Nature and nerdiness are not incompatible. This novel is brilliant fun—a wonderful examination of perspective, moral and physical (in case you didn’t get the hint from my title), superimposed on a scaffold of two of Crichton’s favorite themes: the dynamic struggle between corporate greed and scientific innovation, and the balance (often brutally maintained) between man and nature. Unfinished at the time of Michael Crichton’s death in 2008, his Trust engaged Richard Preston to continue the work. Preston is best known to me for his novelisation of the discovery and course of infection of the Ebola virus in his eminently readable The Hot Zone; his descriptions in the audio version (chosen for a 15-hr drive) were so delightfully disgusting they had us all screaming. I was very happy to see his name associated with Crichton’s Micro and very amused when the detailed (understatement) description of a man’s death by the fangs and embrace of a huntsman spider was summed up with “The spider venom was Ebola in thirty seconds.” Yes. Yes, it was.
Lest you think the science a bit off (as the bite of a huntsman spider is not normally fatal to humans), this particular human is only a half-inch tall—a size entirely susceptible to being overwhelmed by any spider’s venom, not to mention the myriad killing methods used by any creature in any square foot of soil. The secret miniaturisation of a human workforce, intended to facilitate the acquisition of new pharmaceutical resources harvested from plants and insects, is the heart of the technology being developed and exploited by Nanigen MicroTechnologies on the bountiful island of Oahu. None of this is immediately apparent to an argumentative group of graduate students lured to the facility to interview for unexpected new openings, the offers sweetened with free travel expenses and the promise of lucrative careers in their various specialties—the definition of ‘too good to be true’ and every graduate student’s dream. Instead, they are immediately red-shirted into a background drama of corporate espionage and greed. To ensure their silence, Nanigen’s secret is used against them; they are forced to fend for themselves in a suddenly alien world where their comprehensive academic knowledge is the only thing that might keep them alive.
Unfortunately, they’re out of touch with the natural world, as most people are, long before they lose their place on the food chain. Their new learning curve seems impossibly steep yet, remarkably, they see their place, in all its precariousness, very clearly and don’t fault the environment for carrying on as usual. In fact, the beauty of the nature that surrounds, sustains, and, in turn, hunts them remains prominent in their considerations, their respect increasing exponentially with every day they remain alive.
I came away from this novel realising that a simple exercise in an imaginative change of scale might make the study of natural processes so much more memorable for scores of schoolchildren. Wouldn’t you want to know everything you could about a beetle who wanted to have you for dinner? Knowledge is power.