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The New Republic Online
Thursday, January 20th, 2005


 

State of Fear

by Michael Crichton

Weather Man

A review by Sacha Zimmerman

Michael Crichton has long been well-known for taking controversial theories or technologies and surrounding them with the fast and sexy trappings of a thriller. His novels have been years ahead of their time (The Andromeda Strain, which examined biological warfare and the potential for outbreaks, was published in 1969) or managed to capture the zeitgeist of particular moments (two words: Jurassic Park). But his latest effort is almost uncanny in its timeliness. State of Fear, Crichton's examination of global warming and environmental extremism, is very much a reflection of current global fascination.

In Crichton's alternative universe, mainstream environmental organizations fund eco-extremists like the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) to create dramatic natural disasters as a means of bolstering the case for global warming and acute climate change, which in turn bolsters everyone's funding. Los Angeles millionaire George Morton has unwittingly been backing ELF via a more conventional green organization, the National Environmental Resource Fund (NERF), run by the dreary Nicholas Drake. After discovering that not only is he funding radical eco-terrorists, but that global warming is nonexistent, Morton stages his own death, leaving his young and idealistic lawyer, Peter Evans, along with his gorgeous and street-smart assistant, Sarah Jones, to unravel ELF's nefarious eco-terrorist schemes. They are stewarded in this plight by John Kenner, a professor of geoenvironmental engineering at MIT who also works for a secret government organization, and his Nepalese-soldier colleague, Sanjong Thapa. Sadly, Morton, easily the most entertaining character here, is absent from the majority of the novel. At a gala event in his honor, Morton drunkenly reveals his intention to no longer fund NERF:

"Will the work get done? I am not sure. I know my mood has been dark since the death of my beloved wife, Dorothy."

Evans sat bolt upright in his chair. ... George Morton had no wife. Or rather, he had six ex-wives -- none named Dorothy.

"Dorothy urged me to spend my money wisely. I always thought I did. Now I am less sure. ... I fear that today, the watchword of NERF has become, We don't sue enough. ..."

"Thank you George," Drake said, moving closer. He was actually pushing against Morton's bulk, trying to shove him away from the podium.

"Okay, okay," Morton said, clinging to the podium. "I said what I did for Dorothy. My dear dead wife -- "

"Thank you George. ..."

"...who I miss desperately..."

"Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in thanking -- "

"Yeah okay, I'm leaving. ... How about another damned martini?"

Unfortunately, scenes of Morton's wicked impishness are replaced by the sniveling Evans, the know-it-all Kenner, the near-mute Thapa, and the cheerless Sarah. As they traverse the globe, Sarah and Evans, the inexperienced crime-solvers, are always teamed together, while Kenner and Thapa, the secret government organization terrorist-trackers, go out on their own. Inevitably, this leads to scenes of Evans and Sarah trapped in an ice crevasse, trapped in a lightning storm, trapped in a flash flood ... you get the idea. Interestingly, Sarah, the only character always referred to by her first name (I guess women just aren't sexy when called by their family names), literally frees the wedged and weeping Evans out of an icy grave and then pulls him from an arctic crevasse.

"Can you hold the rope tight so I can pull you out?" Sarah asked.

"I don't know. I just have the one arm free. ..."

"Are you strong enough to hold the rope with one arm?"

"I don't know. I don't think so. I mean if I got my body partway out and I lost my grip ..." His voice broke off. He sounded on the verge of tears. ... "I'm trapped and I'm going to die here!"

"Peter. Stop." She was coiling the rope around her waist as she spoke.

Yet, when Sarah collapses after this effort (imagine!), it is Evans who is credited with saving her life. Why? Because, when faced with an artic rover robot, he has the wherewithal to radio in their position. Evans is similarly credited with a second life-save when Sarah is struck by lightning. Though Evans is about to leave her for dead, he ends up giving her mouth-to-mouth -- as a way of controlling his own panic attack!

