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Book review: 'Micro' by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston

With flat writing but sometimes amazing detail, 'Micro' by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston involves a secret machine that shrinks people and things, and a harrowing adventure of minuscule proportions.

November 28, 2011|By Jeff VanderMeer, Special to the Los Angeles Times

What if we had the technology to miniaturize people and objects? That's the central premise behind "Micro" by "Jurassic Park's" Michael Crichton and "The Hot Zone's" Richard Preston. Crichton wrote one-third of "Micro" before his death in 2008 — which third seems largely irrelevant, as the entire novel functions as a well-oiled but oddly soulless machine. All of the edges have been sanded off of prose that is supremely functional and most of the workmanlike characters seem resigned to being transformed into actors on a movie screen.

"Micro" would definitely make someone's idea of an entertaining Hollywood blockbuster: The Nanigen MicroTechnologies corporation, founded by the evil psychopath Vin Drake, has secretly developed miniaturization machines and will stop at nothing to satisfy its limitless greed.

The story begins when venomologist Peter Jansen and six colleagues accept an attractive offer from Jansen's brother Eric to leave their Cambridge, Mass., laboratory and join Eric in Hawaii to work for Nanigen. Before they arrive, however, Eric goes missing in a boating mishap, and is presumed dead. Peter suspects foul play on the part of Nanigen Chief Executive Alyson Bender, a theory so swiftly confirmed that the reader barely has time to register any rising tension or suspense.

Fearing discovery of his plans, Drake then tricks the seven scientists into being miniaturized and collects them in a plastic baggie. Analytical even in extremis, one scientist notes, "I think we're in shock. Look at our faces. Circum-oral pallor," blanched skin around the lips being "a classic sign of fear."

The tiny scientists escape — into a Hawaiian rain forest full of peril, with even the smallest insects now rendered huge. In these chapters, life-or-death situations tend to be presented in a matter-of-fact, slow-paced way, while the motivation for selfless sacrifice — "Hey! Take me!" one scientist screams to distract a bird from a colleague — requires more character background to be believable. A few earlier scenes that credibly dramatized the often messy dynamic between lab colleagues aren't enough. In another scene, lines like "Are you in love with Ben or something?" are straight out of a day-time soap opera.

However, "Micro" excels — and is sometimes truly spectacular — as a delivery system for detailed examination, for example, of Scolopendra, a giant centipede with 40 legs and "a blood-red head studded with four eyes." A description of the miniaturized scientists climbing a tree fascinates, while scenes of characters swimming with a paramecium or trapped in a myna bird's crop display amazing imagination. An encounter with a hungry grub is genuinely disturbing.

The authors juxtapose the forest scenes with police detective Dan Watanabe's investigation into Eric Jansen's disappearance, which tends to mute the sense of wonder. It's excruciating to watch Watanabe get up to speed on details revealed to the reader earlier in the novel. When Watanabe finally realizes that "the CEO lied to me," readers may be forgiven for expressing a primal gut reaction of "Duh!"

An encounter with a strange hermit, an implausible but intricate mission to foil Drake involving micro-planes and a twist some readers may see coming add complication but not much excitement. The fascinating encounters with giant bugs may satisfy Crichton fans looking for one last fix, but most readers might be better off tuning in to an episode of "Nature" or picking up one of Preston's wonderful nonfiction books.

VanderMeer's latest books are "The Steampunk Bible" and "The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories."

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