The Churn tells the early backstory of Amos Burton, one of our heroes on the Rocinante in Leviathan Wakes and onwards. It is set in the criminal substrate of future Baltimore. Large parts of the city have been submerged by rising sea levels, and it is in general a crappy place to live; a backwater that no one cares very much.
The apathetic attitude of the denizens of Baltimore, and by implication much of Earth, is well portrayed. Most are living on Basic, a sort of dole where they get free (bland) food and basic services but do not have to work. Many are unregistered and have no real identity in the eyes of the authorities. They live their lives without purpose or hope for a better future. And they look upwards at Mars and the Outer Planets with a dreamlike wonder, knowing that they are very unlikely to have a chance at a better tomorrow up there.
This is the first Crichton novel I have had a hard time finishing. Somewhere in the middle, I just lost interest. It’s a decent story, but frequently disjointed and muddled. Very much unlike Crichton’s usual very focused style. Thankfully, it does pick up at the end, and Crichton is never really a bad author.
As with all Crichton’s novels, there is a central theme. This time it’s global warning. In an interesting twist, the author takes a dissenting opinion. While the views of characters should never be mistaken for being the same as the author’s, Crichton does make himself quite clear in the afterword. Put simply, he claims there is not enough research to prove global warming one way or another. Interesting. It should be noted that Crichton likes his scholarly afterwords and bibliographies. I have learned to take them with a pinch of salt.
The story revolves around an aging philanthropist, his young lawyer, and a large environmental organization. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the environmentalist organization intends to influence public opinion by attempting to control natural phenomena. For example, they wish to create a flash flood to focus attention on global warming. Crichton writes characters and their interactions with each other and technology with his usual skill.
It is important to remember the title. I don’t think Crichton wrote State of Fear as a treatise on global warming. The point of the novel (apart from entertainment of course) is twofold: First, instill some healthy skepticism about accepting any “accepted truth”. Secondly, discuss how the “powers that be” need society to fear something in order to keep it in check. A central passage in the book deals with this explictly. With the media as a willing messenger, fear is brought home to the public. Current western society is as safe as it has ever been, and yet people are irrationally fearful of many things. Maybe that’s because they are constantly hammered with wall to wall coverage of murder, war, climate change and assorted doom. It’s not that the Cold War or Global Warming are only in our minds, but the way such phenomena are “sold” to us is full of hyperbole and fearmongering.
Be skeptical. Crichton subtly reminds the reader of this with the last tongue-in-cheek point of his afterword: “Everybody has an agenda. Except me.”
What I really liked was the sheer contrarianism of the whole thing. The environmentalists are portrayed as dissention squashing fanatics. The movement is anything but grass roots, but feeds on a vast mass of donations, much of it from rich but perhaps misguided individuals who need something to do. Those asking for clear, untainted evidence are hung out as traitors to the Earth. No matter how you feel about global warming, it’s an interesting read just for that. As a thriller, though, it is only fair to middling. Crichton has done better.