[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
In Sphere, the follow up to Congo, Michael Crichton asks the question: how do you top a techno-thriller that pits a team of parachuting scientists against extremely intelligent apes that protect a remote area of jungle in Congo?
Perhaps not. Sphere begins with a premise that, by now, most Crichton fans will recognize very easily. Norman Johnson is a scientist, this time a psychologist, who has done a bit of work for a major organization in the past, this time the United States government. He receives a surprise phone call asking him to pack his bags and prepare to take part in a top secret, very classified, “need to know basis only” situation in a distant location, this time the ocean floor. It turns out that the military has found something amazing, this time a spaceship from the future.
For fans of Crichton’s formula, Sphere has it all: a mysterious setting that will require unusual technology to reach, a mysterious prize that also threatens our heroes’ safety, and monsters drawn from the natural world. Intelligent gorillas were one thing, but this time Crichton includes a giant squid, a respectful nod to 20000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Clearly, Crichton has one-upped his premise in Congo.
Surprisingly, Crichton also elevates his use of character in Sphere. Up to this point, he has primarily given his characters personality in order to comment on various academic disciplines, and Crichton certainly continues this pastime in Sphere. Elizabeth Halpern is a particularly interesting example: she is aggressive, muscular, and intelligent, but also insecure ever since her lover (and supervisor) took her breakthrough research and claimed it as his own. Harry Adams, meanwhile, is a cold, almost cruelly competent mathematician, and he often irks the other characters. He is also the only black member of the team. Harry’s research into mathematics sets him apart because his field is more “pure” than others, particularly the muddy research of psychology. Can psychology even be classified as “science?” Norman Johnson is used to these taunts from his peers, though he is not above admitting that they bother him.
Crichton takes his characterization further in Sphere than he has in previous novels. Now, his characters have internal conflicts that are more than perfunctory — they actually allow their author quite a variety of options. Norman’s background is in the psychology of group dynamics, and some of his findings might surprise readers. For example, he has found that teams that work very well together often fail when given a task outside of their area of expertise. He has also found that people like Harry may stress a group but that they tend to respond well to pressure and become potential leaders. It may be that Harry, who antagonizes many of the other characters, will save the day. Whenever Crichton needs to add tension, he allows his psychologist to speculate about the health of the group. Is that person’s mental stability about to snap? Is this team’s bond of fellowship about to break?
It’s a strategy that works very well, especially after the team finds what is on that mysterious spaceship from the future. Suddenly, characterization will, arguably, become more important than we could ever imagine.
Consequently, Sphere is an easy novel to recommend, especially for readers looking for a fast-paced page-turner that touches on a variety of interesting ideas and gadgets without ever diverting momentum from the plot. Seriously, a team of scientists against giant squids on the ocean floor investigating space ships from the future… How can you top that?
I can never forgive Michael Crichton. It happens again and again. His pace is unrelenting, his logic nearly flawless. His stories are invariably intense and suspenseful. I can never regain the sleep I’ve lost when reading “just one more chapter” each night. Michael Crichton, I rue the day you got me hooked.
Sphere is a terrific sci-fi thriller. Instead of space though, the story takes place deep within the Pacific Ocean, where a team of scientists, in support of a US Navy exercise, explore and try to understand what appears to be a spaceship.
Like most of Crichton’s novels, Sphere ’s characters are created to give voice to varying personality types and perspectives. Crichton populates his undersea thriller with representatives from multiple scientific disciplines. Norman Goodman is a psychologist and explores the deepest parts of the human (and alien) mind. Beth Halperin is a biologist and brings her perspectives of earth and space-bound biological beings. Ted Fielding is the obnoxious astrophysicist, and Harold Barnes is the Navy commander who provides a militaristic, and conspiratorial, perspective.
Harry Adams is a savant mathematician with prodigious reasoning skills. The character seems to be an early sketch of the well-known Dr. Ian Malcolm from Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Adams serves as the big brain and foil to the narrow-sighted exuberance of the martial Barnes in Sphere, whereas Malcolm served the same role as counterpoint to John Hammond’s financially-fueled dinosaur fervor on Jurassic Park.
Goodman works through the causalities of events and actions and gives Crichton a mechanism and mouthpiece for the exploration of human nature and motivation. Crichton utilizes Norman’s field of expertise to provide the psychological context to the story. And instead of delivering the themes through a disembodied narrator, Norman’s internal monologue and dialogue with the other characters provides the mental framework driving the psychological horror and intensity.
Crichton uses his plot, as usual, to delve into numerous scientific theories and perspectives. The alien presence provides the platform for the discussion of extraterrestrial contact, space travel and time travel. The underwater setting provides Crichton with the physical background to delve into ocean biology, and the capabilities and possibilities of living for extended periods under water. Within all of the scientific disciplines, Crichton enables his characters to explore the most modern and extreme theories of science.
Norman uses the isolation and extreme existence of underwater habitats to provide readers with a view of a full-scale, real-time Rorschach test. Everyone and everything is viewed, absorbed and translated uniquely. Everything impacts the personalities in a different way, which drives the story’s human elements in unison with the well-paced action surrounding and impacting the characters.
Sphere has moments of horror, but is fueled by suspense. The conclusion — literally the last 2 pages — is a little weak, but the ride to get there is fantastic and fast.