Jurassic Park was the first Crichton book I read, well after I’d watched the movie. Unlike many other examples of how the book is better than the movie (or vice versa) here, the movie and the book are almost as good as each other, with the book perhaps edging the lead very slightly. Personally, I also think it’s Crichton’s best book. If you’ve seen the movie, then you more-or-less know what the plot is like. There are a number of diversions, however. In the book, it’s the boy Tim who’s considerably computer savvy, in the movie it’s his older sister, Lex. They also brush over a lot of the science in the book, naturally enough, because while that makes for very interesting reading, it takes away time that could be used for dinosaur animatronic action sequences in the movie.
The book opens much the same way as the movie does, with a sequence involving the killing of a worker on Jurassic Park by the most viciously intelligent of all the dinosaurs, the dreaded Velociraptors. These are seriously scary, even in the book, let alone the remarkable way Spielberg brought them to life. Other accounts of escaped dinosaurs are dealt with, and then we get introduced to the main characters. Alan Grant, a veteran paleontologist and Ellie Sattler, a top-notch paleobotanist, are the first ones to be invited by John Hammond (the owner of Jurassic Park, more on him later) to visit the island. Essentially, Hammond put together a bunch of consultants, experts in their respective fields, at the urging of his lawyer, David Gennaro, to determine whether the park was truly safe for visitors. Gennaro, who represents the (mostly Japanese, they’re apparently the only ones willing to bet long-term on such risky and unheard of technology) major investors in Jurassic Park, and thus has the power to close it down. He has a somewhat acrimonious relationship with Hammond, but nothing compared to the one with Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldbloom in the movie), the last of the consultants. Malcolm is a chaos theory mathematician. Remember, this was written when “chaos theory” and non-linear sequencing was just becoming popular. Malcolm’s model proves conclusively that Jurassic Park cannot work, that it is essentially an accident waiting to happen. When asked to explain, he duly does so.
His basic premise is that it is impossible to mold and control reality to the extent to which Jurassic Park is attempting to do. No matter how good the control mechanisms and security arrangements, recreating extinct animals and putting them in an environment 65 million years older than they are simply won’t work. One small event will set off a cascade of disasters, and to Malcolm it’s more a question of when or what will happen. Of course, in the end he’s proven right.
While people more or less know the story of Jurassic Park, it’s the details and complexity of the plot and events that make this book such a captivating read. Even though it’s a bit dated now, it’s still very exciting and interesting, if only for the technology and science involved. Well worth picking up as an airport read, as are most of Crichton’s books. This one, though, is a bit of a classic, and this review will now get into a detailed examination of the various plots and sub-plots in the book, so don’t click on read more if you aren’t interested. Get the book instead.
So the team of consultants flies over to Jurassic Park, which is on a privately owned island out near Puerto Rico. When they see the dinosaurs for the first time, they are all flabbergasted. Even Malcolm is grudgingly impressed. For the paleontologist, of course, it revolutionizes his field completely. But, as Malcolm points out, these animals aren’t in their natural habitat, but in a totally artificial reality. Then Gennaro and Hammond get into a shouting match because Hammond, despite the dangers, has invited his grandchildren – Tim and Lex – to visit Jurassic Park for the weekend. Eventually, the tour begins. The one question burning in everyone’s mind, of course, is how did they do it? Or as in Grant and Malcolm’s case, where’d they get the DNA from?
While cloning was a reality by then, cloning extinct animals needs their complete DNA strand, unobtainable from fossils. As Dr. Henry Wu, the chief scientist and physiogeneticist in charge explains, they got the DNA from amber. Amber, which most people know of as a fairly pretty semi-precious gem, is actually solidified tree sap. They figured out that it was possible that in Jurassic times, mosquitoes that sucked the blood of dinosaurs were then trapped and perfectly preserved, like, erm, a fly in amber. They had to buy most of the world’s stock of amber, but eventually they got enough DNA to clone about 35 different species. In some cases, where the DNA was incomplete, they had to splice it with other animals, like frogs or lizards.
A large part of what most of Crichton’s books worth reading is the plausibility of the science involved. When you stop to think about it though, there are a few gigantic holes in the method Ingen uses to create the dinosaurs. The whole DNA splicing thing, for one. This is something of a scientific impossibility. Also, even a multi-XMP computer system (meaning more than one supercomputer) would be hard-pressed to decode an entire strain. The biggest flaw, though, is in the process. The tour takes them through a very convincing display of laboratories with dinosaur embryos and a good deal of scientific jargon, to a nursery where tiny dinosaurs are kept. What it misses out though, is the step in between. With technology this cutting edge, the failure rate is incredibly high, especially for something as complicated as cloning, let alone cloning extinct animals. For every viable embryo to be produced there should be thousand failed ones. This becomes considerably more relevant in The Lost World.
