A funny thought hit me halfway through Michael Crichton's latest technothriller, State of Fear. The heroes are racing around Flagstaff, Ariz., outrunning lightning bolts aimed at them from the skies by tech-savvy environmental crazies, who are out to start a flash flood that will kill thousands. The set piece includes rocket launchers, shoot-outs, a river rescue, and two dozen scorpions. Sweaty stuff, but, strangely, what I'm thinking is, Can you guys just finish this up and go back to sitting around and talking about science?
It's a first for Crichton, whose thrillers, from Jurassic Park to Timeline to Prey, have always alternated ginormous action scenes with user-friendly rap sessions that outline the facts on DNA, quantum teleportation,'' or nanobots. Finally, he's written a book in which the science turns pages faster than the derring-do does. That's because, with Fear, Crichton's found his best button-pushing subject yet: global warming.
Crichton doesn't buy it, and he's out to discredit the whole theory. For real! No wonder the novel's been cloaked in such secrecy right up till publication. ''The threat of global warming,'' as one character puts it, ''is essentially nonexistent.'' Ass-kicking scientist/spy John Kenner, this book's eloquent Crichton surrogate, actually compares it to Y2K and African killer bees. Methane-producing termites, apparently, pose a graver danger to the planet than CO2 emissions! But though his story is fiction, Crichton backs himself up with real-life charts, graphs, copious footnotes, two appendices, a 21-page bibliography, and a five-page concluding ''author's message'' (''I think for anyone to believe in impending resource scarcity...is kind of weird'' ). In the vacuum of the book, it's pretty compelling evidence. And it's a kick to watch a brainiac like Crichton chomp down on the conventional wisdom about global warming with the thrashing jaws of a velociraptor.
This stuff's way better than nanobots or time travel. But his plot, for once, is a distraction. A boilerplate group of Crichton good guys in addition to Kenner, there's a computer-whiz sidekick, a pair of hot, brainy, athletic women, and a bland lawyer blandly named Peter Evans traverse the planet to foil a band of ecoterrorists who are surreptitiously staging killer-weather events in a bogus attempt to raise concerns over global warming. Evans gets stuck in a crevasse in subzero Antarctica and then hunted by cannibals during the jungle-island finale, but this still shocks me I was most enthralled during his loooong plane rides to and fro, when Kenner, killing time, schools him and other reader surrogates on climate change. The Kyoto Protocol? Shmotocol!
Part of the fun is that, for the first 400 pages or so, Crichton wants you to think of him as a right-wing nut. Don't be fooled. He's not just deflating global-warming environmentalists. When he finally gets around to explaining what he means by ''state of fear,'' it's in another character-sputtered rant on ''the way modern society works by the constant creation of fear'' by politicians, lawyers, and the media. Michael Moore, who made the same point in Bowling for Columbine, could've written the passage. State of Fear is one of Crichton's best because it's as hard to pigeonhole as greenhouse gas but certainly heats up the room.