Recently, I’ve read two books, both cleverly camouflaged as popular novels, which jointly portend a world for which we are simply not prepared. Much as the groundswell of anti-Communist books of the late ‘40s and ‘50s (Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm perhaps the most memorable, and Huxley’s more dystopian than anti-Communist Brave New World from a decade and a half prior) reflected the mid-century’s deeply paranoid zeitgeist, so too these two new novels present deeply thoughtful reflections on what the impact of unbridled 21st century technology.
Both novels come from unlikely sources: Michael Crichton, the well-known popular novelist of borderline science fiction thrillers and creator of the long-running ER, and Richard A. Clarke, the now-ostracized Clinton and Bush Administration cyberterrorism expert. Crichton’s Next is actually the second of his technology-gone-wild novels, the immediately prior one being Prey, which failed for all the reasons Next doesn’t: where Prey was really a “shoot ‘em up” movie stuffed into a novel whose plot centered around a company developing autonomous nanotechnology “bots,” Next is a collage of multiple plots – almost devoid of action – gleefully intertwining one bio-engineered protagonist with another. Next holds together better than one might expect it would without Crichton’s signature action and adventure: for all the action sequences in Jurassic Park and Sphere, Crichton is a thoughtful and well educated man (M.D. from Harvard), and Next presents the dangers of human-created interspecies gene mixes (for example, pets which have glow-in-the-dark genes from fireflies inserted in their DNA; parrots who are smarter than most five-year-old humans) clearly and convincingly.
By contrast, Richard Clarke’s Breakpoint is a narrowly-focused thriller in the classic “secret government agency v. the world” genre. Unlike Crichton, Clarke is a bit clunky when he describes his characters: he just doesn’t have Crichton’s twenty years of practice developing a light and almost comic descriptive touch. But he does a superb job of painting our countries vulnerabilities to cyber attack. The book opens with simultaneous attacks on seven of the eleven Internet fiber-optic beachheads on the US East Coast. Not one of them is protected by anything other than a fence. And in today’s just-in-time, zero inventory world, nobody has the inventory to replace the millions of dollars in equipment hidden in these utterly unguarded brick beach shacks scattered along the beaches of remote areas. Or consider the millions of SCADA sensors placed throughout the power grid system, most of which haven’t seen security upgrades in 15 years. These are just the beginnings of our vulnerabilities.
Both books are engaging, distracting, and ultimately frightening. Their intent is to wake us up to a stark reality: in the next fifteen years, bioengineering and network software will both mature as rapidly as computer technology has over the past twenty years. We’re simply not ready for the implications of those evolutions. The RIAA is still fighting its late ‘90s battle with Napster – and artists like MC Lars are poking fun at them for still being so far behind. Our society simply isn’t ready for the onslaught of ethical and environmental dilemmas. We’re still focused on the battles of the past (still debating the ethics of abortion while GM crops are planted without a second thought).
Although I seriously doubt that either Crichton or Clarke will ascend to the literary pantheon the way Orwell did after 1984 (he died a year later), these two modern novelists are no less insightful. One would expect this from a man like Clarke, who spent enough years in the White House to know that fiction often carries the day over fact, but it is perhaps a bit surprising coming from Crichton, who is certainly smart, but otherwise doesn’t have a reputation as a serious thinker. Regardless of their credentials, both Crichton’s and Clarke’s books raise issues we have to confront before the technology progresses beyond our ability to cope with its ramifications.