Michael Crichton’s sequel to Jurassic Park is like a videogame in prose — a few hundred frantic pages of run, hide, kill, and die. Over and over again. The Lost World begins six years after the original story, and while Crichton handles the recap smoothly, reminding us of the genetic finagling that allowed dinosaurs to be reconstituted on a small Pacific island, he’s clearly off his stride here, right from the start. Without any need to build scientific plausibility into the plot (he did that last time, beautifully), Crichton seems unengaged by his own material, distanced from it, and his cautionary lectures about extinction and natural selection seem halfhearted attempts to legitimize his return to familiar territory. But if there’s a lack of freshness to the novel (even the title isn’t new; it’s borrowed from the granddaddy of all dinosaur tales, by Arthur Conan Doyle), it is still a very scary read.
InGen, the renegade corporation that originally hatched the Jurassic Park dinosaurs, has deservedly gone bankrupt, and the few survivors of the ordeal have committed themselves to silence. But rumors of the experiment persist, and as The Lost World begins, those rumors have piqued the interest of Richard Levine, an arrogant paleontologist from Berkeley.
Convinced there was a second dinosaur hatchery — Site B — located on yet another jungle island off Costa Rica, Levine sets out to find it. He does but quickly becomes trapped there, alone. Just him and a lot of ground-shaking, leathery predators. In the days of Conan Doyle, Levine’s goose would’ve been cooked, but this is 1995, and no world on earth is truly lost: He manages to call for help via his handy satellite phone.
Leading the rescue party to Isla Sorna is Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum in the movie), the only alumnus here from the previous novel. Joining the ”iconoclastic” mathematician are a gruff engineer, an eager-beaver mechanic, a tough-minded field biologist, and (I’m sorry to report) a couple of cute adolescent stowaways. Those descriptive adjectives are all you really need to know about them, or at any rate, it’s all the characterization that Crichton cares to give us. Nobody is deeper than a paper plate, and that includes the trio of ”ruthless” biotechnology bandits who follow Malcolm and friends to Costa Rica intending to steal dinosaur eggs and patent their genetic code.
Compared with the elaborate, enthralling setup in Jurassic Park, the sequel’s opening chapters are rushed and contrived. Although it’s perhaps a deliberate, affectionate nod to the old let’s-get-going-so-we-can-get-to-the-good-parts kind of storytelling that was such a staple of 1950s monster movies, it’s still cheesy. And possibly because Crichton has lost his own sense of wonder about dinosaurs, his characters — even the two kids, for crying out loud — react to the prehistoric menagerie with unbelievable nonchalance. Unless, of course, they’re being chased by a Tyrannosaurus rex or a pack of particularly nasty velociraptors.
No matter how feeble the premise, though, or how shallow the characterizations, I wouldn’t dream of talking anybody out of reading the novel. For clarity, terror, and sheer grisliness, the action far surpasses anything in the original book; even better, the suspense is masterfully stretched out, then released all of a sudden — just when you least expect it.
Like The Godfather and Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story and The Bridges of Madison County, Jurassic Park has earned a secure place for itself in the history of popular American literature. The Lost World, at best, will be a footnote.
But still, it made my palms sweat. B-