State of Fear – Michael Crichton

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.

Prey – Michael Crichton

Crichton takes on nanotechnology in his usual “one-week story” format. Exciting and with some neat tech stuff but not particularly deep. This sort of thing has an irresistible appeal for a geek like me . Genetics, computers, nanotech, all rolled into one. Pity the book isn’t that good.

Timeline – Michael Crichton

A corporation has developed a way to send people back in time. Something weird has happened, so a group of scholars is sent back to investigate. Needless to say, Bad Things happen. Well researched and written, and very hard to put down.

Disclosure – Michael Crichton

You know it’s Crichton when the chapter headings are days (all in same two weeks or so). I keep coming back to Crichton despite his rather formulaic plots. The guy is a dialogue genius, and his dependency on describing what is, at the time of writing, cutting edge technology, is always good for nostalgia.

This book is way better than Crichton’s norm. Really quite a gripping page turner. The movie is pretty good too.

Sphere – Michael Crichton

It’s another BDO (Big Dumb Object) story! Not the best Crichton. An large sphere is found underwater. Divers are sent down to investigate. Strange things happen. Gee, wasn’t this plot copied for Clarke and Lee’s “Cradle“? Anyway, fun for the SciFi and Crichton buff, and probably ok for everyone else. On a side note, the movie is actually pretty decent. Scary in that Alien way.

Airframe – Michael Crichton

An aircraft encounters severe turbulence and one person dies. At least, that’s what people think happened. The novel follows the investigation by the manufacturer. A “bad” result could mean death for the company

If you are interested in aviation, you should definitely pick this one up. And even if you are not, it is good reading.As usual, Crichton shows how well he can describe corporate environments.

Congo – Michael Crichton

As usual, Crichton serves up a fast paced book in which the plot spans only a couple of days. The ideas are quite fascinating, from the long discussions about what are now very archaic computers to the insightful look into primate psychology. I enjoy Crichton’s work, but his books always leave me wanting more depth.

Rising Sun – Michael Crichton

Thriller set in the corporate world of Los Angeles. A murder has been committed in the boardroom of a large Japanese corporation, just prior to a major deal. An old detective with “Japanese experience” is teamed up with a younger man to solve the murder. Masterfully told, if a bit dated due to the heavy use of old computer jargon and technology as plot points.

The Terminal Man – Michael Crichton

The table of contents reveals the traditional Chrichtonian day-by-day format, with the story laid out over four days. The plot is about a man who is implanted with a device that gives pleasure in order to control violent seizures. The man goes on a murderous rampage as he learns to control the pleasurable impulses.

It’s typical Crichton. Briefly entertaining. I find it a lot of fun to read about the technologies, even dated as they are. Crichton is heavily into using very contemporary gadgets and looking into their philosophical implications. So while his novels date fast, they provide an interesting insight into what concerned people at the time of writing.

Luftslottet som sprängdes (The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) – Stieg Larsson

The final novel in the Millennium trilogy concludes the story begun in Flickan som lekte med Elden (The Girl who Played with Fire) and ties up the Salander arc started in Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The novel picks up right after the dramatic events surrounding the encounter between Zalachenko and Lisbeth Salander. Salander is arrested and spends most of the time in isolation, first in hospital and then in prison. At the same time Blomkvist and his cohorts work to set things straight, proving how the state has committed crimes against her and in the process unraveling a conspiracy deep within the Swedish secret police.

Despite the fact that much of the book consists of spy-novel maneuvering and exposition of past events, it is a total page turner, especially the second half. The suspense as good guys and bad guys try to outmaneuver each other is gripping and masterfully written. The character development of Salander is interesting, particularly her slow realization (helped along by her attorney and others) that if she wants the people around her and the state to consider her a competent adult she has obligations towards these people and the state. The state especially has repeatedly betrayed Salander, and she is thus understandably suspicious of the concept.

