Like evolutionary history itself, Michael Crichton’s life can be neatly divided into two periods: pre- and post-Jurassic. Before the dinosaurs conquered the earth, Crichton was merely another best-selling author with shiny credentials and a showy pedigree. But then came Jurassic Park and the $1 billion it made, and in the eyes of the public — and Hollywood — Crichton was suddenly more than just an imaginative, wildly profitable writer: He was a 6’9”, 52-year-old cottage industry. The genetically re-created dinosaurs that boosted his career were powerful forces of nature, but this year Crichton turned an even neater trick: reengineering himself as a force of mass-market culture. He did it with the thunderous combination of Disclosure, a digestible thriller about sexual politics that’s been on best-seller lists all year, and ER, a swirling mix of hospital drama and soap-opera plotting that is the toast of the TV season.
Crichton’s rise has been so swift that even his previously forgotten works are being sucked into the draft like leaves behind a speeding car. A film of Congo, a novel he published to little fanfare in 1980, is shooting for release next summer. And Five Patients, a topical study of the health-care process, surfaced on the nonfiction best-seller list last month; Crichton wrote the book 25 years ago, as a young doctor not unlike ER‘s John Carter.
His creative formula has been simple and constant: Take a raw topic (genetic engineering, sexual harassment), pare it down to a sleek story, wrap it in layers of authenticating detail, and pump it full of adrenaline. That was The Andromeda Strain in 1969. That is ER in 1994. But perhaps the reason Crichton is so popular is that the accelerated pace of American life now seems more than ever like a Crichton plot. Turn the page. O.J. Simpson. Sexual harassment. Turn the page. Give me an IV drip, 5,000 units of heparin, and tPA 10 milligrams. Stat. Turn the page.
The real answer is probably simpler. Crichton was once asked about his place in posterity. He responded by explaining his basic objective as a writer. He said: ”What I do is entertain people. That’s all Dickens ever did, or Robert Louis Stevenson. They got made into artists by subsequent generations, but at the time all they were saying was ‘Hey, do you want to hear a good story?”’