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Fiction with an agenda

Published : Feb 25, 2005 00:00 IST

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State of Fear by Michael Crichton; HarperCollins Publishers, India; Rs 250.

"IT was enormous... a foaming line of surf, a white arc spreading as it came... (and) smashed into the beach like an explosion... . A vast sheet of water raced up the hill towards them... a hissing terrifying wall."

A first person account of recent tsunami?No. Fiction.

Michael Crichton's latest thriller State of Fear appeared in bookshops just days before the cataclysmic events of December 26, 2004, and by one of those bizarre coincidences it climaxes with a tsunami sweeping across the Pacific Ocean from New Guinea to the Californian coast of the United States.

That alone may not explain why it has climbed rapidly to the top of best-seller lists with a reported 1.7 million copies in print worldwide. The author, who wrote the book on which the enormously successful Steven Spielberg film Jurassic Park was based, has been known to home in unerringly on popular (often misguided) fears and to feed them by skilled fictional hyping. Rising Sun (1992) fuelled paranoia in the U.S. about diabolical Japanese business competition; Disclosure (1994) did a neat role reversal on the subject of sexual harassment at the workplace by featuring a `man-eating' corporate vixen. And three years ago, when the media seemed to be lapsing into superlatives about the promise of nanotechnology, the science of the very small, he awakened laypersons' latent suspicions about esoteric science by depicting nanoparticles as killer swarms.

State of Fear is in a similar - albeit shrill and heightened - vein. Crichton's target this time is the global community of environmentalists, which, for over a decade, has been warning of the consequences of man-made global warming, caused by unrestrained consumption of fossil fuels, and the consequent rise in the level of `greenhouse' gases like carbon dioxide. The world ultimately groped towards some sort of understanding that greenhouse gases must be reduced by voluntary limits.

The Kyoto Protocol of the Framework Convention on Climate Change is being ratified by most nations of the United Nations - on February 16, the signatory countries and their industries are required to launch a Pilot Programme to reduce emissions of six key greenhouse gases. The U.S. is the most prominent non-participant - and Michael Crichton's book could not have been timed better if it had been engineered by professional spin doctors in Washington. Its villains are well-funded environmental action groups, who are said to distort data on global warming to create a doomsday scenario and milk millions of dollars out of gullible corporations and feel-good philanthropists.

A radical group called National Environmental Resource Fund (NERF), headed by the manic Nicholas Drake and supported by self-righteous `Gulf stream liberals', is getting ready to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for millions of dollars on behalf of a tiny Pacific Ocean nation, Vanutu. Its four small islands are claimed to be in imminent danger of being flooded by rising sea levels - caused, of course, by the reckless emission of carbon dioxide by the U.S. But global warming is not yet sufficiently scary to keep the dollars rolling in - especially in winter. Drake explains: "Every time it snows, people forget about global warming... or decide some warming might be good after all. Pollution works. You tell them they'll get cancer and the money rolls in."

From such cynicism is born a grotesque plot - to create some attention-grabbing `incidents' nicely timed to coincide with a big environmental conference in California: a giant underwater earthquake and a tsunami in the Pacific triggered by huge "cavitation" machines, lightning bolts in the U.S. to knock out the opposition; explosives to break a glacier in the Antarctic... .

The good guys are an awesome foursome: Dr. Richard Kenner, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who seems to be on endless sabbatical; George Morton, a wealthy philanthropist and the NERF's principal donor, who realises the error of his ways; his comely secretary Sarah Jones who is handy with a gun; a young attorney Peter Evans; and Kenner's brainy Nepali assistant Sanjong Thapa. Between them, they girdle the globe, usually just in the nick of time, to thwart the environmental loonies. Or almost. The tsunami is set off in spite of their efforts - making the book a ready-made film script with a special-effects highlight to boot.

All this may be silly or scary, depending on one's point of view and tolerance limit. But Crichton would like to establish his credentials for suggesting that global warming is some sort of hoax - or, at the very least, a lot of hot air generated by politically motivated scientists. So he peppers the book with hundreds of footnote references; dozens of temperature charts; 20 pages of bibliography and, most unusually, two appendices of personal explanation: one, a note on his stand on global warming and the second, a dire warning on the dangers of `politicised science', where he likens global warming hysteria to the misplaced 1930s' craze for eugenics or genetic cleansing that Hitler embraced as the rationale for eliminating Jews. His characters are constantly arguing the pros and cons of warming in clinical detail and whipping out their laptops to flash graphs, only pausing to dodge bolts of lightning, escape from narrowing ice crevasses and stay one jump ahead of lecherous cannibals. The `author's message' ends with a brazen statement that might not be tongue-in-cheek: "Everyone has an agenda. Except me."

Since the book became available in the U.S., the scientific community has not exactly remained silent. Quite a few of the authorities whose research Crichton quotes to support his premise that there is no such thing as global warming have refuted the conclusions and cited the use of incorrect or selective data, which distort the trend. A survey carried out by the Knight Ridder newspaper group found 16 of the 18 top climate scientists interviewed saying that Crichton, a Harvard-trained, qualified doctor, has bent data or distorted facts. One, Martin Hoffert, Professor of Physics at New York University, is quoted as saying: "The best face I can put on it is that he doesn't know what he is doing. The worst is that he's intentionally deceiving people, as he accuses environmentalists [of doing]".

But the "right" half of America could not be more happy. Conservative think tanks, columnists and television personalities have embraced Crichton's conclusions with a gleeful "we always told you so". They denigrate the Kyoto Protocol and similar decisions as "idiotic treaties conjured up by the U.N.", which would cost the American economy $100 million or more if emissions are capped at 2000 levels even by 2010. They lavish praise on State of Fear for achieving through fiction so convincingly what facts could never do. The Bush administration, which has consistently refused to support a limit on greenhouse emissions, now has a book in best-seller lists doing its public relations job for free.

But James Hansen, a scientist of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), whose own prediction of warming is cited in the book for being so off the mark, complains that Crichton selected just one of the three scenarios he had suggested - the one that suited him best. "Science Fiction or scientific fraud?" he asks about State of Fear.

That may not be the thought uppermost in the minds of readers who have hitherto bought most of Crichton's novels in the expectation of a swift "pager turner". This time it will surprise no one if most of the millions who have bought State of Fear out of sheer habit conclude that this is Crichton's `doosra': an unacceptable "wrong 'n'" that turns out to be too heavy-handed, too weighed down with the writer's personal agenda to do what a work of fiction is expected to do: tell a thumping good story.

As a film-maker who has directed half a dozen memorable films, including some based on his own novels (Congo, The Great Train Robbery), Michael Crichton might recall usefully the earthy principle of a veteran Hollywood movie Mogul who stubbornly turned down films that tried to hammer in a viewpoint, suggesting that that was the business of telegraph agents not film-makers. "Messages are for Western Union," said the incomparable Sam Goldwyn, of MGM fame.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 25, 2005.)

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