They then visit the Velociraptor pen. This is surrounded by electrified fences 30 feet tall, and reinforced with bulwarks at every point. Both Grant and Malcolm realize that these are recent additions. Clearly, there had been trouble with the Raptors. After staring into green for a while, Grant catches a glimpse of one of the Raptors staring at him. Once it has his attention, it moves slowly, then bounds away as, with terrifying speed, another Raptor launches a flank attack on the humans. The Raptor hits the fence, and is thrown back by the electricity shock. They then disappear into the plants. The whole sequence had taken less than 10 seconds. When walking back, Malcolm asks Grant if it’s true that animals have to learn that human beings can be killed, learn aggressive and violent behavior to accomplish that. When Grant answers yes, Malcolm wonders aloud where and how the Raptors learnt that humans were an easy target.
The next stop is the Control room, where they meet the rest of the main characters. Arnold, the chain-smoking engineer in charge of the park’s system, Muldoon, a big game hunter tasked with dinosaur control, and Dennis Nedry, the head programmer. Nedry is particularly resentful of the way he is treated. After being asked to design a system with a billion records (for reference, the entire atomic power agency of the USA has 250,000 records) with no reference points as to what it would be used for, the system naturally develops glitches. They then force him to come down and fix them. Hence his willingness to sell out to Biosyn, Ingen’s biggest rival, and its practically lunatic operations director, Lewis Dogdson. Dogdson asked Nedry to steal as many embryos as he can, and will pay him a quarter of a million dollars for each one. This, essentially, is the unpredictable event that brings to life Malcolm’s predictions. But I’m getting ahead of the story here.
In the Control Room, Arnold explains how they monitor and track dinosaurs using remote sensing and individual tags. Every fifteen minutes the computer does a count of the animals, and if there’s a discrepancy sounds an alert. When Gennaro asks if this had ever been tested, Arnold replies yes, in a way, because a couple of dinosaurs had died accidentally, and they received the alert. Malcolm asks to see some weight distribution graphs, of a particular species known as Procompsognathatis, (henceforth the Compys). The Compys play a much bigger role in the book than in the movies. There are a lot of them, because they eat and breakdown other dinosaurs feces. Waste disposal would be quite a problem otherwise. Ever seen an elephant drop a deuce? Imagine that multiplied by a hundred, in the case of the big sauropods (Brachiosaurus, Bilonosaurus etc).
While Gennaro is impressed by the facilities and features, he does ask Arnold if they have a problem with escaped animals. Arnold replies that it isn’t their escaping they were worried about. Each dinosaur had a tracker, and more importantly, when Wu was finalizing the DNA genetic sequencing he deliberately inserted a gene that would make all the dinosaurs lysine (a type of amino acid) dependent. Without a daily artificial source, they would go into a coma and die. Most significantly, though, Wu claims, is that all the dinosaurs are engineered to be female. Relieved, Gennaro says that there don’t seem to be any problems. Arnold laughs and says that they have endless problems, mostly to do with the health of the dinosaurs. Some get sick, they don’t know why. Others are fiercely territorial, like the pterodactyls, which is why the aviary is not part of the tour the group is about to set off on. They then set off on the tour, and after seeing a few dinosaurs, including, of course, the terrible lizard king, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. There’s a junior T-Rex in the book though, which isn’t in the movie.They then meet the park veterinarian, who is dealing with a sick stegosaurus. After a bit of poking around, Ellie Sattler discovers that while swallowing stones for digestions, the dinosaurs also accidentally ingest a particularly poisonous berry.
Then, the first major surprise occurs. While using his field glasses to take a closer look at some dinosaurs, Tim spots a Velociraptor in another dinosaurs pen. The Control Room scoffs and says that isn’t possible. Then Malcolm steps up to tear the whole thing down. When the computer counts all the dinosaurs, it has a fixed base count. However, this means it does not track animals over that number unless specifically programmed to do so. Malcolm asks Arnold to increase the base count to three hundred, and they watch in disbelief as the new numbers mount up.While the large herbivores only have small increases, the smaller predators (like the Raptors and Compys) have about three times as many. Grant then discovers conclusive proof, the fragment of a dinosaur egg that he identifies as a Velociraptor. Stunned, the Control Room, asks how they could possibly survive. Grant asks them if they had a problem with rats, and then, after sometime, did they problem just fade away? The Control Room shamefacedly agrees.
It becomes clear that Jurassic Park has far more problems then immediately apparent, and while Hammond continues to be in denial, Muldoon, Gennaro, and Arnold become increasingly convinced that the park needs to be closed down. However, before anything else happens, they discover that Nedry has disappeared, taken around fifteen embryos with him. In order to escape, though, Nedry has shut down the entire electrified fence system. This means the dinosaurs can escape. They duly do, and the proverbial Sauropod shit hits the fan, with each sequence topping the next with poison spitting dinosaurs, a battle with the pterodactyls in the aviary, and a tranquilized Tyrannosaurus tongue. Then there’s the desperate race against time as they try to get the computers up and running again before the really dangerous dinosaurs, like the Raptors and the Dilophosaurs escape.
I’ve gone, as usual, into far too much detail, so suffice it to say that Jurassic Park is a entertaining, thrilling, and occasionally educating read. It’s well worth the picking up, or the few seconds it’d take to download it. Get stuck in. It’s more than worth it.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org