Themes Explored: technological advances, artificial intelligence, nano technology, artificial life, artificial evolution, the desire to succeed, family, marriage, interpersonal relationship, scientific discovery, scientific research, mimicry, depression, corruption, marital infidelity, life vs death struggles, molecular self-assembly, genetic algorithms, distributed intelligence
Synopsis: In the Nevada desert, an experiment has gone horribly wrong. A cloud of nanoparticles — micro-robots — has escaped from the laboratory. This cloud is self-sustaining and self-reproducing. It is intelligent and learns from experience. For all practical purposes, it is alive. It has been programmed as a predator. It is evolving swiftly, becoming more deadly with each passing hour. Every attempt to destroy it has failed. And we are the prey. (From Goodreads)
Review: Prey is a typical Michael Crichton novel, full of fast-paced action and plot twists. Crichton is famous for Jurassic Park, The Lost World, The Great Train Robbery, State of Fear, The Andromeda Strain, Timeline, Disclosure, Rising Sun, and the creation of the TV show ER. This novel explores the potential problems when nanotechnology is converged with genetic engineering and computer science. Cricthon received a lot of criticism from the literary world for not writing particularly “deep” novels. However, he contended that when he wrote a novel he felt like he was watching a movie. Hence, his books sometime read like movie scripts, which is not necessarily a bad thing. For the most part a majority of his novels move quickly and are solid examples of escapists and/or thought provoking narratives. While his characters may sometimes speak in clichés when it tight spots, this is not a bad thing since actual people speak in clichés all the time. Even if we do not always realize it at the moment. Crichton excelled at crafting well-paced thrillers.
Nanotech is, a the moment, a mostly theoretical technology that is based on the idea of building machines on a miniscule scale that can mimic living organic cells. Nanos are meant to be a more rugged and versatile version of its organic cell equivalent. Nanotech gets its name because it involves the use of molecules and atoms that are the size of a nanometer, which is about one-billionth of a meter. For comparison, a human hair is approximately 80,000 nanometers in size. Nanotechnology has not developed quite as quickly as Crichton or other scientists have predicted. Theoretical uses for nanotech can include everything from miniaturized computer parts, fighting cancer by replacing diseased cells, to conducting reconnaissance military missions. So far the most useful nanotech to emerge has been computer chips. There is currently no nanotech capable of replicating either themselves or something else. To date, nanotech remains more science-fiction than actual science, despite research and billion dollar funding. Supporters of the technology are hopeful that invisible nanotech robots will be buzzing around and terrorizing the population in no time.
In this techno-thriller, the hero is former Silicon Valley computer programmer Jack Forman. After being unfairly fired from his job at MadiaTronics, Jack has been relegated to being a househusband. He now takes care of his kids and, surprisingly, finds it quite rewarding. Julia, his wife, is now the breadwinner and is working at a company called Xymos Technology. She is excited about a new kind of medical imaging, a type of camera made of a “swarm” of parts working together that can be injected into the human body to diagnose diseases more accurately. These camera swarms are known as “nanotechnology” and were based upon an old program written by Jack, a program based on swarming bees. Hence, the reason the cameras are called a swarm. Since their role reverse, Jack has noticed that Julia is acting differently. She was once a happy and personable woman but know she is short-tempered and edgy. Also her appearance is different, sleeker and more put together than ever. Julia is also amazingly unconcerned when her youngest daughter develops a horrible rash and allows Jack to rash her to the hospital. Jacks also discovers that his eight-year-old’s MP3 player stopped working, memory chips have been turned to dust, and there is a surge protector in the kid’s bedroom.
Technology is running amuck in his own home and Jack is convinced that Julia is having an affair. After all that is the most logical conclusion. Right? Jack soon realizes that he is dealing with something incredibly dangerous. Building suspense is where Crichton excels. He does a fantastic job giving readers the heeby-jeebies and making everything seem quite creepy. Scaring kids a tried and true method to weirding out adults. For instance, when Jack takes the baby to the hospital, the house is visited by men who come and “vacuum” the house and a faceless/shimmery ghost appears. Prey becomes cinematically scary when the action moves to the middle of Nevada desert. This is the sight of the Xymos molecular fabrication plant, where Jack is lured in order to use his expertise to regain control over some renegade nanobot swarms. However, Jack soon realizes that the nanobots have been engineered to be self-powering so that they can collectively work to solve problems. This has resulted in a horribly protean creation. Eventually Jack realizes the fully horrific pitfalls of the nanotechnology.
Prey is a thriller in the true sense of the word. It has some absurd moments and the science is a little dodgy. But it is still a page turner and Crichton can make the most astoundingly outlandish plot concepts seem plausible. In lesser hands, the whole nanorobots taking over the world might fall incredibly flat. However, Crichton’s capable hands take the most ludicrous ideas and forming a well-rounded story. After all he did write a story about a genetically engineered dinosaur theme park. Perhaps the weakest link in Prey is the lack of character and narrative depth. On the plus side, this would make a wonderfully creepy movie. If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller with some interesting technological mind-bending theories, Prey is worth a read through. It moves quickly and is a thoroughly engrossing page-turner.
Prey, Avon, 2003, ISBN 9780061015724