Prey by Michael Crichton, Harper Collins, €17.35
(Review published Sunday, January 12, 2003, The Sunday Business Post, review by Alex Meehan.)
When Jurassic Park became one of the biggest hits of the 1990s, scientists bemoaned the fact that the story’s nightmare scenario of the return of the dinosaurs set back the image of genetic engineering by ten years.
With Michael Crichton’s latest techno-thriller, Prey, those in the know are already levelling the same accusations. The plot follows a tried and trusted Crichton formula — meddling scientists have opened a technological can of worms in the misguided pursuit of profit.
This time however, instead of giant dinosaurs running amok, microscopic nanotechnology robots have escaped from a secure research laboratory in the Nevada desert and are threatening to engulf the world.
The story centres on an out-of-work Silicon Valley programmer, Jack Forman, and begins by detailing his marital difficulties with wife Julia. She works for the mysterious Xymos Corporation, and has started putting in odd hours.
Jack suspects she is having an affair and so jumps at the chance to work for Xymos himself, troubleshooting a state of the art computer system using software he originally helped design.
The meat of the story takes place at the Xymos facility in the remote desert, where it emerges that ground-breaking research into the use of nanotechnology to create remote controlled spy technology has gone horribly wrong.
Millions of microscopic nanobots have escaped the facility and are lying in wait for their creators outside the safety of the lab. Jack, along with the usual mix of scientist types, is trapped inside and is faced with the problem of killing off the nanobots before it’s too late.
Nanotechnology is still in its infancy as a technology, but the premise is that machines can be made so small that they could, for example, be used inside the human body for medical purposes.
Prey explores the idea that such atom-sized machines could be controlled using computer software, replicating the characteristics of animals, most notably predators and prey.
But the nanobots in Prey start to reproduce like bacteria and create man-sized swarms, and also develop the ability to evolve. The swarms appear and disappear at will and can float through keyholes and under doors, but most worrying of all is that they start to eat living things in order to reproduce.
For Jack Forman, a potential solution comes in the form of interpreting the programming behind the techno-bugs. They act like animals, so if you know how animals act you can fool the swarm. At least for a while.
Prey isn’t an awful read, it’s just not as good as you expect from someone like Crichton. It has its high points — his descriptions of characters working against the clock help to build tension, while the plot development at the beginning is well handled.
But the characters are mostly one-dimensional stereotypes with little engaging depth. Lengthy sections recall phone conversations and most of the time the plot is as transparent as a mediocre airport novel.
In addition, large tracts of text are given over to lengthy explanations of the technology involved in this type of research, as well as the philosophical implications of its use. While this is a clunky technique that interrupts the flow of the book, it has also left Crichton open to criticism for other reasons.
The specialist website Nanotechnology Now said in its review of Prey that the science was “not just wrong, it’s stupid”.
This would be forgivable in the name of a good plot, but sadly Prey does not read like the latest offering of an experienced and extremely successful author. It would make a fine lightweight holiday read, but don’t expect to be blown away.
Interestingly, the movie version of this book is already in pre-production and should be in cinemas by 2004. Unlike Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs though, swarms of semi-invisible nanobots don’t immediately spring to mind as ideal silver screen baddies.