“They didn’t understand what they were doing.
I’m afraid that will be on the tombstone of the human race.”
GENRE: Science Fiction
AUTHOR: Michael Crichton
YEAR OF PUBLISH: 2002
For those of you who are not very familiar with the genre and are wondering from where have you heard the name of Crichton, I have only two words for you which are enough to introduce and give you a fair amount of idea who this brilliant writer is – ‘JURASSIC PARK’! Yeah, that’s right! That great Spielberg movie which created such a sensation and sprang to be on the favourite list of people of all ages, came out from the pen of Michael Crichton in 1983. The readers may be surprised to know that this book was considered to be made into a movie but apparently the story – it’s concept was so frightening at the time that they feared it can induce mass panic and protests. (Personally, when I read this book a few years back it swept away the ground beneath my feet – it instantly sucked me in with it’s brilliant storyline and impeccable & quite simple-to-understand writing of Crichton)
But it does not mean that Jurassic Park, as awesome as it is to read, in any way overshadows Prey. Prey has a life of it’s own. It is also one of the best books of Michael Crichton up there with Jurassic Park, Congo, The Andromeda Strain, etc. The book contains one of the most interesting themes for a science fiction enthusiast – Nanotechnology. Of course, since this book was released, there have been miles and miles of advancement in this field, but the way Crichton weaves the story surpasses the belief that it will be ‘backward’ compared to today’s advancements. Hence it might not be wrong to say that his vision was far beyond his years. Unlike hard sci-fi authors like Greg Egan or Stephen Baxter Crichton aimed his science writing at the layman and this is probably the secret of his huge commercial success. 13 of his books have been adapted into movies.
So let’s get back to Prey. The protagonist of our story, Jack Foreman is a house maker who was shown the door by the organisation he faithfully worked for called ‘Media Tronics’ when he discovered an internal scandal involving the owner of the organisation itself. He is an experienced professional whose work was to manage and build computer programs which were based upon the behaviour of animals in nature. This was in context to the development of nanoparticles and robotics. Jack had a large experience building AI programs based upon the behaviour of animals in the animal kingdom, in particular, the predators in the animal kingdom. This was because the predators are driven towards achieving their goal i.e., hunting, and could change tact according to different circumstances.
Jack lived with his wife and 3 children in a suburban home. His wife was employed in a company called Xymos, was working on a ‘hush-hush’ type Pentagon project and was frequent to a classified facility in the middle of Nevada desert. She was often late and sometimes did not return home at all. She became aloof, short-tempered and took little or too much interest in her children’s lives. Her behaviour was becoming erratic from her usual self for Jack. It was then he started suspecting that Julia might be having an affair, only if he had known at that time that the truth was more daunting and scary. Jack consulted a friend of his who’s a lawyer and with his advice he started being on a lookout to gather any solid proof to confirm his wife’s affair. So far, he was not successful. Meanwhile strange things starts happening in his house. An mp3 player suddenly malfunctions, one of the kids, Amanda, develops inexplicable illness which clears up equally inexplicably as soon as the doctors put her under an MRI scanner. Julia doesn’t help—she’s hardly ever home now; Jack sees her driving back to work on the day of one of his kid’s birthday in her car which showed a silhouette of a man sitting with her who was not there in the car before. Now, he’s convinced she’s seeing someone else. His wife’s behaviour was becoming more erratic but so far there was no sign of any affair. It was then that his wife dropped the bomb on him.
One night Julia returns late at night and asks Jack to watch a recorded video. He agrees. The video shows his wife making a presentation with a man lying down on a stretcher. She goes on to explain in the video that Xymos has created micro cameras which behaves as a swarm and can penetrate the tiny blood vessels in the heart of a human body which opens up many possibilities in the medical field. But towards the end of the book it is found that the US Military has taken over the project and is trying to weaponize it by researching it in a desolate facility located in Nevada where Julia spends most of her time.
Fast forward, Jack runs into one of his former colleague who invites him back and that is when Jack gets to know that he is indirectly involved in this success too. His work in “distributed parallel processing or agent-based programs” is being used and Xymos is working with Jack’s former company and is using Jack’s old team on the site as Xymos is using some of that programming to get the nano-things to work together. Jack heads out to Nevada, where he learns that some of the micro-machines have apparently escaped from the facility and they’ve started acting on their own. And they’re out of control. These machines seems to be adapting and learning as time passes on and to make matters worse, they are multiplying! They have solar panels to work using solar energy so there is no way to turn them off manually and they are not responding to any of the programming commands. They can form swarms and made by using the Prey program – they are hunting! Crichton terrifies the reader who is a fan of science fiction, especially the one who has a decent knowledge about science, by another of his idea about how these micro-machines are multiplying which. It’s by producing them using the biological process of multiplication of bacteria – E-Coli in various chambers of the tanks and stabilizing them.
Towards the end, it turns out that Julia is completely infected and the swarm has completely taken over her. She goes on to infect all the others in the facility but Jack catches her and fights back. He finally figures out how to become immune by swallowing a virus which attacks the bacteria through which the machines were being produced. Jack escapes the facility through the backup helicopter that arrives leaving Julia and others infected in the facility as the plant overheats and explodes due to methane built up because Jack had disabled the vents. Jack flies away knowing fully well that Julia was the one responsible for everything that happened. He gives a dose of the virus to the children to protect and kill any traces of the machines that might be remaining.
The novel terrified a lot of readers. It is gripping, thriller and laced with the signature Crichton stupefyingly brilliant story making through the most weirdest of theories that just might point in the right direction in actual research. Rumor has it that this novel infuriated many citizens in the U.S. who even protested against any research and development that was being done in the field of AI and nano-tech, making Crichton extremely famous once again establishing him as a novelist in Sci-fi genre whom we are not likely to forget for a long long time. We will go back and keep reading his works, partly for the mad, brilliant ideas and partly because of the thrill packed in them through his characters.