I’ve done a series of posts to look at how popular science fiction books relate to standard writing advice. This post will look at a popular author, Michael Crichton, and one of his novels that gets mixed reviews: Next.
The edition I checked on Amazon had an impressive 599 reviews:
- 18% five stars
- 18% four stars
- 22% three stars
- 23% two stars
- 19% one star
- as always on Amazon, some poor reviews reflect delivery problems and not the content
Averaging just under three stars (which means 58% of reviewers didn’t hate it), this is a surprisingly mixed set of reviews for a popular author. It also surprised me that the book made the New York Times Bestseller list, though that may simply reflect Crichton’s overall popularity.
I wonder if Next was perhaps an experiment in formatting. It feels like a collection of short stories that Crichton split into parts and shuffled together like a deck of cards. The stories are united by the field of genetics and most have overlapping characters. There are tales of body snatching, poaching, living art, bounty hunters, and illegal research; along with cheating spouses and lawyers. Crichton inserted short faux newspaper articles about genetics and the ethical dilemmas the field creates – the ultimate “data dump.” He even completed one storyline with a short faux article to simply tell what happened to the character.
Crichton introduces new characters and storylines throughout most of the book. As the main stories resolve towards the end, an exciting action-packed cliff-hanger in one chapter is followed by a judge explaining legal issues in the next chapter. There were three or four stories I liked and I found myself flipping past chapters to get to the next installment of the story I wanted to read.
Crichton pulls a lot of the storylines together at the end, but I think the book would have worked better for me as a straightforward collection of short stories.
Amazon reviewers who liked the book were fascinated by the world of genetics [“fantastic premise… terrifying implications” says Jennifer Sicurella] and enjoyed the complicated cast of characters. One found Next to be humorous and was “amazed that people didn’t get the joke. This was satire!” [Sally Forth]
Those who did not like the book found it confusing, an “extended info-dump” (though that is Crichton’s trademark) or thought the transgenic animals were implausible. (Personally, I liked the animals better than the human characters.) Apparently Crichton named a disreputable character after a real-life person he dislikes. (I’d expect a traditional publisher to edit that out.)
The book seems to have a message or agenda about the genetics industry. Whether you find the message a useful warning or fear-mongering probably depends more on you than on the book.
Reading Next leaves me with some interesting questions. Once an author becomes famous, will they continue to sell large numbers of books no matter what? For how long?
New authors wish readers would take a chance on an unfamiliar name. The used hardback copy of Next I picked up for $1 at my Friends of the Library sale was listed at $27.95 USA – quite an investment. Maybe inexpensive e-books will allow readers to try unknown authors, but Amazon advertises various editions of Next from $12 to 1¢. (I assume the 1¢ doesn’t include shipping – lol.)
Oh, and by the way – I think the cover art for Next is pitiful. Clearly, all the publisher needed to do was print Crichton’s name in big letters. Maybe that answers my questions.