Due to the death of Stieg Larsson and the legal disputes surrounding his estate, we may never see the nearly finished fourth novel or six additional novels which he allegedly planned. A shame, perhaps, but the three published works are still rather neatly tied up. And in this way Larsson’s legacy will not be diluted. He will forever be remembered as a novelist at the top of his game, with no slow decline to mar the image.

For the record, I read it in the original Swedish.

The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

In the sequel to “Angels & Demons“, out hero Robert Langdon inadvertently becomes accused of the murder of the Louvre curator, and has to team up with the curator’s granddaughter to solve the mystery of his death. Without giving away the plot, suffice it to say that it is a long and well plotted Grail quest liberally sprinkled with ghosts from the past of Western civilization.

Like its prequel, this is an exciting and engrossing read. Much has been said about Brown’s “extreme” interpretations of historical anecdotes, fact and legends, but in my opinion he has just used poetic license to great effect. Unfortunately, the book suffers from the same lack of depth as the prequel. It is one long chase from one breathless climax to the next. If it hadn’t for the background of historical mystery, I doubt this would have become such a bestseller.

Angels & Demons – Dan Brown

The story is mainly set in Rome. A mysterious new weapon of mass destruction stolen (ok, maybe not so mysterious to SciFi buffs). A plot to destroy the Vatican. An ancient conspiracy. Signs and portents everywhere. A well rounded and intelligent hero. A spectacular climax.

I went in expecting a good thriller, but this book hooked me. I couldn’t put it down, and described it to someone as “literary crack”. The imagination displayed by Dan Brown in the creation of his intricate plot is nothing short of astounding. The way he weaves in real historical facts and artifacts to create suspense and thrills is a rare gift. This books also contains the best treatment of the science vs. religion debate as a theme since “Contact“. The downside of the novel is that it is too weighted towards being a page-turner. Despite the subject matter, there seems little depth to the narrative, which serves only to carry the reader to the next exciting situation.

One thing that annoyed me is that Brown should have let an Italian proofread some of his brief conversations in that language. He is never totally off the mark, but sometimes it just sounds wrong.

Flickan som lekte med elden (The Girl Who Played with Fire) – Stieg Larsson

I read this novel in the original Swedish.

The sequel to Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has a slow start. At the newspaper Millenium, new collaborator Dag Svensson is preparing a big exposé on trafficking. A number of policemen, judges and other prominent individuals will be named as having had liaisons with underaged sex slaves. Out of the blue, Dag and his domestic partner are brutally murdered. Lisbeth Salander’s legal guardian (she is declared incompetent) and torturer from the first book is also murdered with the same gun. Lisbeth Salander has just returned to Sweden and, through a series of unfortunate coincidences, finds herself wanted for the murders. The story then follows the police investigation as well as the actions of Lisbeth and journalist Michael Blomkvist. There is a lot of deep diving into Lisbeth’s mysterious background.

While Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) was a relatively self-contained story, this one is much more wide ranging. The ending does not neatly tie up all loose ends, but distinctly leads into the next novel. The excuisitely crafted character of Lisbeth Salander is further explored, and while Blomkvist was the focus in the first novel, she is very clearly the center of this one. One of the more prominent themes is how society dismisses and discriminates against people with alternative lifestyles. Several of the policemen are extremely resistant to taking Lisbeth (allegedly a bisexual) and Miriam Wu (an ostentatiously lesbian artist) seriously, especially since they are into fem-rock of the darker variety with alleged satanist influences. The mainstream press is no better than the police, feeding the masses with shock headlines instead of reporting the facts. An interesting indictment of the mainstream which rings very true.

I enjoyed this novel almost as much as the first one. The second half is a real page turner. However the story feels a bit more contrived and there is a lack of focus in the first half. A lot of setup, if you will. Still, even if it didn’t satisfy as much as the first one it is very good stuff.

Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – Stieg Larsson

Since I am Swedish, it seems somewhat odd that I seem to be the last person to have read Stieg Larsson’s wildly successful Millennium trilogy. I have finally gotten around to it, starting of course with the first novel. For the record, I read it in the original Swedish.

