The world's tallest best-selling author talks about mothers who beat their babies, scientists who make monsters, and novels (like his latest, ''Prey'') that get sold to Hollywood in less than a nanosecond

If this story were a Michael Crichton novel, it would be about an astonishing technological breakthrough that goes horribly awry. The cloning of a dinosaur, for instance. Or a device that opens the portals of time. Or a miraculous writing machine capable of generating best-selling novels that spread across the planet in countless translations, impervious to the most dismissive critics, spawning multimillion-dollar movie deals even before they’re published.

At the moment, that machine is sipping a Coke at a beachside hotel not far from his L.A. home, chatting about his latest best-seller-to-be, Prey, which happens to be about an astonishing breakthrough in nanotechnology — mechanisms much smaller than a human cell. Naturally, it goes horribly awry, unleashing swarms of collectively intelligent micro-monsters that hunt their creators in an isolated lab in the Nevada desert. ”It’s sort of a Frankenstein story,” says Crichton. ”I’d been thinking about how our idea of a scientific monster was really old — Boris Karloff with bolts in his neck — and wondering what Mary Shelley’s original conception of an escaped monster would look like today.”

At 6 foot 9, the machine in this story is no nanotechnological breakthrough. But he is singularly intelligent: Crichton has written 12 best-selling novels (beginning with the space-virus thriller The Andromeda Strain in 1969), selling more than 20 million books over the years. He also has penned eight screenplays, was the creator of NBC’s ER, has dabbled in computer-game programming (2000’s Timeline), and, of course, has a degree in medicine from Harvard University (in case the writing thing doesn’t work out).

So far, Crichton himself hasn’t gone horribly awry, but there have been a few glitches. Where, for instance, is the movie adaptation of his jetliner-disaster novel, Airframe? Disney paid him a reported $10 million for the rights to the book six years ago, but the film never took off. And where, while we’re asking, is the prime-time series Fox paid him more than $10 million to create over a year ago? At 60, Crichton hasn’t shaken all of the bugs out of his private life yet, either. He separated from his fourth wife, Anne-Marie Martin (a screenwriter with whom he collaborated on Twister), earlier this year. A few months ago, there was even more serious trouble: Crichton and his 13-year-old daughter, Taylor, were held at gunpoint while two robbers ransacked his house. The perpetrators haven’t been caught.

Still, for a guy who writes novels about quantum mechanics and nanoparticles, he hasn’t done too badly. What muse inspires his not-so-fanciful flights of weird science? To find out, you’d need to assemble a team of brilliant but eccentric academic specialists — like the ones in Andromeda, Jurassic Park, Sphere, and pretty much every Crichton techno-thriller — and send them on a long, perilous journey into that dark, unexplored Congo of Michael Crichton’s brain. Or you could just hang with him at the beach for a few hours…

Prey (2002 book)
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