Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sphere by Michael Crichton Book Review

I first looked up Michael Crichton after discovering the time travel adventure, Timeline. Starring all sorts of wonderful people with wonderful accents and wonderful hair (including the now-famous Gerard Butler), Timeline placed a team of archaeologists in the hands of an innovative company that had developed the technology to fax 3-dimensional objects – except they accidentally faxed them to the past. The movie addresses questions of fate, of the impact of tampering with the knowledge in the past, and of whether modern enlightenment is really superior to the technology and wisdom of the past. Given the choice, where would you spend out your life?

Fascinated by the story, I saw that the book had originally been written by Michael Crichton. The list of other movies based on his books was incredible. I’d seen several, all thrilling adventure movies with real intriguing plots at the same time. His imagination lived on the edge of reality, whether it was science fiction or fantasy or the cutting edge of technology. Included in his list are: Jurassic Park, Timeline, Congo, and Twister. He also writes for the TV show ER, though I never watched that.

Then I began to notice that his older books are frequently found on used bookstore shelves for very good prices. I bought a few. The first one I began had a horrible opening scene, quite inappropriate in content and language. Maybe I shouldn’t have spent money on them. I put that one well away.

A few months later I read that Frank Peretti’s favorite contemporary author is Michael Crichton. If Frank Peretti likes him, all his books can’t be like that. And who ever heard of movies cutting the content or language? Rather the contrary. But I’d seen several movies that were mostly just intense. One of the books I own is Timeline itself, a beat up mass paperback edition. I’ve read the first few pages.

Generally speaking, I’m having a hard time justifying novels since graduating high school. In high school there was all this mandatory non-fiction reading and literature (sometimes really boring literature), so I occasionally needed an easy-read novel to lighten things up. Now I read entirely what I want. So usually I might as well read something new, edifying, and educational. In fact I am a much bigger fan of history now that I’m reading books focused on a few years, decades, or centuries rather than the history of the whole world.

But I was cleaning my room a couple days ago, reorganizing some of my books again (I’d used their container as decoration for a Pigfest), when I came across one of Michael Crichton’s books, Sphere. The front cover featured divers swimming around several underwater spheres, and boasted an upcoming motion picture (which is decades old now, and I’ll guarantee you without even checking that it was rated R). The scene on the cover never happens, and totally misconstrues the title. The back was more accurate, indicating some sort of alien novel. I opened to the first page.

Not bad. I set it aside. Now last week I finished the book about Iceland. I had a million things to do, and no free time. So the beginning of this week was spent in rebellion against responsibility and hard work. I’m getting over it. During the hours in which I finally had nothing scheduled, I curled up with Sphere.

To my delight, part of the plot actually does deal with time travel (and I’m such a fan of time travel!). Basically a half-mile long spacecraft is found at the bottom of a shallower part of the Pacific Ocean. Based on the coral growth, scientists estimate that the ship has been submerged for three hundred years. But it isn’t rusted, or even damaged as if from a crash. The conclusion is that it must have materialized there after voyaging through time. A team of US Navy and US scientists is assembled to investigate the Anomaly.

Throughout the book Michael Crichton deals with the question of intelligence, especially contrasted with soul and emotion. The end of the book reveals the paradoxical union of these, and the consequences of neglecting one over the other. Even the individuals on the team represent different aspects of humanity, with our desires and interests, strengths and weaknesses. As sort of a subconscious defense against being too involved in the story, I enjoyed observing what the author was getting at. I observed his craft and motivation as though he was one of the characters. That is the best way to solve mysteries before the author tells you, to collect the clues and notice the connections. Except I lost. I didn’t realize. Oh well.

The book spends a fair amount of time talking about evolution, both biological and intellectual. When discussing the possibility of alien life and the probabilities of its attributes, this is bound to come up. Whence comes life? Why is life the way it is? Can something be alive and not have a body, or not have DNA, or not have emotion? Might there be life that is indestructible? What if it’s thought and communication systems are completely foreign? What if the alien life is intelligent, but evolved mental science rather than physical? They could be blobs that don’t have to sculpt a sculpture; it just is how they think it to be.

Several difficulties with evolution are also mentioned, but skimmed over. I thought it was interesting that the biologists were attributed with the theory that alien life is unlikely, while physicists and cosmologists believe it is likely. The answer Michael Crichton gives is that the physicists and cosmologists imagine a bigger world than what they see. They imagine other dimensions, possibly even other universes. In the twenty years since Sphere was written, a shift has taken place. The sciences heavily dependent on math and probability boast fewer believers in alien life. Biologists are almost desperate to find alien life for two reasons: it would indicate an as yet undiscovered law by which life is more likely to evolve (something to add to chance and natural selection) or it would grant more validity to the increasingly popular theory that since we don’t have any evidence (or enough time) for life evolving here on planet earth, perhaps life was planted here by aliens who evolved a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away where they keep all the evidence.

