Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Pirate Latitudes: Michael Crichton's Last Literary Voyage

When I heard the news in 2008 that Michael Crichton had passed away at the age of 66, I was both shocked and saddened.  I read most of his novels as a boy, when (like many precocious young lads of my generation) I devoured his science fiction within the span of a year.  He was an important totem of my childhood.

But because I read his work during my pre-adolescence, I've always had an association of juvinelia with his writing, just as I have a (perhaps unwarranted) connotation of "sophistication" with the authors I read in college – the sweeping dark pathos of Joe Haldeman, the stark existentialism of Alex Garland, the epic scope of James Clavell, the gleeful whimsy of Douglas Adams.

In any event, the passing of Crichton led me to re-evaluate this mental generalization I'd given his work. When I saw Micro on sale at a bookstore for five dollars, with a pronouncement that this was Crichton's "last published novel," I decided to pick it up and give it a read – and let the author's last work fix or re-color the mold I'd cast for him in my mind. 

Well, to make a long story short, that was a mistake.  A big, big, big mistake.  Micro featured flat characters, a cartoonishly evil (and Avatar-like illogical) villain, and a clunky narrative oscillation between action and wikipedia-like explanation of "science stuff." I fell into a depression, of the sort I had not felt since I saw X-Men 3.  Was this beacon of my childhood really just a dusty flashlight?

As it turned out, no.  Crichton had only penned about a third of Micro before he died, which means what was Crichton's in the novel was the rough beginning of a rough draft of a rough concept.  The rest was written by Richard Preston, who's overrated non-fiction novel The Hot Zone gave a dramatically incorrect picture of the nature of infectious disease (which an unfortunately small number of people were able to clear up with Laurie Garrett's magnificently comprehensive The Coming Plague).

Then, thanks to the effervescent knowledge font that is Wikipedia, I learned that Crichton's actual last finished novel, the manuscript for which was found in complete form on his computer when he died, was something completely different for this scribe of popular science fiction.  It was a book about pirates.

And as it turned out, it was really, really, really good.  Really.

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton
From the opening pages of Pirate Latitudes, you know that you are in the hands of a master storyteller.  Set in the English settlement of Port Royal in Jamaica, Crichton delves into the world of "privateers."  Instead of the stereotypical tobacco chewing yar-spouting seamen we've come to associate with pirates, Crichton's pirates are British gentlemen (and ladies), who have quasi-legal sanctioning to attack Spanish holdings.  The book's protagonist, Captain Hunter, is just as comfortable at a formal banquet as the galley of a ship (just be careful not to call him the "P" word, or you'll end up with your face in the pudding, with a duel pending).  This is a man who approaches battle with a sense of decorum, and abhors the "grenadoe" for the impersonal, cowardly carnage it could produce.

The setup is simple enough – Hunter hatches a plan to attack an impregnable Spanish fort, to retrieve a treasure galleon that is harbored there awaiting a support fleet to return it to Spain.  Then, pretty much everything that can go wrong does.  Crichton does a masterful job writing his characters into corners, and finding ways to extricate them that are both intelligent and delightful.  All the while, he flexes the full power of his narrative strength to, with the most economic of strokes, draw fully rounded characters and a fully realized world.

While at first Pirate Latitudes might seem like an unruly departure from Crichton's main body of work, on further reflection it is not.  He has placed his characters on the cusp of their time's technological boundaries, in much the same way he did with his 20th century books.  And while his pirates have courage, strength, and bravado to spare, their most valuable resources end up being their intelligence and creativity.

Not unlike Crichton himself.

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