SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > Stranger Than Truth
Stranger Than Truth
by Robert J. Sawyer
as an op-ed piece in The Ottawa Citizen, the largest-circulation
newspaper in Canada's capital city, Monday, January 15, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Michael Crichton the world's top-selling science-fiction
writer, by far has taken a lot of flak in recent years for
bending the truth in his novels. But shouldn't a science-fiction
writer be allowed to do just that?
It's a debate that goes right back to the genre's two founding
fathers guys you might have thought would have been fast
friends. But in fact Jules Verne didn't much care for that
snot-nosed Brit H.G. Wells.
Verne, you see, prided himself on his scientific rigor. Parts of
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea read like an oceanography
textbook, and Captain Nemo's Nautilus was a fully
worked-out submarine decades before such things were actually
But as Verne liked to sneer, with Gallic disdain, "Wells
invents things!," meaning he made them up out of whole
cloth. Martian invaders! Time machines! How could any
self-respecting futurist pollute his work with such nonsense?
But now the future is here, and it's Wells, not Verne, who is
still widely read and taught. Why? Because while Verne was an
Übergeek in his day, nothing is less interesting than old
technology; Wired magazine's three-part barometer of
"wired," "tired," and "expired" gives the new-and-exciting a
half-life of about six months.
But while Verne was playing with his slide rule, Wells was
talking about issues. True, they were the issues of his
time and you might think that would make his stories even
more irrelevant to today's readers than Verne's 19th-century
tales of steam-driven machines.
But perhaps not. War of the Worlds really has nothing at
all to do with Martians invading Earth; rather, it was Wells's
attempt, using the unique tools of science fiction, to get his
countrymen to see what it's like to have one's culture crushed
underfoot by an uncaring, expansionist, technologically advanced
foreign power. He'd hoped they'd realize the cruelty of what
Britain was doing in India and other places.
And The Time Machine isn't really about the year 802,701
A.D. Rather, it's a pointed attack on the British class system,
with Wells's cattle-like Eloi standing in for the feckless
leisure class, and the subterranean Morlocks representing the
working class, denied even the simple joy of being out in the
And although Verne probably said plus ça change, plus
c'est la même chose with a more convincing accent than Wells,
it is old H.G.'s literary legacy that has benefited from that
truism. A huge, uncaring power striding in, deposing the local
government, and crushing everything in sight? The widening gap
between the world's haves and have-nots? Issues that are as
relevant today as they were over a century ago, more's the pity.
Which brings us back to Michael Crichton. Many reviewers have
indeed dismissed his latest novel, the
genetics-research-run-amuck thriller Next, with a
Verne-like, "He invents things!"
And, true enough, the book, set in the present day, is full of
lab-created marvels Crichton presents as though they already
exist, or are just around the corner. For instance, Next
features apes and even parrots that can read and converse in
English and several other languages, in the case of one
scatological orangutan who swears like a truck driver in a
variety of tongues.
In fact, such advanced transgenic chimeras animals
uplifted by infusions of human DNA are a long way off, as
are herds of glow-in-the-dark turtles, nasal sprays to cure
addiction, and the other miracles peppered throughout
No, despite Crichton's title, none of this stuff is imminent. If
we've learned anything from the Human Genome Project, it's that
the chemistry of life is far more complex and subtle than we
Of course, most of Crichton's audience won't know that the things
he's describing aren't real. He takes glee in mixing fact and
fiction, with no way for the innocent reader to easily sort out
which is which.
I prefer to play fair with my own readers. In my science-fiction
novels, if a character says something was discovered in a year
prior to the publication date of the book, it's the truth;
anything that's my extrapolation, I take pains to identify as
being discovered at a date in the future.
But that's a choice on my part. Should Crichton be obligated to
do the same? (His sole concession to disclosure is this smug
disclaimer on page one: "This novel is fiction, except for the
parts that aren't.")
After all, Crichton has the ear of President Bush (not literally,
of course although much of Next does deal with the
theft of human tissue). And he's testified to the US congress
that global warming is a hoax, his status as expert conferred
solely because he'd written a novel on that theme, 2004's
State of Fear.
But Crichton is more Wells than Verne. He's wrong that
human-chimp hybrids will be enrolling in our public schools next
year, but he's right that such things will eventually be possible
(although his thinking about them is shallow only the last
scene of his novel hints that he has any sense of the real issues
that will arise from their creation).
And we humans are notoriously shortsighted: if it's not
going to affect this quarter's bottom line, we don't think about
it. So maybe Michael Crichton is trying a little penance here.
The damage done by State of Fear has been incalculable:
he told the world not to worry about a real and imminent
catastrophe, one that requires immediate action to forestall.
But by getting us to grapple now, while there's still time to
change things, with the legitimate issues he brings up in
Next, such as the folly of granting patents on human
genes, he may help us create a better future. Perhaps no
orangutan will swing into view to curse us in Dutch and French,
but if Michael Crichton gets people to think, his latest book
will have accomplished what good science fiction should. I'm
sure H.G. Wells would approve.
[2007 bionote] Toronto science-fiction writer
Robert J. Sawyer's
seventeenth novel, Rollback,
will be published in April 2007.
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