BOOK REVIEW: PREY
Prey by Michael Crichton is a horror story for the technological age, with touches of science fiction combined with scientific fact. Michael Crichton is a master at writing novels in this genre, bringing an intense, gripping sense of realism to the fictional scenarios he creates. We are the "prey" of the title, made such the capacity of our brains to come up with an invention which has the capacity to evolve: clouds of nano particles, or micro-robots. The clouds, or swarms, are self-sustaining and self-reproducing, are intelligent and learn from experience - in short, they exhibit most of the qualities of organic life forms. And, they've escaped from the remote Nevada laboratory they've been given "life" in. This novel is, in a way, a modern retelling of Frankenstein, in which the "monster" is a product of our own making and turns against us.
The novel opens with the hero, Jack Forman, in the unglamourous role of being a house husband after losing his job at the Silicon Valley company Mediatronics. He had "run a program division, riding herd over a group of talented young computer programmers." Since he'd written the source code for his division and it had got stolen and "ended up in a program being marketed out of Taiwan," he'd been asked by his boss, Don Gross, to check over the company's computers to see if any of the workers had been behind the piracy.
What he discovers is that his boss has been having "an affair with a girl in accounting and authorized her to have a company car." More than this, he learns through incriminating email that his boss has been "discounting software to foreign distributors, and taking large ?consultant fees' into an account in the Cayman Islands. His attorney advises him to quit, keep his mouth shut, and "get out of there fast" rather than to report it, then let things die down before he sought employment elsewhere. Several months later, though, he is still out of work, and finds himself being blackballed by other companies, labeled as a troublemaker, and, as one past friend puts it, "Not a team player."
Julia, his wife, has a very successful job at Xymos Technology, a company developing products involving nanotechnology. She is trying to help them raise twenty million dollars of venture capital, and has been working late at nights - sometimes all night - and often on the weekends. Jack suspects she is having an affair with Ricky Morse, an old friend and co-worker of his who had worked with him at Mediatronics.
Jack notices many strange things happening, but discounts their significance at first. Julia seems to be in a rush to take showers when she gets home. Her figure and face appear to be getting thinner and harder. She is more distant to her children. Jack even suspects she might be on drugs. Then, their baby, Amanda, gets a mysterious and painful red rash and when Jack takes her to the ER, the doctors can't figure out what's wrong with her. After she has an MIR, she seems to be back to normal, her pain gone. And, one night, Jack believes he sees a man in Julia's car when she drives off headed to the Xymos lab. That night, she runs the car off the road, breaking her arm. Jack asks the cops how the man who was with her is doing, and they tell him that no one else was in the car.
Then, he gets word that Mediatronics wants to hire him back. There's some sort of problem that Xymos has been having related to code Jack wrote called PREDPREY that they're using with a mobile camera system they're developing utilizing nanoparticles. He is curious to know what is going on at Xymos, and why Julia is acting so strangely. He is sent to the Nevada lab ostensibly to come up with a solution to the problem. It's at the Nevada lab that the novel really gets going and picking up its pace, as Jack learns that swarms of nanoparticles have been deliberately released to find out how they will evolve and progress on their own. At the rate of a new generation of them on the scene every three hours, their rate of evolution is very rapid. Can they be stopped before it's too late?
Prey is an intense, thought-provoking look at what might happen when, one day, like Frankenstein's monster, artificial intelligence and technology turns against us and we become its prey. Like all of Michael Crichton's novels, this one is well researched, and has a bibliography of his sources at the conclusion of the book. It's a very good book I highly recommend.
I and the rest of the staff were saddened to hear about the passing of Michael Crichton due to cancer this last Tuesday, November 4th, 2008. He has given myself and countless other readers immense pleasure from his many novels, the movie adaptations of them, and his television series ER, and I'm sure many more people will read his work and become fans in the future. He will be greatly missed.
REVIEWED BY DOUGLAS R. COBB
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