All you need to know about Michael Crichton’s absurd technothriller Next is that the marquee character, Gerard, is a conversational gray parrot who does subtraction problems, quotes classic movies, and tries fending off a pack of wolves with wisecracks. No, scratch that. The book’s star is really Dave, a ”transgenic” ape who, like Gerard, is implanted with human genes. Dave is ”clearly a chimp” when we meet him, but — holy cow — as soon as his scientist daddy cuts his hair and dresses him in a Quicksilver shirt, Dave is hanging out at a local elementary school, successfully passed off as a little boy living with a made-up genetic deficiency, even though he can scale two-story buildings to catch a fly ball, and he throws his own feces in a dustup with a murderous skateboarding sixth-grader. Next is the most unintentionally rib-tickling book Crichton has ever written.
And it interrupts his streak. The Jurassic Park author’s last three novels — Timeline, Prey, and State of Fear — were jaunty pulp sci-fi grappling with bountifully researched hot topics (time travel, nanotech, and global warming, respectively). His new subject is less of a throat grabber: the patenting of the human genome, which, Crichton argues, stifles innovation. And is bad. ”It’s like allowing somebody to patent noses,” Crichton asserts in his Author’s Note.
But a patented nose is no killer nanobot! Next urgently needs the Crichton-trademarked propulsive plot; in a first for the novelist, it has the opposite. Crichton typically follows a single character or two on a zip line through a streamlined adventure plot doled out in teensy chapters. In Next, he goes Crash on us, intersecting multiple stories and more than three dozen named characters in a book that rambles all over the place as it demonstrates what genome manipulation might have in store for us (like bounty hunters chasing you and your son across the state to plunder your genes). And it’s quite a chore to keep track of a lot of people when (1) you’re getting to know them in short, concentration-busting chapters, and (2) the author is still no good at animating his stiff Joshes, Toms, Jacks, Alexes, and Brads.
All we’re left with are a few intriguing factoids and unintended comedy. Sometimes these coalesce in a gift bag of priceless bad writing. Take one of Crichton’s sex scenes, in which a sleazy biotech CEO named Rick diagnoses his mistress’ uninterest mid-deed: ”No labial tumescence. No perineal engorgement. No retraction of the clitoral hood.” Wow, did it suddenly get hot in here or what?