There was a time when Michael Crichton ruled pop culture like few authors before. Crichton, who held an M.D. from Harvard, leveraged his intense interest in science, history, and technology into page-turning stories. He wrote screenplays for films like Westworld and Twister, published best-selling books, and produced top-rated television shows like E/R. Crichton was one of the most influential writers of the modern age, reinvigorating the old-school adventure novel with modern pacing and technological concerns. He continues to be incredibly popular, with several works published after his death in 2008. If you’re curious about his work, here are the 10 most intriguing Michael Crichton books.
Crichton’s most famous novel is also one of his best. In Jurassic Park, the science of genetics and the real phenomenon of ancient creatures preserved for millions of years are combined to revive the dinosaurs. While it might be hard to imagine a theme park with real, hungry dinosaurs could ever be insured against the epic liability issues, this story of triumphant science and corporate espionage gone wrong is simply one of the best thrillers of the modern age. It pits smart, resourceful people against an ancient force of nature inserted unnaturally into the modern age with exciting, unexpected consequences. The novel (which began life as a screenplay) was the basis for the classic 1993 film adaptation by Steven Spielberg and its four sequels (and counting), a testament to Crichton’s cinematic writing style and expert sense of pacing.
At first glance, this might seem like an outlier. But The Great Train Robbery is just as interested in technology as Crichton’s other works, just more so in 19th-century technology. In this well-researched story of a real gold heist staged in 1855, master thief Edward Pierce assembles a team of Victorian-era criminals for an audacious and creative robbery. The twisting plot involves “waxing,” or copying four keys and gaining access to a locked train car, requiring the sort of quick-thinking upon which a great heist story thrives. Crichton manages to combine a sense of classic adventure with pitch-perfect slang and period details. Although fictionalized, Crichton’s deviations from the historical record serve to heighten the tension and excitement without sacrificing realism and accuracy. The result is an exciting book that evokes its era with easy verisimilitude.
Crichton’s breakthrough novel remains a classic of what some call “mundane” science fiction—a science-based story that relies on existing and Earth-bound technologies. When a satellite crashes near a town in Arizona and everyone nearby turns up dead, an emergency containment protocol is initiated. The satellite is contaminated with a rapidly-mutating extraterrestrial organism code-named Andromeda that mutates and escapes containment. This triggers a race against time as the science team has to deactivate their own security systems in order to survive. There’s a reason this is the story that really launched Crichton’s career. Sometimes considered to be the first “technothriller,” this book remains a model for similar stories to this day. Any writer seeking to build tension without resorting to tricks should read The Andromeda Strain. Crichton keeps the story grounded in scientific reality while keeping the reader on the edge of their seat.
Michael Crichton was a master of his genre. This is on full display in his 1987 novel Sphere, which begins as a science fiction story, then mutates into a psychological thriller and back again. When a mysterious craft is discovered on the ocean floor, a team of scientists is sent into the deep to investigate. They soon realize the vessel is from several centuries in the future and contains a mysterious sphere of obviously alien origins. When one of the team members enters the sphere, they are contacted by a strange childlike alien presence. Bizarre and deadly events start happening. Trapped and suspicious, the scientists begin a tense game of cat and mouse. They race to piece together the sphere’s nature before they return to the surface—possibly carrying something dangerous with them. Through all the twists and turns, Crichton relies on well-drawn characters to keep this story grounded. It’s sometimes underrated (in part because of a disappointing film adaptation in 1998), but should be on every Crichton fan’s must-read list.
5. Rising Sun
Crichton’s 1992 novel hasn’t aged well in its xenophobic depiction of the Japanese. The villains of this novel are always cold and calculating, looking down on anyone who’s not Japanese as they plot financial destruction. But Rising Sun surmounts that tired trope with great characters and a tense, technologically-augmented murder mystery. When an American sex worker is found dead at the new Los Angeles headquarters of the Nakamoto company, Peter Smith is assigned to the case. But the real star is Japanophile cop John Connor, brought onto the case as an expert in all things Japanese. Connor’s insights into Japanese culture and business practices remain fascinating, and Crichton’s firm understanding of the forensic technologies used to uncover the murderer—with agonizing, perfectly paced slowness—combine to make this a first-rate mystery. They also overcome the creaky, slightly racist assumptions on display here, making this a thriller that retains its power after many years.
Another one of Crichton’s books that is increasingly undermined by its politics, Disclosure remains a thrilling story. Meredith Johnson, a former beauty pageant queen turned technology professional, beats out her former lover Tom Sanders for a choice executive position. Later, she tries to force Tom to resume their relationship, and when he refuses, she falsely accuses him of sexual harassment. This sets off a chess game of legal and illegal moves as Tom and Meredith maneuver against each other. Although Meredith is a bit of a Straw Man as Crichton tries to prove how hostile the 1990s workplace had become to poor, suffering men, he spins the story with a deft touch, expertly ratcheting up the tension. If you can forget the lamentable film adaptation starring Michael Douglas, Demi Moore, and the world’s silliest virtual reality special effects, the ending has a classic Crichton twist on the wonders of technology.
Crichton’s follow-up to The Andromeda Strain is another slow-boil thriller based on real science. In The Terminal Man, the science is a computer-controlled brain implant designed to anticipate epileptic seizures and stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain to prevent them. Harry Benson, a computer programmer who engages in violent behavior when his frequent seizures hit, is chosen as the first recipient. Some on his medical team warn that the implants may prevent seizures, but won’t cure his psychosis, but the procedure commences, and Benson quickly proves the naysayers right. As his brain adapts and takes control of his implants, his behavior becomes more violent as his paranoia deepens. Crichton’s genius for tracing the implications of technology is on full display here. If the technology in question doesn’t seem so science-fictional anymore, it doesn’t take away from the menace Benson exudes as he takes control of his mind and his psychosis increasingly controls him.
Michael Crichton’s work can be slotted into books that are explicitly science fiction and books that use real science to tell a story. Timeline is definitely in the former category, telling the story of several young archaeologists who discover their professor and mentor has traveled to the 14th century and become stranded. They decide to use their knowledge of the era to go back in time themselves and rescue him. What follows is a near-perfect merging of historical fiction and science fiction as the team soon realizes there’s a difference between book knowledge and real life. What makes Crichton such a master is naturalistic plotting. Everything that happens in the story feels plausible and either moves the plot along or heightens the tension. Not a word is wasted. Whatever you do, don’t judge a book by its sub-par film adaptation.
One of Crichton’s most complex novels, this re-telling of Beowulf mixed with the true story of Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s 10th century adventures with Vikings is timeless. Traveling on a diplomatic mission for The Caliph, Ahmad ibn Fadlan falls in with a group of Vikings who need to add an “outsider” to their group as they take on a hero’s quest. As they travel north, they encounter strange monsters and other dangers. Eaters of the Dead is structured in layers. There is Ahmad ibn Fadlna’s first hand account, then there are translator’s notes, and finally the running commentary of a modern academic studying the text. Peppered with footnotes, the book is presented as a real work of historical analysis, and it’s a tribute to Crichton’s skill that the conceit actually augments the story’s impact and excitement. At the same time, the conceit allows Crichton plenty of room to play with mistranslations, both accidental and on-purpose, which may have changed the truth of the story. This extra dimension makes this novel a prime candidate for multiple readings.
Crichton’s 1996 novel is really a celebration of complexity. When a commercial flight experiences mysterious problems resulting in an emergency landing and several deaths and injuries, the manufacturer of the plane investigates in a desperate bid to save the company. The result is a fascinating mystery as Crichton explains the details of airline safety and the complex engineering that goes into keeping people suspended in the air. What really sets Airframe apart is how Crichton links a chain of mistakes and failures together, demonstrating that disasters often resist simple explanations, even if that’s what everyone wants. Once again Crichton takes something that should have been dull and tedious—a plodding investigation —and turns it into a nail-biting narrative supported by a confident understanding of complex issues in science, engineering, and flying. This was written at a moment in time when Crichton was at the very peak of his creative powers, and it shows.