Monday, December 27, 2004

Book Review: State Of Fear by Michael Crichton, 2004

Generally it is difficult to put down a book by Crichton once you start it and the new book “State of Fear (SOF) is no exception. This is bit of a problem for a slower reader like me since I land up piling up lot of essential tasks when I am engrossed in the book until it is finished! But the book is worth all the time and I am happy that my this year’s quota – one good book per year – is consumed by such a stunning thriller. I am a modern day blue color worker by profession in USA; I mean a software engineer in Knowledge Economy, trying to keep my job in a global, outsourcing threatened world with a family to support. So I do not get much time to read a whole new book. In a way I cannot afford extensive book reading. So it is satisfying that I was able to read a good book whatever time I can afford for that activity.

A really frightening thing happened when I finished the book. I turned the last page of the book after paying all of my available time, including lot of sleep deprivation and then decide to catch up with my mundane personal things. I hooked to the Internet to check my emails, opened Yahoo and then saw the news of devastating Tsunami hitting South and South East Asia due to the 9.0 Richeter scale earthquake on December 26, 2004 in Sumatra Sea. It took me a while to understand that it is not some kind of Internet / Reality Game where I am continued from the book on to the web pages, but rather a true tragic incident has indeed happened. No wonder my belief in the solidity of the central plot of the book is fully entrenched. I liked the plot from the start and this particular tragic news enforced the plausibility and possibility of what Chrichton is talking here.

I hope this devastation in Asia is not related to some kind of extreme environmental organization as what the author talks in the book. After 9/11 and this book, I am sure that many Governmental Organization will be looking into such possibilities. Rather they should, even if such things are highly unlikely. If not anything, I think this is very positive contribution of the book – laying out a possible terrorist game plan. In real life, it may not be an environmental organization who may try to pull such a stuff; but potentially a regular terrorist organization. I guess, it is incumbent upon the citizens and media to grill our policy makers about whether they are ready for such terrorist plots. It is serious stuff and now the policy makers cannot have any excuse for not “connecting the dots”. This is one of the advantages of techno - thrillers and in the case of SOF it is fully on display.

So the plot is quite tight, plausible, strong and that is the best part of the book. What about the Science? Aha, that is tricky and a difficult issue. Many of the references are from the journal “Nature” and you cannot get any more authentic than that. So Crichton has done exemplary homework here. Of course there is always room to question or wonder how Crichton uses some specific information. For example, one of the central arguments of the book is about James Hansen’s research and his findings. On page 246 the author ridicules Hansen for predicting 0.35C increase in the temperature within next 10 years starting from 1988 where as in reality it has been only 0.11C. I checked the source data (http://www.giss.nasa.gov/data/update/gistemp/graphs/Fig.A2.txt) and it is not that straight forward. The annual mean has changed from 0.29 to 0.56 above average during 1988 to 1998. The figures are Global Land+Ocean Surface Temperature Anomaly which I think is what the author is talking about. In any case that is the measure used at the broadest level to measure the temperature change (and the site explains why that is the case). The data on that site is in solid shape, up to date and publicly available. In the same table (2nd column) the figures are 0.37 and 0.31 for the year 1990 and 2000 respectively, meaning global temperature was effectively higher by 0.37C in 1990 over the normal (global average over a long period) whereas it is higher by 0.31C in 2000. So it is hard to take selectively only one piece of data and base your argument on that. In fact the author implicitly criticizes such tendencies among many environmentalists. But I get the feeling that on many occasions that has happened in the book as well.

So do I think that data is really manipulated in the book? Not really, I just want to argue that cherry picking of data may not be the best way to put your case. I would say in this case in fact if one looks at the data in terms of 5 years mean change and lot of graphs presented on that web site; it is obvious that global temperature is indeed increasing. There is no mistake about that. Just go to that NASA web site and it is all there. Then does it not destroy one of the central thesis of the book that data about Global Warming is at best unclear and fuzzy? Well, there are serious challenges the way Crichton is trying to portray the insufficiency of the temperature data in the book when one is exposed to the comprehensiveness of data on that NASA web site which is the de facto global source of data in this area.

