While many of Michael Crichton's novels occupied themselves with scientific hubris and the inability of humankind to control the forces of nature, none approached the subject as directly as his “Jurassic Park” novels and “Sphere.”
In the former, scientists re-create dinosaurs from corrupted DNA, calling into question both the genetic accuracy of the creatures and — as the giant zoo erected to contain the dinosaurs fails — the wisdom of creating them in the first place. The gates and fences are an artificial construct attempting to circumvent nature, and nature inevitably wins.
The latter directly assails the smug surety of science and the validity of the psychosocial disciplines. A team of highly educated people — a marine biologist, a mathematician, a physicist and a psychiatrist — investigates an otherworldly sphere discovered in a mysterious craft buried in the ocean's floor. The assumptions they make prove uniformly wrong, and when disaster strikes, the enemy is not an outside force but rather manifestations of the experts' unconscious minds. How can they control nature when they cannot control their own thoughts?
Similar themes play out in Crichton's other work. “The Andromeda Strain” (1969) turned H.G. Wells' “The War of the Worlds” on its head; rather than aliens being felled by exposure to Earth's bacteria, Crichton feared the consequences of humans dying from exposure to space-borne bacteria brought back by satellites and space probes.
What's interesting about this is how early these themes developed in Crichton's work. Now we know they developed even earlier than previously thought.
Hard Case Crime has released eight of Crichton's early novels, which were published between 1966 and 1972 under a pseudonym, John Lange. Many of the books were written while Crichton was an honors student at Harvard Medical School.
The Lange novels, which had been out of print for decades, were pulpy heist and adventure tales, not as polished and professional as his later work. In them, Crichton developed his writing skills and his singular preoccupation with runaway technology, scientific ethics and the impossibility of effectively calculating human behavior.
His first Lange novel, “Odds On” (1966), is a perfect example. Crichton sets three skillful criminals on a path to rob a luxury Spanish hotel. The blurb on the back cover defines Crichton's fixation in a manner both succinct and lurid: “The edge: every aspect of the scheme has been simulated on a computer, down to the last variable. The complication: three beautiful women with agendas of their own ... and the sort of variables no computer can fathom.”
“Drug of Choice” (1970) foreshadows “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World.” A heroic scientist uncovers the secrets of a new island resort designed by bioengineers under the guidance of a murky company, Advance Biosystems. Crichton's writing here is crisp and fast-paced, nearly as wry and taut as Dashiell Hammett. (“She wore a black dress scooped as low as the brassiere engineers would allow; her hair was piled as high as the hairdresser could manage; she looked very elegant, and rather precarious,” Crichton wrote, describing one character.)
The Lange books offer more than just a glimpse into Crichton's developing skills. For fans of the prolific author, these are effectively eight new books, each in trade paperback format with old-school cover art displaying languid women and sunbathing beauties.
Hard Case actually had reprinted two of the books before Crichton's death. “Grave Descend” came out in 2006; “Zero Cool” followed in 2008. Both bore the Lange pseudonym, though; Crichton refused to come out of hiding.
The publishing company made arrangements with Crichton's family to rerelease all eight of the books in time for the fifth anniversary of his death, which was in November. For the first time, the books contain both names: “Michael Crichton” in larger type, followed by “Writing as JOHN LANGE.”
Crichton probably would've appreciated the way things played out. His system for keeping the authorship of the books secret broke down, and now the novels are running free.
Snap 'em up before they get away.