Crichton, Michael. Sphere.

NY: Knopf, 1987.

Crichton’s debut novel, The Andromeda Strain, was pretty good, but on the basis of the half-dozen later books of his that I’ve read, he seems to have gone continually downhill from there. The basic plot here is that what appears to be a huge spaceship has been discovered a thousand feet down in the South Pacific, and it’s at least three hundred years old, so it must be alien, right?

Only, when the specially picked crew of scientists (under Navy command and control) arrives to investigate, it shifts to a time-traveling machine from our own future. Maybe. But there’s an alien, or something, aboard. Maybe. And, of course, the whatever-it-is becomes dangerous to the entire party in their ocean-floor habitat, and people begin to die. The author so baldly telegraphs the plot-points, anyone could write the film script for this thing. It’s not a science fiction story, either, it’s a “techno-thriller,” and if that’s your thing, even Tom Clancy does it better.

Moreover, none of Crichton’s scientist characters are very convincing — especially the physicists. All these people are impossibly insular and seem especially naïve and ignorant about the world outside their own narrow specialties. And the physical scientists are completely dismissive of psychology, which seems very unlikely for a group as closely vetted as this one supposedly was. Besides, what kind of Ph.D. has never heard of Medusa? (Today I might believe it, but not of someone who went to school in the 1950s.) And what clinical psychologist has never administered an injection? And doesn’t know the meaning of “soporific”? The science itself is also shaky at various points. They keep talking about flying “through” a black hole, like it’s a portal, when it’s still a physical object — a hyper-dense star, in fact — whether you can see the surface or not. They also assume, from a couple of partial dates they discover, that the ship must come from fifty years in our future, when it could just as easily be 250 or 950. Given the unexplained advanced technology, that actually would make more sense. But I doubt very much that anyone in the next few centuries is going to invent a metalic material for girders sufficiently strong to survive a black hole’s gravity.

Eighty percent of the way in, I became impatient for it all to end. I would have quit but I was curious to see what sort of deus ex machina would swoop in from the wings. And there it comes now! Cop-out. After his first couple of books, the author apparently decided endings were a waste of time. I was also very annoyed that he found it necessary to display his bizarre brand of political conservatism by making fun of straw men of his own making, this time involving the Carter administration. Very cheap shot, doc.


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