Michael Crichton & The Art of Blending Fact with Fiction
Posted on February 27, 2018
This article was published in Writer’s Digest.
It’s been said that readers will believe anything, it’s the author’s job to convince them. Keeping readers absorbed in the fictional dream is challenging, but it was second nature for Michael Crichton, a science fiction author who managed to get millions of readers to believe scientists could bring dinosaurs back to life in his blockbuster novel, Jurassic Park. Few authors blended fact with fiction more elegantly. Few authors better embedded scientific information within an engrossing story. This article explores how Crichton mixed fact with fiction by examining one of his most popular novels, Sphere.
- Invent characters to serve the plot
The story’s protagonist, Dr. Norman Johnson, a psychologist, was brought to a Navy ship in the South Pacific to investigate a mysterious vessel, suspected to be a spaceship, a thousand feet below the surface of the ocean. Norman specializes in anxiety disorders and was previously asked by the government to write a report about how the public might react in the event of an alien invasion. Norman writes in his report, “The most likely consequence of contact is absolute terror.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that Crichton chose to write from the perspective of a psychologist. According to his memoir, Travels, around this time in his life he had begun psychotherapy. By writing from the perspective of a psychologist Crichton can explore the psychological dimensions of his narrative. He can also use Norman’s expertise to deliver scientific material without seeming contrived. For example, Crichton uses Norman to explore the psychology of group dynamics. Crichton invents characters to serve the plot and/or the science he knows will drive the story. For instance, the undersea habitat is attacked by various creatures — a swarm of jelly fish, a giant squid — and by having a marine biologist in the story, Crichton can have the expert share realizations with others. In this example, the marine biologist identifies the squid and explains its capabilities, informing the naïve reader.
- Set up a conversation between an expert and a naïve person
In order to deliver technical information in simple terms, Crichton sets up conversations between an expert and someone who knows little about the topic of conversation. For example, the story’s mathematician asks Norman if he knows about the Drake equation. Norman, a psychologist, likely wouldn’t know, but the narrator claims he does. As such, Crichton can then explain the science through Norman’s understanding. “It was one of the famous proposals in the literature on extraterrestrial life.” Crichton, magnanimously, has Norman say, “Refresh me.” This prompts the mathematician to explain the equation as he might introduce it to a naïve person, using simple terms as well as a demonstration. Crichton does this again later with “You mean like the Davies Message?” Harry asked. “Oh that,” Ted said. “Norman knew about the Davies Message. It was one of the episodes that the SETI promoters wished to forget.” Crichton then seamlessly transitions into exposition. In a sense, Crichton likes to make his POV characters renaissance men. Norman is diamond-smart, well-educated, widely read and intensely curious. He knows a little about a lot. By writing from the perspective of a polymath, Crichton can inform a reader of many things by taping into the character’s knowledge via jumping into their thoughts.
- Set up a conversation between two experts
Crichton delivers a great deal of scientific information via dialogue between well-educated, scientifically inclined characters. Early in the book, the characters become convinced that the vessel on the ocean floor is extraterrestrial. Crichton dumps information about a theory called ‘The unique hypothesis.’ Ted says, “We’ve shot the ‘unique hypothesis’ to hell.” “The unique hypothesis?” Barnes says. “He’s referring,” Beth says, “to the fact that physicists and chemists tend to believe in intelligent life, while biologists do not. Many biologists feel the development of the intelligent life on earth required so many peculiar steps that it represents a unique event in the universe, that may never occurred elsewhere.” Crichton can get away with this information dump, because scientists talk to each other this way.
- Education yourself, then teach it to your readers
Crichton isn’t just an entertainer, he’s a teacher. Sphere touches on many scientific disciplines, including astrophysics, human psychology, mathematics, computer programming, physiology, and marine biology. Crichton educates himself on a subject and then teaches it to the reader. When we close the book we are grateful to have been entertained, but we also learned something. In one scene, Norman asks the team’s mathematician to explain space-time. Norman is as naïve as most readers (and this was 1987 before the explosion of the popularization of astrophysics, so the public knew even less back then). The mathematician then became a mouthpiece for Crichton to teach the reader about space time – and it’s a thrill to learn from him. Norman says, “I’ve never really understood that [space time].” “Why? It’s quite straightforward,” says the mathematician. “You can explain it to me?” “In English?” says Norman. “You mean, without mathematics?” “Yes.” The mathematician uses a demonstration to illustrate Einstein’s theory of general relativity. He places pieces of fruit on a table to represent objects in space, such as a planet or star. A ball-bearing is used to represent a spacecraft. The mathematician explains that objects with mass warp the geometry of space. Planets, stars or a spacecraft are not being “pulled toward” an object with mass, but rather “falling” into the curved geometry. For instance, our sun’s immense mass curves space around it, causing all of the planets to continuously “fall” into its orbit. Many movies have used this device and it’s almost cliché. For example, the movies Event Horizon and Interstellar both have a scene where an astrophysicist uses a similar demonstration to explain the warping of space time.
- Real science can be more persuasive than imagination
For his subject matter, Crichton uses real science stripped from the scientific literature, and it’s enormously persuasive as a result. He convinces the reader that the vessel on the ocean floor could be real by explaining how the military team used coral growth to estimate the vessel’s age. Through dialogue, he gives us the impression that such a thing is done in reality. “We can estimate the date from coral growth with great accuracy. Pacific coral grows two-and-a-half centimeters a year, and the object — whatever it is — is covered in about five meters of coral.” Crichton’s use of the scientific literature gives his work authority, which helps the reader overcome their natural skepticism and keeps them engaged with the story.
