"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Re-reading The Lost World by Michael Crichton (1995)

"You know, there is such a thing as accurate and inaccurate. Irrespective of whatever your feelings are."

The Lost World by Michael Crichton

(1995, Alfred A. Knopf)

The Lost World is Crichton's forceful, take-no-prisoners statement of scientific unknowability about nature and existence, the way behavior determines adaptation and evolution, and the foolhardiness of attempting to understand diverse threads making up that study of studys: extinction.

At the end of the novel, Critchton points young Kelly Curtis toward the wisdom of his two practical blue collar scientists, Sarah Harding and Jack Thorne. Even their creator ultimately gives short shrift to injury-prone Ian Malcolm and arrogant Richard Levine.

"....the point," [Sarah Harding] said, "is that I doubt this island will be able to tell you very much about extinction."

    Malcolm stared back at the dark cliffs for a moment, and then began to speak. "Maybe that's the way it should be," he said. "Because extinction has always been a great mystery. It's happened five major times on this planet, and not always because of an asteroid. Everyone's interested in the Cretaceous die-out that killed the dinosaurs, but there were die-outs at the end of the Jurassic and the Triassic as well. They were severe, but they were nothing compared to the Permian extinction, which killed ninety percent of all life on the planet, on the seas and on the land. No one knows why that catastrophe happened. But I wonder if we are the cause of the next one."

    "How is that?" Kelly said.

    "Human beings are so destructive," Malcolm said. "I sometimes think we're a kind of plague, that will scrub the earth clean. We destroy things so well that I sometimes think, maybe that's our function. Maybe every few eons, some animal comes along that kills off the rest of the world, clears the decks, and lets evolution proceed to its next phase."

    Kelly shook her head. She turned away from Malcolm and moved up the boat, to sit alongside Thorne.

    "Are you listening to all that?" Thorne said. "I wouldn't take any of it too seriously. It's just theories. Human beings can't help making them, but the fact is that theories are just fantasies. And they change. When America was a new country, people believed in something called phlogiston. You know what that is? No? Well, it doesn't matter, because it wasn't real anyway. They also believed that four humors controlled behavior. And they believed that the earth was only a few thousand years old. Now we believe the earth is four billion years old, and we believe in photons and electrons, and we think human behavior is controlled by things like ego and self-esteem. We think those beliefs are more scientific and better."

    "Aren't they?"

    Thorne shrugged. "They're still just fantasies. They're not real. Have you ever seen a self-esteem? Can you bring me one on a plate? How about a photon? Can you bring me one of those?"

    Kelly shook her head. "No, but . . ."

    "And you never will, because those things don't exist. No matter how seriously people take them," Thorne said. "A hundred years from now, people will look back at us and laugh. They'll say, 'You know what people used to believe? They believed in photons and electrons. Can you imagine anything so silly?' They'll have a good laugh, because by then there will be newer and better fantasies." Thorne shook his head. "And meanwhile, you feel the way the boat moves? That's the sea. That's real. You smell the salt in the air? You feel the sunlight on your skin? That's all real. You see all of us together? That's real. Life is wonderful. It's a gift to be alive, to see the sun and breathe the air. And there isn't really anything else. Now look at that compass, and tell me where south is. I want to go to Puerto Cort├ęs. It's time for us all to go home."


Crichton's novels, like screenplays, can be beautifully bisected at the 50% mark to determine the plot's swerve under the weight of accumulated aesthetic choices and actions. [I also noticed this recently when reading Brooks' Devolution. Brooks strikes me as a novelist who has studied Crichton to great profit.]

At the halfway mark of The Lost World, our team has set up their camp on Isla Sorna and has recovered Richard Levine.

     "This is going extremely well," Levine said, rubbing his hands together. "Far beyond my expectations, I must say. I couldn't be more pleased."

     He was standing in the high hide with Thorne, Eddie, Malcolm, and the kids, looking down on the valley floor below. Everyone was sweating inside the little observation hut; the midday air was still and hot. Around them, the grassy meadow was deserted; most of the dinosaurs had moved beneath the trees, into the cool of the shade....

However, the arrival of the nefarious Dodgson is coming up quickly, as is the nick-of-time arrival of Sarah Harding.

Once the new setting and new character configurations dig in, and Isla Sorna starts to hint at the true scale of its horrors, Malcolm is still only equipped to theorize. No wonder Crichton moves so swiftly to break more of his bones and leave the derring-do to those who can do it.

....Harding said, "It was bound to happen, Ian. You know you can't expect to observe the animals without changing anything. It's a scientific impossibility."

    "Of course it is," Malcolm said. "That's the greatest single scientific discovery of the twentieth century. You can't study anything without changing it."

    Since Galileo, scientists had adopted the view that they were objective observers of the natural world. That was implicit in every aspect of their behavior, even the way they wrote scientific papers, saying things like "It was observed . . ." As if nobody had observed it. For three hundred years, that impersonal quality was the hallmark of science. Science was objective, and the observer had no influence on the results he or she described.

    This objectivity made science different from the humanities, or from religion—fields where the observer's point of view was integral, where the observer was inextricably mixed up in the results observed.

    But in the twentieth century, that difference had vanished. Scientific objectivity was gone, even at the most fundamental levels. Physicists now knew you couldn't even measure a single subatomic particle without affecting it totally. If you stuck your instruments in to measure a particle's position, you changed its velocity. If you measured its velocity, you changed its position. That basic truth became the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: that whatever you studied you also changed. In the end, it became clear that all scientists were participants in a participatory universe which did not allow anyone to be a mere observer. 

    "I know objectivity is impossible," Malcolm said impatiently. "I'm not concerned about that."

    "Then what are you concerned about?"

    "I'm concerned about the Gambler's Ruin," Malcolm said, staring at the monitor.


    Gambler's Ruin was a notorious and much-debated statistical phenomenon that had major consequences both for evolution, and for everyday life. "Let's say you're a gambler," he said. "And you're playing a coin-toss game. Every time the coin comes up heads, you win a dollar. Every time it comes up tails, you lose a dollar."

    "Okay . . ."

    "What happens over time?"

    Harding shrugged. "The chances of getting either heads or tails is even. So maybe you win, maybe you lose. But in the end, you'll come out at zero."

    "Unfortunately, you don't," Malcolm said. "If you gamble long enough, you'll always lose—the gambler is always ruined. That's why casinos stay in business. But the question is, what happens over time? What happens in the period before the gambler is finally ruined?"

    "Okay," she said. "What happens?"

    "If you chart the gambler's fortunes over time, what you find is the gambler wins for a period, or loses for a period. In other words, everything in the world goes in streaks. It's a real phenomenon, and you see it everywhere: in weather, in river flooding, in baseball, in heart rhythms, in stock markets. Once things go bad, they tend to stay bad. Like the old folk saying that bad things come in threes. Complexity theory tells us the folk wisdom is right. Bad things cluster. Things go to hell together. That's the real world."

    "So what are you saying? That things are going to hell now?"

    "They could be, thanks to Dodgson," Malcolm said, frowning at the monitor....


Both Jurassic Park and The Lost World have their problems as SF thrillers. I suspect that is why their film adaptations have been such an unsatisfactory treatment of the plot materials.  [The most egregious example of this is the transformation of John Hammond from a deadly dangerous pragmatist into a sugary blob with a twinkling eye.]

The novel The Lost World faces up to unpleasant questions and seems to revel in their dire ramifications with more ardor than Jurassic Park.  It is much more Moreau's kind of island than Disney's, or Spielberg's.


24 June 2020

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