My life in outer space

Prey – Michael Crichton (2002)


‘In California, odd things are happening to unemployed scientist Jack Forman. His children tell Jack that strange men have visited the house. And Julia, his wife, isn’t helping – she acts, even looks, somehow different.

Deep in the Nevada desert, in the laboratory where Julia works, matters are out of control. A swarm of rogue microbots, designed to reproduce and learn, is developing with a frightening speed that has the scientists battling to contain it.

Only when Jack is called in to help does he discover the shocking truth – the microbots have been programmed to behave as predators.

And Man is the Prey…’

Blurb from the 2006 Harper Collins paperback edition.

One cannot deny that Michael Crichton is a highly successful writer and holds the accolade for having had the number one book, film and TV series (in the US at least) all at the same time. He created ER for TV and is the author of ‘Jurassic Park’.
Like a number of successful US SF authors he knows his science and has certainly done his homework on the nanotechnology front. Actually, the point Crichton is making is that there will very soon be a merging of disciplines between nanotechnology, bio-engineering and software design which will see the serious development of artificial life.
There is a ‘but’ on the way though, and it is not an insubstantial ‘but’ since ‘Prey’ is let down by sloppy characterisation and a very pedestrian structure.
It feels as though one is reading a movie script and yes, it would make a decent enough movie but a novel is not a movie.
The basic premise is that Jack Forman, househusband, suspects that his wife Julia is having an affair. She is always home late and is behaving oddly. She is working out in the desert at a nanotechnology plant. One day their baby develops a rash and begins screaming. The hospital MRI scans the baby and breaks down. The baby then calms down but develops a uniform bruising across its body.
Then, Jack suspects that he sees a man sitting in the car with his wife. Shortly afterwards, the car crashes and she is hospitalised.
Jack is offered a job at the nanotech plant as something has gone very wrong. It appears that Julia and her team have been assembling nanomachines around e-coli bacteria and programming them with software programmes from Jack’s previous job. There he worked on designing swarm programmes based on the movements of bees, ants, birds, fish and predators, such as lions.
The nanomachines have been programmed with the predator software, but some have escaped and don’t respond to radio commands. They evolve very fast and now are reproducing in the wild, using mammals as raw material.

There is a lot wrong with the book otherwise though. There are some moments when Jack is confronted with evidence of the behaviour of the rogue nanobots and doesn’t equate this with events that occurred only hours or days before in his house.
Jack rings his sister Ellen at one point who insists (beyond all logic) that she is coming to stay with them as she is worried about Julia’s motives. Ellen is a bit of an obvious device since she can look after the kids and allow Jack to go off and save the world from nanopocalypse. Apart from a couple of phone calls she is never heard from again.
The book would also have worked better if we had seen a ‘normal’ Julia from the outset and then observed her increasingly mad behaviour which appears to start in the book when she refuses to allow Jack to buy yellow placemats.
On the positive side the technology, the science and the nano-evolution is handled flawlessly. I was particularly fascinated by the ‘emergent’ behaviour of shoals and flocks and how that is used in computer programming to run complex systems.
However, as I said before, a novel is not a screenplay.


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