- Summarize difficult-to-understand material
Crichton likes to deliver an easy-to-understand summary paragraph after hard-to-understand material. In Sphere, the narrator explains a series of studies Norman had conducted to study anxiety within groups. After almost two pages of exposition, the narrator sums up what’s been said in lay terms: “If you were trapped in an elevator, it was better to be with a few relaxed, athletic people you knew, to keep the lights on, and to know someone was working to get you free.” This sentence communicates to the reader: Even though I used plain language to explain that subject, you may still be lost, so here it is in the most basic of terms. In addition, in order to clarify, Crichton occasionally ends a passage of exposition with a metaphor. For example, a character says, “Basically, a star is like a big beach ball inflated by the atomic explosions occurring inside it.” Later in the book, after a description of decompression sickness, Crichton writes, “Your bloodstream is saturated with helium gas in solution. Right now you’re under pressure, so everything is fine. But if you release that pressure suddenly, it’s just the same as when you pop the top off a soda bottle. The helium will bubble explosively out of your system. You’ll die instantly.”
- Dump information after a character introduction
Crichton effectively delivers scientific information after a character introduction. For example, after Crichton introduces the mathematician, Harry Adams, he dives into theory about how humans might communicate with extraterrestrials. “Adams appeared even younger than his thirty years; he was clearly the youngest member of the group—and arguably the most important.” “Many theorists argued that communication with extraterrestrials would prove impossible, because human beings would have nothing in common with them.” The exposition doesn’t feel like a poke in the eye, because it seamlessly followed the character introduction. We also get the sense that the information will be useful later on, so we understand the information is relevant to the plot. The reader now knows there would be a significant conflict if the expedition team tries to talk with the aliens. And we assume it’s only a matter of time before they do.
- Understand the science to write about it effectively
It’s practically a law in science writing that if you don’t understand the material yourself neither will the reader. When authors don’t understand their subject matter, it’s reflected in the writing. It’s obvious that Crichton goes to great lengths to understand his material and it’s reflected in simple, clear sentences. In order to make the science as clear as possible, Crichton also likely wrote and rewrote expository sentences countless times. With each iteration, the sentences became clearer. Indeed, in an interview with Charlie Rose in the 1990s, Crichton said that it’s hard work to get a reader to believe dinosaurs could be brought back to life, and his early drafts were usually unconvincing.
- Write where you hang your hat
Writers should write what they know, right? Crichton was a Harvard-trained medical doctor, so the science-based thriller is a natural genre for him. He’s comfortable with the material and his connection with the language of science gives his writing credibility and authority. For example, in one scene Norman undergoes a comprehensive medical workup. The scene is dense with the names of medical tests and procedures. One gets the sense that Crichton was writing from memory there.
- Persuade through the use of detail and specificity
Crichton gets us to believe his extraordinary plots through rigorous research. His writing is dense with specific technical information. For example, he describes a boat “laying a new fiber-optics cable” with a “carrying capacity of twenty thousand simultaneous telephonic transmissions,” and a “nuclear submarine with SY-2 misses.” It’s also worth mentioning that Crichton was consistently timely with his choice of subjects. It’s almost as if he had a crystal ball, as around the time he finished a book – the subject matter, whether it was time travel or nanotechnology – was capturing the public’s imagination.
- If you’re fascinated, the reader will be too
Crichton clearly derived pleasure from building stories around high-concept premises involving cutting-edge science. The reader is interested, because Crichton is passionate. For example, in Sphere, three characters walk along the ocean floor, a thousand feet below the surface and they come upon a sea snake. The marine biologist says the snake is poisonous and then spends a long passage discussing poisonous creatures within the animal kingdom. The groups is in a survival situation and they are the last remaining people left in he underwater habitat, so why is this character discussing poisonous creatures? A conversation about snakes builds fear, of course, but Crichton probably thought it was fascinating and he just couldn’t help himself. The reader is delighted.
- Use the presentation format to deliver exposition
Crichton delivers a lot of science via presentations. In all of his books, scientists explain their field or a discovery through a lecture, speech, or meeting. The reader understands the ritual and thus tolerates the information dump. In Sphere, a character explains “Dalton’s Law” to a group of scientists. Graphs and equations flash onto a screen. The information becomes so technical that Crichton has the protagonist doze off. Cleverly, as Norman drifts in and out of consciousness, the narrator shares snippets of only relevant information (e.g., nitrogen narcosis) through the character’s point of view.
- Sprinkle in interesting material often
To keep a reader from becoming bored, Crichton sprinkles in curiosity-piquing scientific information whenever there was a lull in action. His books are wildly cerebral and it’s hard to read three pages in Sphere without seeing a conversation between two people discussing some theory about extraterrestrials, or time travel, or psychology. This has the effect of keeping the reader intellectually stimulated throughout the story. If a reader’s heart isn’t into the story or a character, their mind is in overdrive as it consumes the sporadic delivery of fascinating information.
- Engage the head as well as the heart
In addition to entertaining and educating, Crichton also stimulates self-reflection within the reader. He doesn’t just write for the mind, but for the heart and spirit. At the end of Sphere, he writes with the insight of a psychologist about one’s capacity for self-delusion. “It was a psychological truism, this blindness about self. Did he [Norman] imagine that he was immune?” He continues, “And your ignorance about yourself was even greater than that. Self-awareness was the most difficult of all. Few people attained it. Or perhaps nobody attained it.”
After reading such a passage, the reader can’t help but look in the mirror. Haven’t we all consciously avoided or denied painful thoughts or emotions? Haven’t we all deluded ourselves? Don’t we all sometimes find it hard to accept the truth? Sphere engages us on so many levels – the mind, heart and spirit. We finish this book knowing that our time was well spent. We might even hope to be a better person. This is the storyteller’s job and Michael Crichton does it with aplomb.