28 February 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 89

"Who wants to volunteer to write our last post?"
-- Enbrethiliel

A few days ago, I thought about scrapping my "plan in the sand" for State of Fear: after all, Ash Wednesday is looming and I'm feeling too lazy (not to mention unqualified) to write one more book club post just for the author's note, appendices and bibliography. And I did go ahead and read the rest of the book as if I'd be cramming it all into one more meeting. But sand is stronger than I thought. Here's hoping that I can pull something spectacular off on attract a volunteer book club meeting host before Shrove Tuesday!

One last note before the jump: if my impressions are correct, then exactly one commenter has already read State of Fear and exactly one other is reading along but not commenting along. That's totally okay with me, but now I have to warn all the other lovely souls who are joining the discussion that this meeting will go into some really big spoilers.

Pages 554 to 623

I feel bad that I made a joke about Ted Bradley getting eaten. Of course I didn't actually want it to happen. =(

Michael Crichton isn't the most emotionally evocative writer I've read, but boy, can he milk a death scene. I was quite disturbed by Jonathan Marshall's death at the very beginning. The young man's only flaw was being a lonely nerd who let a beautiful and seductive woman take advantage of him for one heady evening. It's not very smart, but it's hardly deserving of death. And is there a rule that the safest ways to kill someone are also the worst ways to die? After reading of his murder, I wanted to go to the Seine and lay some flowers on the stone embankment.

Bradley's death is far more tragic, in the sense that he gets his big moment of anagnorisis. Those who live by "nature" will die by "nature"--a thought which evokes everything from the high romance of Percy Shelley's shipwreck to the bathos of Timothy Treadwell's bear attack, but for the most part, not the reality which Italian Horror got absolutely right. 

"You just don't get it, do you?" Kenner said. "You think that civilisation is some horrible, polluting human invention that separates us from the state of nature. But civilisation doesn't separate us from nature, Ted. Civilisation protects us from nature. Because what you see right now, all around you--this is nature."

Well, why shouldn't human nature be as savage and merciless as Mother Nature, the original single mother? One day I'll give those Philippine-set Italian cannibale films the same fair shot I gave the Philippine-set American martial arts movies.

More dignified is the death of the villain "Bolden." Although it can't be very pleasant to be crushed into nothingness under a concentrated beam of sound, he died in a fair fight. Indeed, his opponent was someone who made the decent, if also rash choice to give him a warning instead of just clubbing him in the back of the head. (You're all right, Evans.)

The bright spot among all these deaths is a resurrection of sorts. I'm sure none of Crichton's readers really believed George Morton was dead, but I had forgotten about him by the time he finally shows up again. Which meant that I had the same reaction to him that Evans does: pure relief. (Nice one, Crichton!) On the other hand, I can't really wrap my head around how easily Morton turns into Rambo--and I had to reread earlier scenes in order to see whether I had just been picking up the wrong impressions of him.

At the start of the novel, Morton is a sixty-five-year-old billionaire philanthropist who might have been blissfully happy to bankroll the snake Nicholas Drake forever, had John Kenner not directly intervened. And although Morton likes visiting the sites of all the far-flung environmental projects he is financing, he needs his hosts to provide pretty girls as guides before he can really feel comfortable. So it's kind of difficult for me to believe he survives nine days in the jungles of Gareda, staying one step ahead of a crazy tribe of cannibals, before he needs to pull off the big rescue at the end. Perhaps he picked up some of Kenner's military training by osmosis. =P

Even Morton's big moment at the end, when he describes the new kind of environmental organisation he wants to found, had me asking, "Was he always this smart?" Crichton had to study environmental science for three years before he could write State of Fear; Morton has had a couple of weeks. It must be that osmosis thing again--maybe coupled with his own rite of passage, implied but not included in the narrative. A more detailed book club discussion would look at all Morton's plans (which are also Crichton's recommendations), but I'd like to focus on his their answer to why none of the established organisations have started doing all the great things he proposes they propose.

"Face the facts, all these environmental organisations are thirty, forty, fifty years old. They have big buildings, big obligations, big staffs. They may trade on their youthful dreams, but the truth is, they're now part of the establishment. And the establishment works to preserve the status quo. It just does.

". . . your final job [for the organisation] will be to disband it, before it becomes another tired old environmental organisation spouting outmoded wisdom, and doing more harm than good."

"I see," Evans said. "And when it's disbanded?"

"You'll find a bright young person and try to excite him or her to do what really needs to be done in the next generation."

That's probably the most radical idea of all! And I have to admit that it makes sense to me. As Morton also explains, when your team solves the problem it was formed to deal with, then it loses its reason for being. If I remember correctly, Michael J. Fox said something similar about his foundation for Parkinson's research: it exists to put itself out of business. Likewise, I have long believed that when a religious order tries to stay "relevant" by diverting from its founder's original charism, the Holy Spirit moves out. (That's actually not a non sequitur.)