The larger issue is what are the causes of this increase. Here I believe Crichton is on bit stronger grounds – to take with pinch of salt the stated reasons of global warming by many environmentalists. That is the real bone of contention and as things stand the evidence of human activities contributing to this global temperature increase still needs more ammunition. Point well taken and I believe that is quite strongly argued in the book. This is because it is pretty well known (and those references are given in the book as well) that between two glacier periods, temperature on earth increases dramatically. This is even admitted by James Hansen. I subscribe to Scientific American and in the article none other than by James Hansen himself in March 2004 issue, graphs on page 71 show the temperature and green house gases (CO2 and Methane) changes over last 400 Thousand years. The graphs depict near equivalence for two interglacial periods – Eemian and the current Holocene as far as temperature and volume of green house gases are considered. Meanwhile, it is also true that human activity adds green house gases. So the question is, in this naturally observed increase of green house gases during interglacial periods how much addition is by humans and how damaging is that. Answer to this question is not clear and Crichton hammers this point home.

In the same article (and I suppose in general) Hensen argues that man made increase (what he calls human forcings) “will” cause the sea level to rise. Again the real argument here is, in the Eemian interglacial period the sea levels were way higher than what we have today so if we exceed the equivalent level of green house gases, the sea level eventually will go much higher. But then why is it not high at present? That is the question Hansen attempts to answer. He says that melting of ice is abrupt and if these man made forcings (even if those are small) remain for sufficient longer period; suddenly glacier melting will start and sea level will increase. Now, this is the part which is not very convincing and I agree with Crichton’s stance here that we need to get more information and see what happens rather than jumping to the conclusion.

This gets further complicated in Hansen’s article. Hensen depicts two more graphs where the observed CO2 and Methane levels are less than IPCC projected levels and argues that he is happy for the progress done and he is hopeful that we may be able to avoid the possible bad consequences of global warming because we may be able to control our share of addition of green house gases. This is good news but on the scientific level it can also be interpreted as Hansen is buying an “insurance” here. We know that anything which cannot be submitted to the Falsification Criteria (Karl Popper) is susceptible Science. In this case if the claimed bad effects of green house gases (say increase in sea level) are not observed, there is no way to falsify Hansen’s theory that control in human activities have reduced CO2 and Methane and that has helped to avoid the disaster of global warming. I am sure Crichton will be delighted to read this article of Hansen in Scientific America as well as presumably Hansen’s recent work. The reason I am mentioning all this is it is indeed lot convincing when Crichton is arguing that on many cases in this debate of global warming, large number of people are jumping the gun ahead. Still many cases needed to be proved solidly.

Another interesting point I found well articulated in the book is about the philosophical argument for taking action to address global warming. The environmental case is, knowing that human activities are adding green house gases in the atmosphere, we should control those activities because we do not have any moral right to disturb the nature (or say moral right to disturb what Jesus has given to us). How can we add something to Nature (or what Jesus has offered)? Our ancestors were not doing that. Well, Crichton strongly argues that our ancestors were indeed altering the environment as suitable to their needs. And of course there is complete materialistic or hedonistic aspect to this argument – unless I know what I am contributing to the damage don’t beat me to stop my consumption. Do I personally subscribe to this argument? No, but I believe there is still inadequate basis to stop others from doing that? Crichton is not hesitant in exploiting this fact to bolster his case.

But of course he is not dumb not to articulate what should be investigated as far as Man – Nature relationship is concerned. One of his characters – Morton – in the end puts quite vividly his vision of what kind of right environmental organization he would like to run instead of the current morbid organizations which jump to the conclusion while skipping certain crucial steps. I wish Crichton funds one such organization with the millions which he will get by selling this book. In fact I believe it is a moral necessity for Crichton to do if he wants to substantiate his statements at the end of the book - “Everybody has the agenda. Except me.” Why would Crichton not have an agenda? I mean his agenda is so obvious – to rake in millions by selling this techno thriller which he does so well. He knows he is a part of this politico-legal-media (PLM) complex. He is an author is fine but as a part of his profession it is lot more important how his books play out in media. Substantial monetary stakes are involved in publishing it right way and carefully launching such a techno thriller. To borrow the cliché, today’s authors are perfectly aware of the Post Modern world in which they operate; where not only the plot of the book or the core merit of the book is important (this it is solid in this case, no doubt about that); but the ripples which the book generates are as well carefully calibrated. This book is not something where the author writes it and gets detached as far as reader reactions and literary criticism are concerned. All these aspects are inclusive in the commercial planning. For example, the total movie script style format of the book (so the movie making / script development is pre-wired in the writing), web sites, internet forums and so on. And still all this is legitimate. This is how things are done in the Post Modern, fully Internet connected world. The only requirement is we all are aware of it and so do not make the statements like Crichton does, that he does not have an agenda. He has an agenda and it is financial gains. Perfectly legitimate and he does that so well, professionally and deservingly. Again I am not arguing whether the author should gain financially or not. Simply that he should not claim other wise. So his claim that he does not have an agenda can be true only when he puts some of the monetary gains where such right environmental organizations exist. Not acknowledging existence of any such environmental organizations and narrowing down the focus to only dumb organizations as portrayed in the book is one of the shortcomings of the book. Also there is complete pass given to the environmentally damaging activities undertaken by industry with profit gain as the agenda. I am sure Crichton is not denying such incidents – those are all extensively documented and thoroughly investigated. In general, it does not go very well when Crichton’s financial motives are evident while he is pointing out agenda’s of other players of the society who are involved in the welfare of all of us and yet he claims that he is above the fray.