Indeed, Evans becomes more and more annoying as the book wears on. Crichton uses Evans's resolute belief in global warming as a means of instructing the reader in the facts of climatology -- or, at least the facts as Crichton sees them. Under the guise of a deposition, Evans is deluged with information and diagrams intended to alter his thinking. It would be a perfectly effective instructional device were it not for the fact that Crichton seems to think the reader is as daft as Evans. In depicting Evans's slow acceptance that global warming is a fiction, Crichton almost seems to be saying to the reader, "If an oaf like Evans can get it, then you would certainly be an idiot not to." Nevermind the fact that no author should force readers to examine dozens of similar charts with predictable outcomes or a fictional deposition that reads like a seminar in condescension. (Then there's the small matter of whether Crichton's instruction on global warming has any merit to begin with -- his views on the subject are controversial, to say the least.)

But despite these problems, Crichton does deliver a globe-trotting thriller that pits man against nature in brutal spectacles while serving up just the right amount of international conspiracy and taking digs at fair-weather environmentalists. Crichton has a particularly funny riff on Hollywood activism, which of course happens while Morton is still around. On a chartered plane en route from Los Angeles to an environmentalist function in San Francisco, a group of celebrities are discussing the relative merits of electric cars versus hybrid cars.

Morton sighed. He turned to Evans. "Do you know how much pollution we are creating right this minute? We'll burn four hundred fifty gallons of aviation fuel to take twelve people to San Francisco. Just by making this trip, they're generating more pollution per capita than most people on the planet will generate in a year."

He finished his vodka, and rattled the ice in the glass irritably. He handed the glass to Evans, who dutifully signaled for more.

"If there's anything worse than a limousine liberal," Morton said, "it's a Gulfstream environmentalist."

"But George," Evans said. "You're a Gulfstream environmentalist."

"I know it," Morton said. "And I wish it bothered me more."

At the airport, all the celebrities are picked up in their own SUV limos. Later, NERF leader Drake reprimands his staff for ordering cups for a conference from China, "land of pollution," and wastefully discards them: "Get some eco-acceptable mugs. Doesn't Canada make mugs? Nobody ever complains about anything Canada does. Get some Canadian mugs and print CATASTROPHE on them. That's all." Meanwhile, the novel takes the reader to Weddell Station in Antarctica, the jungles of the Solomon Islands, the Arizona desert, the Pacific Northwest, Iceland, Paris, and Los Angeles. All of this traveling (on a private plane) is in an effort to stop ELF from executing a number of huge environmental cataclysms -- designed to convince the public of global warming -- during NERF's conference on dramatic climate change. In other words, ELF is trying to create flash flooding, earthquakes, mudslides, arctic-shelf shifts, and tidal waves.

Sound familiar? Lately, the news has been almost entirely devoted to nature's wrath. After Florida was hit with record hurricanes last fall and the Northeast and Midwest saw unprecedented numbers of tornadoes, now the West Coast seems to be under Mother Nature's scornful gaze. There's the frozen Alaskan village that lost all of its power during what has been a five-day blizzard with temperatures dropping to a whopping 70 degrees below zero with windchill effects. Nearly 20 feet of snow has been dumped on the Sierra Nevada Mountains over the last two weeks. An earthquake rocked Palm Springs this week just as rain levels in Southern California have already eclipsed yearly averages by six inches, causing a traumatic mudslide and treacherous flash flooding. Las Vegas experienced a rare snowstorm last week and now is being hit by relentless rainfall that also is expected to surpass yearly totals. The same major storm system has left parts of Arizona and Utah in states of emergency, where bridges, roads, and homes have been ripped to pieces by flooded rivers in desert areas. And, of course, there was one of the deadliest natural disasters in history: the tsunami, which after plowing through South Asia last month has to date left over 155,000 people dead and untold dollars worth of destruction that will surely change the character of that part of the world for years to come.

The fascinating thing about a novel like State of Fear coming out now is that it not only arrives on the scene just as America's interest in weather phenomena has reached a pinnacle, but it provides a useful fantasy: If terrorists are creating disastrous weather systems, perhaps we can stop them. When Mother Nature is in charge, we are vulnerable to her whims and helpless to her fury. The appeal of eco-nuts is suddenly understandable when faced with our all-too palpable defenselessness before natural forces.


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