The novel has two protagonists, middle-aged muckraker journalist Mikael Blomkvist and twenty-five year old sociopathic hacker genius Lisbeth Salander. Blomkvist is hired to dig into a forty-year old murder mystery by an old industrialist. Salander is a researcher, expert at finding the dirt on people, who becomes involved in the investigation. What they finally find is shocking beyond their wildest expectations.

I am often irrationally suspicious when an author becomes universally acclaimed by both critics and public, and this is perhaps why it took me so long to get around to reading The Girl with the Dragon  Tattoo. But I also do not mind being proven wrong. This novel is certainly one of the finest I have read in a long time. The characters are deep, interesting and “different”. They do not fit any preconceived molds but are very real and believable. Salander especially is a very peculiar character to say the least, but Larsson adeptly makes her plausible and even sympathetic. This even though she certainly is not a sympathetic person by any normal definition. She is almost the comic relief versus Blomkvist’s straight man in a twisted sort of way. The story is excellent, but the book is at heart a character study of the two protagonists. And that is the key to its genius.

The pacing is not perfect, faltering a bit in the slow middle part, but overall it is very good. The story itself is complex without being hard to follow, supporting the plot perfectly. The device of the age old mystery of Harriet’s disappearance set against the backdrop of the intricacies of Vanger family politics is simply superb. And even when you think it is all over, over a tenth of the book is left, with a very extended epilogue that is still satisfying, possessing the same page-turning quality as the rest of the book. The language is elegant without being pompous, with clever turns of phrase in support of the story but never for their own sake.

One thing I do wonder about, and which is not really a reflection on the book’s merit, is how a person without any Swedish background experiences the novel. Many behaviors, locations and situations are so very Swedish that they would seem hard to translate. I guess I will never know.

Back to the Moon (Space Excursions I) – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

The story is set in the 2020s. NASA is finally returning to the Moon using the (now canceled) Orion/Altair hardware. Meanwhile, a private company is sending tourists around the Moon and the Chinese are up to something. The first mission back to the Moon turns in to a daring rescue.

I’m a big space program buff so I’m a sucker for this kind of book. The story itself is a decent adventure/thriller. The engineering is well described, as would be expected since Dr. Taylor works with NASA Huntsville and Les Johnson is a NASA physicist. Unfortunately the prose is quite stilted, especially during the first third. The characters are stereotypes, especially the Chinese. Unfortunately the Chinese are also the wrong stereotype. They feel like reruns of Cold War era Soviets with a dash of “Asian” thrown in. The story does pick up in the second half and there are some nice thrills for the space buff. If you aren’t interested in the space program particularly you should give this a pass. It isn’t a bad book per se but could have used an author with a smoother prose style.

Deception Point – Dan Brown

NASA discovers a meteorite in the Arctic ice pack. It holds a wondrous discovery. But does it? Rachel Sexton, daughter of a the presidential challenger, is caught up in a web of conspiracies while she races to find the truth.

Did the last paragraph sound like the blurb for an over the top action novel? That’s because this one is. Dan Brown is fine at creating intricate plots full of action and suspense. This time, however, he went way too far. So much stuff is just “too much”. He has an annoying tendency to get people out of sticky situations with deux ex machina. The right tool or idea for the job seems to pop out of thin air just as it is needed.

I dislike it when authors state in an introduction that all the technologies described already exist, then write military technicalities in completely inaccurate ways. Case in point: The Delta Force operatives int he book are painted as inhuman robots who never talk about a mission after they have performed it. Really? No after action reviews? That seems absurd. There are plenty of other examples where the tech just seems a bit too “neat”.

Part of the central premise of the story itself, that if NASA were disbanded and lost its monopoly private contractors could undercut by factors of two or three, seems quite implausible to me. If nothing else, NASA only has a monopoly in the USA. If NASA is so protected by legalities, why aren’t space companies simply shipping their operations abroad? In conclusion the book is a semi-decent diversion but not much more.