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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Rereading Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990)

The SF Encyclopedia, in its Crichton entry, laments: "....the world at the end of his tales, though shaken, tends to be the same world as before." 

How can it not be? It is certainly not for Crichton to posit an alternative to the carnage of 21st century capitalism and its scientific ramifications. Crichton's modest method is simply to pull out a dramaturgical horse shoe nail in today's reality and imagine (calculate, postulate) the cascade of consequences.

Every 20th century imperialist war, when ended, left a world seething with combustible inter-imperialist strife that prepared the next war. Crichton holds up a mirror, not a prescription pad.


….Hammond came into the room and said, "How is he?"

         "He's holding," Harding said. "A bit delirious."

         "I am nothing of the sort," Malcolm said. "I am utterly clear." They listened to the radio. "It sounds like a war out there."

         "The raptors got out," Hammond said.

         "Did they," Malcolm said, breathing shallowly. "How could that possibly happen?"

         "It was a system screwup. Arnold didn't realize that the auxiliary power was on, and the fences cut out."

         "Did they."

         "Go to hell, you supercilious bastard-"

         "If I remember," Malcolm said, "I predicted fence integrity would fail."

         Hammond sighed, and sat down heavily. "Damn it all," he said, shaking his head. "It must surely not have escaped your notice that at heart what we are attempting here is an extremely simple idea. My colleagues and I determined, several years ago, that it was possible to clone the DNA of an extinct animal, and to grow it. That seemed to us a wonderful idea, it was a kind of time travel-the only time travel in the world. Bring them back alive, so to speak. And since it was so exciting, and since it was possible to do it, we decided to go forward. We got this island, and we proceeded. It was all very simple."

         "Simple?" Malcolm said. Somehow he found the energy to sit up in the bed. "Simple? You're a bigger fool than I thought you were. And I thought you were a very substantial fool."

         Ellie said, "Dr. Malcolm," and tried to ease him back down. But Malcolm would have none of it. He pointed toward the radio, the shouts and the cries.

         "What is that, going on out there?" he said. "That's your simple idea. Simple. You create new life forms, about which you know nothing at all. Your Dr. Wu does not even know the names of the things he is creating. He cannot be bothered with such details as what the thing is called, let alone what it is. You create many of them in a very short time, you never learn anything about them, yet you expect them to do your bidding, because you made them and you therefore think you own them; you forget that they are alive, they have an intelligence of their own, and they may not do your bidding, and you forget how little you know about them, how incompetent you are to do the things that you so frivolously call simple.... Dear God . . ."

         He sank back, coughing.

         "You know what's wrong with scientific power?" Malcolm said. "It's a form of inherited wealth. And you know what assholes congenitally rich people are. It never fails."

         Hammond said, "What is he talking about?"

         Harding made a sign, indicating delirium. Malcolm cocked his eye.

         "I will tell you what I am talking about," he said. "Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants the power. There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years. Whatever kind of power you want. President of the company. Black belt in karate. Spiritual guru. Whatever it is you seek, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort. You must give up a lot to get it. It has to be very important to you. And once you have attained it, it is your power. It can't be given away: it resides in you. It is literally the result of your discipline.

         "Now, what is interesting about this process is that, by the time someone has acquired the ability to kill with his bare hands, he has also matured to the point where he won't use it unwisely. So that kind of power has a built-in control. The discipline of getting the power changes you so that you won't abuse it.

         "But scientific power is like inherited wealth: attained without discipline. You read what others have done, and you take the next step. You can do it very young. You can make progress very fast. There is no discipline lasting many decades. There is no mastery: old scientists are ignored. There is no humility before nature. There is only a get-rich-quick, make-a-name-for-yourself-fast philosophy. Cheat, lie, falsify-it doesn't matter. Not to you, or to your colleagues. No one will criticize you. No one has any standards. They are all trying to do the same thing: to do something big, and do it fast.

         "And because you can stand on the shoulders of giants, you can accomplish something quickly. You don't even know exactly what you have done, but already you have reported it, patented it, and sold it. And the buyer will have even less discipline than you. The buyer simply purchases the power, like any commodity. The buyer doesn't even conceive that any discipline might be necessary."

         Hammond said, "Do you know what he is talking about?"

         Ellie nodded.

         "I haven't a clue," Hammond said.

         "I'll make it simple," Malcolm said. "A karate master does not kill people with his bare hands. He does not lose his temper and kill his wife. The person who kills is the person who has no discipline, no restraint, and who has purchased his power in the form of a Saturday night special. And that is the kind of power that science fosters, and permits. And that is why you think that to build a place like this is simple."

         "It was simple," Hammond insisted.

         "Then why did it go wrong?"


23 June 2020

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