Since State of Fear is a novel, it's best to end our discussion of the story with a last look at our unlikely protagonist. To me, the most interesting thing is the other main characters' decision to keep Evans entirely in the dark about what they are doing, even if it requires him to mourn a dear friend who isn't actually dead. I think he takes the big news well. (I would have been throwing things and yelling, "I had fifteen Masses said for your soul! You owe me for stipends!") This reminds me a lot of some YA novels in which the heroines are played like pawns by characters who don't let them in on the bigger plot, because the heroines are actually the queens. (There is your non sequitur!) Evans begins as a pawn and ends as a . . . promoted pawn. A knight of sorts. =)

Discussion Questions:

1) What do you think Sarah said to Evans to make him forgive them? (And can you believe that Crichton didn't give this moment a proper scene???) What would it take to make you forgive your friends if they did the same thing to you?
2) Do organisations that are "built to last" simply fob off one generation's problems onto the next?
3) What kind of relationship should civilisation have with nature?
4) Did Crichton go too far with the cannibals or were they just what the story needed?


amy said...

I cant write your last post. I can't even comment regularly. 1st order of business is to catch up on these readalong posts!
1) I felt like the end of the novel was badly mishmashed together. What about Jenifer? I was finaly getting to trust her. Did she die or join a monastery? I cannot beleive that Crichton did not give the this scene its dues. I think that sarah told evan how much she admired him for his brave actions in his grief and confusion; and that everything had depended on him.
2) "The establishment works to preserve the status quo." I think that this has always been protestants critique of the Catholic Church. This is also a modern critique of the family, that they pass one generation's problems to the next. I think that you have to ask, do these "built to last organizations" pass on culture and something good (and real!) as well as problems?
3) the relation between civilization and nature is fascinating. In the second creation account, God created man to till and to keep the garden. My understanding we are both the masters of nature and the stewards of it. What this means practically is a puzzle to me. I have been experimenting with livestock- wanting to do things "naturaly"- and am comming to see what an arrogant idea that is. "Badly managed " is a more accurate description of my recent outcomes and practices. Have you read "One Straw Revolution?" An excellent meditation on art and nature(and natural farming). I loved the picture presented in State of Fear of how the native americans managed the fields, the forests and even the grazing of the livestock. Amazing. But then the axiom that "art mimics nature" is rendered nearly meaningless if nature depends on art...
4) the cannibal scene was Way over the top. I cried and wish I hadnt read it and had to skip dinner. I have read your readalong post no. 88 but still have a hard time understanding why the scene was present. Something about human sacrifice and how people treat oneanother. I will have to reread it. I may not be able to coment on the other posts (whiting takes me too long)' but thank you for leading the readalong and hosting a discussion!

Enbrethiliel said...


Better late than never! It's good "to see" you. =)

Now let me respond to your comments out of order . . .

1) I agree that the end was really unsatisfying--especially compared to the meticulously constructed beginning. There are far too many loose ends left in the plot (if not in the reasoning), and I'm a little disappointed that an editor let them through. I guess I'll have to read another Crichton novel to see how he writes romance--LOL!

4) The cannibal scene is such an "off" note. =( And though I didn't mention it here, I was disturbed by it for days. I'm not easily put off from my dinner either, but Michael Crichton managed that with me, too.

I won't ask, "What was Crichton thinking?" (because I flatter myself that I already know =P), but it feels like the wrong artistic choice. While both cannibalism and the environmental movement are forms of human sacrifice, the latter is arguably more civilised and we just don't have a neat parallel between them. Last week, I read Angie's review of The Mist (the movie adaptation of Stephen King's novella), which includes her interesting perspective from having survived the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her point, which I agree with, is that lifelong suburbanites probably won't revert to savagery if their civilisation were suddenly to collapse. And for that we can thank . . . the establishment! =P How ironic, aye?

2) You've probably guessed that I'm a huge fan of tradition. Sometimes there really is a status quo worth preserving. And there are some problems that, like the poor, will always be with us. George Morton's vision is wonderful, but I think that even if all of it were to come to pass, environmental issues would remain as tricky as we know social issues will always be.

3) Doing things "naturally" is also a dream of mine. You might remember my attempt to start a vegetable garden. Did I mention that it yielded exactly one anaeorexic carrot? =P I still have a nice Plumfield-esque fantasy of a huge vegetable garden, a small wheat field, a chicken coop, and even a cow--plus, of course, the homeschool--but I foresee that I may have to settle for doing things efficiently and going to the market like even my grandmother did before me. After all, it's traditional now, too! ;-P

I haven't read One Straw Revolution, but this discussion reminds me of those prepper and survivalist blogs I read a lot of last year. (How's this for continuity: I mentioned them way back in Meeting 80!) I think it's fair to say that the prepper community likes anticipating the collapse and mistrusting the people they currently pass on the street--and you know, there go I but for the grace of being bad at growing vegetables and producing my own "no poo" supplies! Unlike Masanobu Fokuoka, they are clearly motivated by fear rather than by art. A pity.