Volume 23, Number 04, Summer 2005

State of Fear

By Michael Crichton

Harper Collins, 2005, $27.95
Reviewed by Fred C. Moulton
July 2005

This novel fails to live up to the advance hype. It fails as a thriller and as a work with much of anything to offer specifically for libertarians. It also fails as a reasonable exploration of environmental issues, global warming, media manipulation or scientific integrity.

Looking first at State of Fear as a novel we find a plot that is intended to excite, but instead generates only mild amusement at the contrived and weak actions of the characters. A novel might survive paper-thin characters if it has other features such as a plot but State of Fear does not have strong plot to rescue it. The gratuitously shallow portrayal of a Hollywood actor is a perfect example of how reliance on stereotypes can suck any interest out of a work. It is hard not to imagine the characters as merely the anchor points for the cut and paste of search engine results. The novel does not even have consistently good dialog as a fall back. What passes for dialog too often appears to be more like the rantings of a radio talk show host who had just a wee bit too much coffee.

Now let us consider what appears in addition to global warming to be other possible themes of the book. Supposedly these are media manipulation and lack of scientific integrity within the environmental arena as a whole and global warming in particular. The novel portrays the media manipulation leading to a “state of fear” in the public. But despite the title it is not the issue of fear that seems to be the main focus of the work. But as we have already noted it is global warming that gets the graphs and seems to be most argued topic in the novel.

Yet even if they are the secondary aspects of the novel, let us examine media manipulation and the accuracy of media reporting, possible bias, and lack of scientific integrity in grants and peer review. The accuracy of reporting and scientific integrity are not uniquely libertarian issues since other political traditions can also be in favor of media accuracy and scientific integrity. I have found that libertarians typically embrace honesty and thus would be in favor of honest reporting and science. If media manipulation and inaccurate reporting are libertarian issues then libertarians should be equally concerned about an entire range of issues in which media reporting may not be entirely accurate.

This raises the question whether media reporting ever is, or can be, fully accurate. These are interesting questions, but Crichton’s work does not appear to be a useful source of insight. There are a few pages devoted to the topics of media and science but they are weak and lost between the tales of death by octopus and cannibals. Because it is structured as a thriller there are deaths and near deaths and crisis upon crisis but they are not compelling and do not provide a useful backdrop for any of the issues in the novel. There is no reason in principle that a thriller cannot be the vehicle for examining some of these issues but State of Fear does not deliver.

Does Michael Crichton intend State of Fear to be more than just a thriller? It is not clear to what extent Crichton really is interested in global warming and other issues. Are they merely the backdrop for a thriller or is this work supposed to have a “message?” At the end of the work is an “Author’s Message,” which contains the author’s opinions on a number of topics from global warming to changes in the methods of funding scientific research. Following this is one appendix on the dangers of politicized science and another listing the data sources used for graphs in the body of the novel. The work concludes with a bibliography. This illustrates one of the many problems with the work: the intent is unclear. It is not clear how seriously we are to take his “Author’s Message” since it is filled with gems like “Everybody has an agenda. Except me.” Does he really believe that or is this a veer into a poor attempt at humor? This does not mean that Crichton is a fool or a hypocrite; it may be that he was just too close to the work and too famous for an editor to manage. It is quite possible that Crichton could not step back to look at the work and improve it. The topics covered in the novel are all certainly ripe for a good thriller treatment. The range of topics may be one of the problems of the work. Attempting to cover global warming, media manipulation, scientific integrity and all of the rest may be too much to cover in a thriller format.

What of the heavy focus on global warming in the novel? Is a novel that focuses so heavily on global warming of libertarian interest? Not particularly. Global warming is not a libertarian issue, it is a matter that falls within the realms of climatology, atmospheric physics, and other fields. The validity of claims about global warming and the extent of human involvement are scientific questions about which there is much current interest. A reasonable level of interest would be expected since the earth is our home; at least for the next few years until migration to space become a possibility. But let us be very clear that the validity of claims about global warming is not within the realm of libertarian philosophy any more than are the various interpretations of quantum mechanics.

It is too bad that this is not a better novel both in its structure as well as its content. Issues of media manipulation, academic dishonesty, and global warming are interesting and important issues, but this novel does not improve the debate. At best it will drop unnoticed into the remainder bins; at worst it will only reinforce the most strident voices on all sides. There might be strident voices that lump radical environmentalists with serious ecologists and thus will likely trumpet State of Fear as a novel based on reality. And there might be a strident chorus which will claim that it is just one more piece of evidence that those who do not embrace all aspects of some radical environmental agenda are corporate stooges out to destroy the earth. Let us hope not.

The issue which does have a libertarian aspect is the following: If the global warming is demonstrated as a actual phenomena and if human activity is shown to be a significant component in the growth of global warming, then how would responsible libertarians respond? On this point the book has virtually nothing to offer since it does not have a libertarian viewpoint. There is no theoretical development of how to handle the issue. There is not even a coherent practical set of heuristics. The novel definitely gives us a government secret agent out to fight some really bad people. It may be trying to give us more but if so it is not clear what that may be.

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