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Nextby Michael Crichton
Author Q & A
Have you been tracking the science of genetics for the last 15 years, watching it, seeing what's going on, and building a portfolio?
Actually, you know it's odd, I was very interested in it at the time of Jurassic Park, which now to my astonishment, was 15 years ago. But then I lost track of it a bit, so to return is to have this odd sense of coming into a world where so many things that were fictional 15 years ago are now taking place.
Next challenges the reader's sense of what is happening, what is true and what is invented. How much of what's in the book has already taken place?
It's odd but nearly everything in the book has already happened, or is about to happen. The book does look to the future a bit, particularly with regard to some transgenic animals that become important characters. But for the most part Next is not really speculative fiction at all.
In the past you've said that you usually do research to answer a question of your own that interests you. What was the origin of Next?
This novel began when I attended a genetics conference at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. I learned just how fast the field was progressing, and how inappropriate certain legal positions were. The field obviously needed some broader attention from the public.
In terms of the novel, the question I asked was: what's the current view of how the genome operates — how you get from genotype to phenotype? Because such ideas have changed hugely in the last decades. Of course, this question is ultimately the old nature/nurture issue, and so it is politically charged. How much of our behavior is ruled by genes, and how much by upbringing and experience? I ultimately concluded I couldn't really address this question in the book, because it is so complex. But I arrived at answers for myself that surprised and satisfied me.
My answer is that genes are an integral part of our adaptive apparatus as organisms in an environment. So we find both heightened importance for nature and also for nurture. But the whole interaction is far more complicated than people thought fifty years ago. And it continues to change.
How do you stay informed about current and cutting-edge science? How much do you read? Are you actively involved in the scientific community?
There is no secret. I just read a lot. I don't talk to a lot of scientists. It's faster to read than talk.
In 2005, you appeared before the United States Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works to discuss the politicization of scientific research. What was your message? Why is this such a big problem and what is the solution?
Essentially I argued that what we need is a government policy that assures independently verified information in any area that is important to policy. This is the essence of the scientific method. There are well-established statistical procedures to make sure that the information you get is unbiased. It's simple enough to do, although expensive. But bad information is expensive, and bad policies are very expensive.
I argue that we live in a technological society where science matters, and it is up to the government to make sure that what we're told is accurate.
For this rather ordinary argument I was thoroughly attacked. There are many people out there who don't want their data to be checked.
What's so striking about all your books, and now Next in particular, is your ability to make complicated science comprehensible to a mass audience while also showcasing your tremendous expertise. How do you pull that off time after time?
Again, there's no secret. Making the story clear is accomplished by rewriting and rewriting until the technical passages are understandable. In any book, there are usually a few pages that I end up rewriting about twenty times.
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