As to whether I can recommend this book, I’d have to say no. There are some strong content issues in just a few places, some crass language and a lot of mild profanity and a profusion of using God’s name as a curse word. Additionally there is a lot of violence and “disturbing images” – more disturbing when I read because generally I don’t close my eyes for parts that get too scary while I’m reading. At one point I remember thinking, “Wow. I get to see a giant squid. Jules Verne only wrote about one, and the movie versions, they’re all fake… Wait a second!”

Ok, so if you are going to take my recommendation and not read the book, but you’re interested in the conclusions of the ideas presented, highlight the invisible text below:

The main character of the story is a psychologist who specializes in anxiety. He is the one who compiled the team of geniuses to hypothetically meet with alien objects or life (never expecting them to actually be needed). He typically voices the need to heed and control emotions, both in themselves and in each other.

Most of the story takes place in a touchy artificial environment 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, in which they are trapped by reason of a hurricane. So everyone is a little anxious, living in tight quarters and needing to make sure everything is done properly.

In the spaceship, by one member’s impulsiveness, they discover some pretty advanced technology, crafted by Americans fifty years in the future. A lot is made of the fact that even our technology today would seem like magic if we brought it back a hundred years or more to brilliant scientists on whose work our technology was built. They’d have to be caught up on our advances in physics and such to even begin to comprehend.

The team learns from the cooperative computers on the ship that the voyage was made to enter a black hole just beyond Pluto, which induced time travel. Black hole theory is explained in layman’s terms using a bowl, and apple, and a ball bearing.

Along the way the spacecraft seems to have picked up an intelligently-designed object, a 30-ft. sphere with “cabular grooves,” which end up concealing a door they can’t open.

Eventually the door is opened without any apparent reason. The smartest man on the team, and youngest scientist, a mathematician, figures out how to get into the sphere, and spends three hours inside, after which he will explain nothing of his knowledge or experience. He is simply exhausted.

Soon after they start experiencing strange phenomenon, like the discovery of three unidentified species of sea life in an area that had been barren of life on the sea floor. They lose a member of their team to jelly fish. And things get worse from there. A giant squid comes around, claiming the lives of most of the team. Those who are left are a mathematician, a biologist, and the psychologist. (mind, body, soul)

In the meantime, the sphere has made contact, projecting first number codes, then letters and words and sentences onto their computer screen. He says his name is Jerry. He can hear them, enjoys talking to them, and doesn’t understand questions about where he came from. They gather as events pass that he is the cause of the “manifestations,” including the giant squid. He wants to talk, and when they wish to talk privately, he gets angry. He turns hostile through the giant squid, which attacks the habitat and individuals, even luring one person with a sign of attention and intelligent playfulness. His hostility grows to the point where he says “I will kill you all.” Not a comforting thought when dealing with an all powerful unknown being. But are they?

What eventually works for the team is the instructions of one of the psychologist’s professors. Don’t try to understand everything. Do something. If that doesn’t work, do something else, no matter how crazy. It’s a pretty good way to quickly tackle the unknown. Especially when this line of reasoning reveals that rather than dealing with an alien entity that doesn’t understand what he’s doing, they’re really suffering the effects of the sphere, which enables those who enter it to manifest whatever they imagine, to manipulate reality. This was the union of thought and emotion: imagination.

The first to discover this was the underappreciated super-genius, who felt lonely his whole life, and restrained from demonstrating his full genius. But he was a man despairingly afraid, and his fears came to life. (In fact his logical brain reasoned that since there was no reference on the spacecraft to the discoverers of the technology in the past – the team discovering it now – that the team must all die in the ordeal, before ever revealing anything about the spacecraft to the world.) The second person to (secretly) enter the sphere was the concrete biologist, who required constant reassurance, connection, and control. She imagined offenses and constantly considered herself the victim. She turns out to be semi-suicidal and bent on self-torture. Finally the psychologist himself enters the sphere and has a mental conversation with his dark side. His weakness is to discredit the importance of logic, to rely on feelings. His survival means more to him than almost anything. Ultimately, though, it is his beliefs that save them all. He believes humans are worth helping. Emotions can be controlled and are worth controlling. He had been the one saying “Stick together,” and so he could not desert.

Was the sphere some cosmic test? Was the sphere itself a form of life? Did an alien (or future human) intelligence want to know how a human would react to getting whatever he wanted? Is that what imagination is for? How powerful is the imagination? Maybe the sphere accidentally had that effect. Maybe its intentions had nothing to do with humanity.

In the end the three survivors (mortal enemies mere hours before) cooperatively and unanimously decide to imagine the sphere and their past week’s experience out of existence. They come up with a new story to imagine in its place, and so it is done. The world ends up having no knowledge of time travel until they boldly voyage for the black hole fifty years in the future.

PS: I looked up Sphere on the internet. Lo and behold it did cut content from the book, and ended up with a PG-13 rating.

To God be all glory.

1 comment:

Lisa of Longbourn said...

Amy of Humble Musing fame linked an article about imagination which brought up a good point. Whereas my analysis of Sphere concluded that mind, body, and soul are unified in imagination, this author said that imagination informs the mind, body, and soul. What we imagine affects what we feel and challenges what we know and believe. So that article advocates guarding your imagination - but also training it with stories that uphold truth and morality.

To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn