Book Article

Leaping Lizards

Michael Crichton's ''Jurassic Park'' -- The author's new novel assembles a cast of rampaging dinosaurs to illustrate the dangers of genetic engineering

Fanged, eight-ton carnivores have been kind to Michael Crichton. Their colorful lives inspired his latest thriller, Jurassic Park, a novel about a theme park stocked with dinosaurs cloned from fossils by clever geneticists, whom the dinosaurs ungratefully regard as lunch meat. Universal has paid Crichton $1.5 million for a movie version Steven Spielberg will direct. The author gets another $500,000 to write the screenplay. ''It allows Spielberg to work somewhere between the poles of Jaws and E.T.,'' Crichton says. On the wall behind him in his Santa Monica office, a paleontologically correct storyboard depicts a dinosaur in the jungle watching a couple of kids hungrily, like E.T. contemplating Reese's Pieces. Jurassic Park's budget is estimated at $50 million.

Crichton, 48, has been working the goose-bump trade for decades. In the '60s he worked his way through Harvard Medical School by writing mysteries. One day he realized what a bully pulpit a pulp novel could be. His 1968 novel A Case of Need used the detective genre to study the issue of abortion; it won the Edgar Award as the year's best mystery novel and became a 1972 James Coburn movie, The Carey Treatment. Then The Andromeda Strain, a tale of virulent microbes from outer space and the government's effort to enlist them in the U.S. armed forces, made Crichton famous in 1969. He went to Hollywood to hang around during the filming of the 1971 Andromeda movie and got to know directors — including a youngster named Spielberg, who was still shooting TV shows for Universal. Crichton has lived in California ever since.

He had found his calling — and it was entertainment, not medicine. ''The teaching at Harvard Medical School was so bad it was unbelievable,'' says Crichton. Instead of using his M.D. to practice, he became a kind of science teacher himself. Not since G. B. Shaw and H.G. Wells has a mass-market author been so passionately animated by the rage to educate. But while those writers preached the gospel of Progress, Crichton's mission is precisely the opposite — he writes books (and directs movies like Coma) to warn us against the most advanced scientific ideas of his time.

The ideas behind his new book involve biotechnology trends that alarm him. Crichton concedes that reanimated thunder lizards are not the principal danger posed by genetic engineering. But he thinks they're a great way to get the public thinking about the consequences of recent breakthroughs. ''Do people have any idea what we're dealing with?'' he demands, his eyes wide behind round spectacles, ''or do they think nature is some kind of very complicated but ultimately comprehensible mechanical system, and there are just a few details left to work out, so why don't we go ahead and do any damn genetic thing we feel like? I think that's suicidal. If you think radioactive milk from Swedish cows after Chernobyl is frightening, wait until some idiot decides to make a plant virus to improve the cocoa leaf, and it wrecks all the planet's chlorophyll because he made a mistake. Oops!''

Utterly preoccupied with the morals of his stories, Crichton is not exactly a disciple of fine writing. ''I'm not interested in having a distinctive style,'' he says. ''Because I deal with technical information, the highest goal I aspire to is clarity. I don't really care if it's graceful.'' Capable of tapping out 10,000 words a day, Crichton once defined his style as ''arrant seventh gradeism.''

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