Have You Heard the News? It's in a Novel

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Michael Crichton has made an excellent literary career scaring us about what will happen when our brains outpace our souls. In best sellers from the Andromeda Strain to Jurassic Park to his latest book out today, Next ("Welcome to our genetic world," says the teaser. "Fast, furious and out of control"), Crichton has for years been stoking the private ethics conversation that we are so clumsy at conducting in public.

Of course, he's not alone at that. It has often fallen to artists high and low to frame the choices that matter most: Harriet Beecher Stowe on slavery, Aldous Huxley on "progress," George Orwell on tyranny, Ralph Ellison on race. We could debate which debate has most refocused the Iraq war: the one moderated by Tim Russert or the one by Jon Stewart. When Crichton takes aim at genetic engineering and argues that "the future is closer than you think — get used to it," he is likely to shape opinion more than all the bioethics seminars and Senate debates combined.

It helps that he makes biotechnology fun. Next promises to stir the debate over treating humans like animals and making animals more human and over what it means that corporations are gaining control over our cells. Embedded in real ads for the book are fake ads for NEXTgencode, the "industry leader in personal genetic life enhancement." A faux-corporate website www.nextgencode.com, complete with a picture of a sinister company headquarters, lets you browse the product line and see the "specials" on a gene for glossier hair or sharper vision or "BLSHt, for better verbal facility." You can meet the "staff," including a warm, smiling Dr. Melinda Johnson ("at NEXTgencode, I give parents the children they always wanted"). Anyone worried that natural blonds are an endangered species can relax: "We own the gene."

For most of us the gap in understanding keeps widening between those who create a technology and those affected by it, and a deft writer of fiction can close it because he controls the facts and the narrative, aiming for a satisfying conclusion. The tensions between science and nature, knowledge and wisdom, between what we can do and what we ought to do, have always been great narrative engines. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Birthmark in 1843, in which a brilliant scientist, obsessed with his beautiful wife's Georgiana's tiny handshaped birthmark, is determined to use his vast skills to remove it, and render her perfect. The potion he gives her does indeed make the birthmark fade from her cheek... as it kills her. That story's lessons press even harder on us now, when we act as though growing old is not just unfortunate but unnatural, explore all the ways we can make ourselves perfect, and view science with the kind of blind faith Georgiana showed her husband.

As a popular contrarian, Crichton offers plenty of targets for critics in the reality-based community: his 2004 State of Fear, about global warming as an overwrought conspiracy theory, inspired a Stanford climatologist to denounce it as "demonstrably garbage" and President Bush to invite him to the White House to chat. But I'd be willing to bet that more people were introduced to the concept of cloning from reading or watching Jurassic Park than from the news stories and academic papers that have followed the research for years. He performs a service when he acts on his belief that science is too important to leave to the scientists and he invites a mass audience irresistibly into some of the Most Important Conversations We're Not Having.