Review: Prey

I've read many of Michael Crichton's novels. Some are much better than others. The Andromeda Strain, for example, I think is very good. Disclosure is not. Timeline was just okay.

I finally got a chance to read Prey. Prey starts out well. It's told from the perspective a brilliant programmer who'd been booted and blacklisted for whistleblowing and is now a full-time father. His equally brilliant wife works for a hi-tech company developing nanotech products. Wifey, however, had grown erratic, distant, and lean. She comes home late one night, decides to change the baby, gets annoyed with the baby, and slaps the kid hard enough to leave hand marks on baby's skin -- and Our Hero, who witnessed it, did nothing. Didn't even say anything to wifey.

Okay, sure, unbelievable -- but I was willing to give Crichton the benefit of a doubt. So I pressed on. The story starts out interesting, sort of building dread, limning things that are not all as they appear in the Happy Nerd Home. A sister and brother constantly at war -- that definitely worked. Baby gets a mysterious, painful rash that is cured when she's put in an MRI machine. Son reports there were men in silver suits in the house while Our Hero Jack had baby at the hospital. Wife doesn't come home one night, doesn't call, just shows up the next day peeved that Our Hero was annoyed about it. Wifey seems to have a dual personality.

Wife gets into a car wreck and the next day Jack gets called by his old boss, the one who blacklisted him, to rescue Wife's company by working for old boss as an onsite contractor. Got that? Seems they used Our Hero's predator/prey distributed computing code to program nanobots to stick together and do whatever it is they want the nanobots to do. Only, they nanobots don't. Not only that, a bunch of them escaped the lab set deep in the Nevada desert; they're swarming, learning, and generally doing Bad Things. Our Hero Jack is supposed to figure out and fix the problem -- though -- never mind, I don't want to include any spoilers in this. Let's just say the story falls apart pretty quickly after Our Hero's arrival at the Nevada lab.

There were a number of directions this plot could go, and Crichton managed to choose a stupid one. As in implausible. I'm no expert in nanotechnology -- I know just a bit about it, and just little bit about distributed intelligence and a little bit about biotechnology -- but things didn't seem to hang together very well. I didn't buy it. Swarm behavior only goes so far. How to the nanocritters manage to extend their power supply? How can a decontamination shower, blower, whatever, manage to get rid of the nanobots within body tissue? How could anything injected kill every single one throughout the body. How could anyone be stupid enough to build these thingies without a dead man's switch?

But, say, you can swallow the story. There are more problems with it than just implausible technology. For one thing, nothing is EXPLAINED. You don't find out what happened, or why it happened, or how it happened. Believe me, you figure out the plot line pretty quickly, and will go along with it to see what the explanation is -- but there is none. Pretty sucky. Also, the character development is very weird -- more like the characters are described as though they were being cast in a movie, but all this character description is rather pointless and SOME of it is presented after the characters are already dead. Not only that, the interactions don't always ring true. Oh, wait, it IS supposed to be a movie! Sony already bought it!

If you can manage to get past Crichton's uncharacteristically boring and awkward information dump at the beginning of the book (and at several points throughout the book -- sheesh he managed to make nanotechnology dull), and ignore the implausibilities that keep cropping up, it's a decent read -- an escape. It didn't make my top-200 list of good science fiction novels -- but it kept my attention. It's a quick read. Just be ready to have the questions start cropping up after you've finished. The movie will have to get mighty good reviews for me to go see it since I already know there are no explanations for the events of the book.
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