank God, and the improbabilities combine--as they always do in his books--to make his latest, State of Fear, a fast, fun read.

Be forewarned: State of Fear is a novel about orthodox thinking on global warming, complete with footnotes on climate change. The book's dialogue doesn't exactly make for a fair fight: Crichton pits a knowledgeable scientist against uninformed and brainwashed amateurs, who can only question their opponents' motives, laud their own intentions (they may be wrong but they mean well), and repeat mindless environmental mantras.

So, for instance, a character named Ted Bradley--an actor who played the president on a television series--warns that global warming will result in crop failures, spreading deserts, diseases, species extinction, a rise in sea level, and extreme weather. But John Kenner, a scientist on leave from MIT, makes quick work of the hapless Bradley. "Actually," he dryly notes, "scientific studies do not support your claims. For example, crop failure--if anything, increased carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth. There is some evidence that this is happening. And the most recent satellite studies show the Sahara has shrunk since 1980.* As for new diseases--not true. The rate of emergence of new diseases has not changed since 1960." (The asterisk refers readers to a footnote that cites an article in the September 2002 New Scientist.)

For global warming skeptics, there is satisfaction in watching the book's heroes puncture environmentalism and let out the hot air that inflates the movement's true believers. The informative monologue is a perpetual Crichton trademark. Has anyone had a run like his? So many huge bestsellers, each a major movie, from The Andromeda Strain in 1969 and The Great Train Robbery in 1975, to Jurassic Park in 1990 and The Lost World in 1995. And in every one of them, long discussions of whatever has caught the author's eye. In State of Fear, we get not only global warming, but also the advantages of civilized societies over primitive cultures, alarmism in the mainstream media, and how the witless do-gooders who banned the pesticide DDT have been responsible for millions of malaria deaths in third-world countries.

Much of his protagonist's argument can be found in a speech Crichton made last year at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, in which he took on "the disinformation age." Challenging the belief that this is "a secular society in which many people--the best people, the most enlightened people--do not believe in any religion," he argued that the religion to which they in fact give themselves is "environmentalism," a faith-based fact-lite creed. State of Fear is that 2003 speech in a novel.

IN RESPONSE TO THE BOOK, as if to prove how right Crichton is, the Natural Resources Defense Council sent out a press release that warned media minions not to be fooled. Enviros are quite used to global-warming scare flicks, like The Day After Tomorrow. When the tables are turned on them, however, they feel compelled to warn "media and policymakers" not to "confuse science fiction with science."

In fact, according to the group, it is as wrong to question whether global warming is human-induced as it once was wrong for Galileo to believe the earth is not the center of the universe. "Journalists can help keep State of Fear from producing a state of confusion by keeping their focus on the real debate: How will we act to solve this problem?" the council scolded. Translation: You're not supposed to ask questions. Good people keep the faith.

When the Natural Resources Defense Council reverently cited "climate models" and scientists' "projections" of more warming, as if models and projections were fact, they were behaving just the way Crichton's fictionalized versions do. And Crichton's scientist Kenner takes great joy in referring to the predictions made by enviro darlings that didn't come true. Okay, so maybe it is a little unfair for State of Fear to pit an MIT scientist against a boozy actor or a rich Hollywood housewife who drives an SUV and flies in private planes (but atones by buying a Prius hybrid for the household help). But in a world that is off-kilter, only the heavy hand can provide balance.

The fastidious might take issue with Crichton's odd insistence on realism in science--in a novel to which the word "realism" doesn't exactly apply. But that's Crichton for you. Jurassic Park contained long monologues about the real-world dangers of biotechnology, in a story about scientists who clone a tyrannosaurus rex from the DNA found in the insides of a long-dead bug trapped in amber. State of Fear introduces fantastic methods for causing tidal waves, inducing flash floods, and breaking ice shelves. And for some reason, an aging millionaire philanthropist is tasked with a mission that would challenge a troop of well-armed Special Forces. The book often presents its characters in the style of an airport-bookstore bestseller: "Even by Los Angeles standards, Sarah Jones was an extremely beautiful woman. She was tall, with a honey-colored tan, shoulder length blond hair, blue eyes, perfect features, very white teeth. She was athletic in the casual way that California people were athletic, generally showing up for work in a jogging suit or short tennis skirt."

Well, so what? Crichton still somehow manages to keep you wondering about his characters. And while the people he invents are treated with a light touch, Crichton nonetheless manages to confer his ideas with heft. So he finds himself pushing science within the framework of science fiction and insisting on realism from a pedestal of fiction.

THE NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL criticized Crichton for his "peculiar contrarian take on global warming." It shows you how establishmentarian the environmental lobby has become.

Forget the notion of hard-core scientists who dissect the real world in a relentless quest to get to the truth, no matter what it is. The group used the term "contrarian" as though it were a bad thing.

Debra J. Saunders writes a nationally syndicated column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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