Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Climate of fear and loathing

Climate changes; Crichton doesn't

Some people go on vacation during spring break. I managed instead to spend some quality time in the basement of my parents' home. It's the house I grew up in and is therefore a treasure trove of childhood memories. On this occasion I tracked down stacks of old magazines, back issues of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I was on a quest.

My efforts were rewarded when I paged through the November 1969 issue of F&SF. There was Alexei Panshin's column on recent books (pp. 46-51). His prose was as pungent as I had recalled. In fact, my memory of the book review's acerbic tone had initially sent me on a wild-goose chase, because I had been certain that Harlan Ellison had been the columnist. No, it was Panshin, and he was reviewing a novel by Michael Crichton.

The Andromeda Strain was a bestseller and led to a moderately successful movie. (Perhaps Harlan reviewed the movie. I'll have to check that out, too.) Now that Crichton is a favorite of the climate-change skeptics and, in particular, a "science advisor" to the president of the United States, it might be interesting to see Panshin's comments from three dozen years ago.
[The Andromeda Strain] has been favorably reviewed by Life, Look and the New York Times, and it has sold to the movies for an impressive sum. It is also cheap, sensationalistic, hastily written trash.... The story is either a plausible thriller—that is, you believe in the plague and in the efforts of the scientific and medical team to cope with it—or it is nothing.

Crichton bolsters his story with easy expertise and massive documentation, but the story never hangs together. The main reason is that Crichton invents his story as he goes along and is satisfied to put down the first thing that comes to mind, and one lie contradicts the next. Thus you have a bacteriologist who has won the Nobel Prize for work done in his spare time as a law student (Crichton consistently oversells)—but who doesn't know that he has a vein in his wrist.... Thus you have an Army van with a rotating antenna on top tacking back and forth across the Mojave desert taking triangulations every twenty miles on a grounded satellite—the landing site of which has already been predicted with an error of a few hundred yards. Two vans, we are told, would be suspicious. Thus you have a portentous scientific report on the probability of contact between man and other life forms with all figures to four places and a list of possibilities of encountering a life form more advanced than our own (the “7 +” level of data handling, if you please), or the possibility of encountering a life form radically different from our own, or the possibility of encountering no life at all. Crichton's documentation is fake, his expertise is false, and even his basic problem turns out to be a fraud—after a few days the plague ups and goes away.

I wonder what Panshin would have to say about Crichton's State of Fear, a dramatized cut-and-paste job of every conspiracy theory espoused by the global-warming deniers?

7 comments:

marc said...

Well, once they got to ball rolling with a mediocre B-movie actor, it wasn't too much of a stretch to have other pretenders in positions of influence.

Zeno said...

We Californians have a lot to answer for in that regard. Before we elected Ronald Reagan as our governor in 1966, we sent George Murphy (a song-and-dance man) to Washington as our U.S. Senator (we called him "the Senator from Technicolor"). We damned near sent Shirley Temple to the House of Representatives, but that didn't quite work out. (She got an ambassadorship to Ghana as a consolation prize from the Nixon White House.) And need I mention who is our governor right now?

At least our state voted against Bush both times.

Natasha Yar-Routh said...

We have even more to make up for. We had Mike Curb (The Mike Curb Congregation, really bad music) and Sonny Bono in the House of Representatives as the rep from Disney. No wonder we have earthquakes, bad karma.

cureholder said...

I am a little confused here. Sure, we Californians (at least those who voted) have elected or helped elect some actors and entertainers to positions of authority, but I don't see how were they any less qualified overall than their co-workers, who generally possess zero science knowledge, zero economics knowledge, and, even more damning, zero willingness to consult or defer to those with expertise in the areas under consideration. Politicians overall have this shortcoming--namely, no useful knowledge or skills outside of how to get elected. A few do a good job in some areaas, most do a terrible job in most areas, and overall, they are indistinguishable by background (entertainment or otherwise).

Zeno said...

I would agree with you, cureholder, that professional entertainers are no more likely than their non-acting counterparts to know anything about science or economics, or be any more willing to listen to competent advice on those topics. However, actor-politicians are usually elected to office on the basis of fame, and little else. Their political campaigns tend to be all image and no substance. While this charge can easily be leveled at other candidates for office, your average politician has paid his or her dues with long apprenticeships on school boards, city councils, and other local offices. Celebrity politicians, on the other hand, go right for governor (Schwarzenegger, Reagan, Jesse Ventura) or senator (George Murphy) because they're too famous to settle for less. A primary component of knowing how to get elected is to perform constituent services, to intercede on behalf of the voters with the uncaring offices of the state and federal bureaucracies. Celebrity politicians are coddled creatures who live in their bubbles of fame and know less about regular voters and their problems than the run-of-the-mill elected officials. (To give credit where it's due, Reagan at least had experience as president of the Screen Actors Guild, which counts for something.)

I won't make the mistake of saying that actors and entertainers are always worse elected officials than regular politicians, but they generally bring nothing to their elected positions but their fame (and the agendas of those who recruited and bankrolled them).

Anonymous said...

Too much coffee, Zeno! While I do believe you are a brilliant mind & enjoy reading your science, similar to enjoying NPR's wonderful bits on little known cultural & scientific pieces, I find myself turning away when I hear the political side because it is too commonly based in pure hatred for another's ideology, and like junk science (conclusion in spite of facts) it is offensive to the logical mind & good science. Take global warming for example. A simple analysis of the historical record of sunspot activity tells me who the primary culprit is, but I suppose it is man's foible to use these things in an attempt at gaining advantage over one another by attempting to 'pull intellectual rank' on less thoughtful minds.(as if you really could actually measure man's significance, or lack thereof, over nature's forces, HA!) Likewise, an analysis of Ronald Reagan's political career and accomplishments concludes one to understand that, in spite of being an actor, this was a man of deep moral conviction, high ideals, integrity, positive energy, belief in mankind and that freedom is the natural yearning of the human spirit. Was he perfect? Certainly not. On the other hand, Bill Clinton is a brilliant man with a machavelian curse who despite such great talents, as Pres was constantly adrift morally (not talking only sex here) as his downfall. Had to always test which way the wind blows. Like science, I am compelled to treat politics with a logical study of the facts, whether I like the source or not. Listening to all sides is a good idea and sometimes almost no one has uncovered all the pertinent data. I also try to not wear my shorts too tight. PS - While I cherish a diversity of thought, Political Indoctrination by others is out of bounds for my children until I have taught them actual history & to think for themselves (which does not include politics), so I guess most schools are out until then because I belive analysis without common sense is just another conspiracy theory in the making and like going along with the lemmings over the cliff of intellectual nonsense.

Anonymous said...

"A simple analysis of the historical record of sunspot activity tells me who the primary culprit is"

Ouch, I kind of liked where you were going until you said this, anon. Sunspots cannot account for warming past 1940 or so.

But I enjoyed the review of Crichton because:

a) his screed against consensus irritates me. Imagine using the fact that the vast majority of the world's experts agree on something to argue AGAINST that position. What juevos!

b) As a writer, I despise the plot driven best seller.

Still, he's not quite as bad as Clancy or Grisham.