I wish all those sections of the books – Author’s Message and Appendix I (Why Politicized Science Is Dangerous) – were not there. These sections raise the kind of questions discussed above. I guess that is how the self reflective books are in the Post Modern world. Indeed in that sense this is not a usual book where one can apply classical literary criteria of judgment. (May be all techno thrillers are like that.) For example, no character sounds authentic in the book. Character development is so poor or rather completely absent. I do not know if the author has done it purposefully so as not to over shadow the main plot and action part of the narrative. If the author did not want to invest in character development, I believe the format of the book could have been collection of journalistic or media stories or Internet blogs or TV news where it is does not matter who an individual or the character is but that the narrative develops through collection of news pieces. May be the structure of traditional “fiction / novel” is not a right medium to what the author is putting forward. Attempts to do that give kind of emptiness feeling to the reader despite the strength of the main plot and solid arguments in the book. It results in so many awkward conversations to express various ideas which the author wants to put forward. It is unlikely that people in real life would have conversation in this manner.

Despite this handicap of the format, some concepts have surfaced quite well. The concept of “ecology of ideas” is quite appropriately capturing the mode of collective thinking in current societies. Also Crichton is right to point the central role of “fear” in today’s life. We have all seen in the recent election how the Vice President claimed that electing Democrats would bring new terrorist attacks on America and how Democrats claimed that this administration would bring the draft. I guess this politico-legal-media (PLM) complex is emboldened after 9/11 to play out fear among people unabashedly.

One minor point – in the footnote on page 370, population of 3 American cities is mentioned. But it is incorrect.
Printed the book According USA Census 2000

LA 14,531,000 3,694,820
Berkeley 6,250,000 102,743
New York 19,345,000 8,008,278

(http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/SAFFFacts?_sse=on)

So it is clear that even if population increase of last four years (from 2000 to 2004) is included in these number; the actual numbers reported in the book are incorrect. The New York number in the book is more close to the total population of the entire New York state, though still it is not accurate. I live in San Jose near Berkeley California and I know that the entire population of Bay Year could be around 4 million so it cannot be the case that the population of city of Berkeley is 6.2 million. Same applies to LA, it is way overstated. Yes, it is relatively minor point; but when the author is taking the high moral grounds of beating everybody else how hard facts are used incorrectly, it is bit tough to sallow author’s errors. I guess Crichton would have to add the errata in next reprints or at least need to publish all these corrections on his web site. Also it will be quite useful if Table of Contents, Name Index and Subject Index are added. Generally those are needed for a technical book and Crichton do want to make this book a technical book apart from a thriller.

On the whole I liked the book and I believe it enters some of the unchartered areas of our collective policy debate fearlessly. Kudos to Crichton and I think it will be regarded as a milestone fiction in terms of societal debates about larger questions. In a way it is good to see that the some of the recent forms of literature like techno-thriller are traversing the complete circle and coming back to address the larger societal issues. I suppose in good old days regular good novels used to do that and now the larger canvass is back. I am sure considering the preeminent position of Crichton in this genre, others in this genre too would start using such larger and global canvass. That could be a substantial impact of this book.


Umesh Patil
San Jose, California
December 27, 2004.

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