Books: Next

Usually I do not enjoy books in which there is not a likeable protagonist, but Michael Crichton’s Next is an exception. I picked it up at a yard sale some time ago but only picked it up to read this week – spurred in part by my older son having been reading several of Crichton’s books for a freshman English class in college (though I don’t know if he read this one).

I took a break from it for a couple days, first to read Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens, the fourth and apparently final book in Brandon Sanderson’s hilarious (and sometimes thoughtful) series about Alcatraz Smedry, then to work on puzzles in my new National Observer crossword book (WalMart was out of the Herald Tribune crossword books I usually buy). I was somewhat reluctant to pick up Crichton’s novel again, not having yet found any very likable characters in it.

But I noticed, with some surprise, that I had already read more than halfway through the book, largely without stopping (mandatory time off work gives me lots of time to read). I must have found it pretty engrossing. So I picked it up again, intending to read for half an hour or so, so that it would be late enough to take my Synthroid before I went to bed (among my reading this week was an article about a study showing that Synthroid was more effective on an empty stomach at bedtime).

I finished the novel and headed to bed nearly three hours later, having stayed up almost (but not quite) late enough to see the new year in. My mind was full of the thought-provoking scenarios Crichton had included in his novel, and the recommendations he makes in an Author’s Note regarding the legal environment for genetic research.

I’m sure I must have read the back cover before reading the book, and seen that “This is not the world of the future – it’s the world right now.” Yet as I read the book, I was surprised to find references to the year 2006 (the year it was published), as the scenarios seemed clearly futuristic. The novel includes a handful of apparent excerpts from web pages, which seemed so ridiculous (even considering how kooky some of the stuff on the internet is) that I wondered why Crichton hadn’t made them more believable.

Yet the Bibliography at the end of the book cites these as actual sources. I checked one, and while the URL given in the bibliography came up as Page Not Found, I was easily about to do a search at the website to find the correct URL about the dispute over the Canavan gene (and it is hardly unusual for website administrators to reorganize their sites for one reason or another, so that material remains available but the specific URLs change).

Essentially this is a book about ideas rather than individuals, but the ideas are woven into the fictional plotlines – many of them – so well that it does read as a novel rather than an ideological treatise. Many of the reviews complain that it is overly preachy and that the book is a jumble of different characters (most of them very unpleasant) and storylines. Crichton certainly has a message to convey and the book does jump around a great deal, but personally I found that his skill as a writer pulled it off quite well in spite of the difficulties it creates for the reader.

Like other books Crichton has written, Next depicts the dangers of what unscrupulous people can do with modern science. In this case, it is genetic modification, used today in agriculture and medicine. There is a great deal of conflict – in our real world – over the appropriate limits on what if any modifications man should make to our genes and those of other living things. Crichton believes that genetic research is appropriate, but that the current legal climate allows for a great deal of inappropriate commercialization of the products of research.

At the end of the book, Crichton makes five clear recommendations:

  • Stop patenting genes. They are facts of nature, not products of human intellect. There should be no monopoly on the use of any genes. The end result of granting such patents is not greater innovation (as is intended by granting patents), but rather less. Genes interact with each other in ways scientists are far from understanding, so any avenue of genetic research could easily be inextricably linked to work on another gene – which, if patented, could mean that the new research constitutes a patent violation.
  • Establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues. Tissues donated for one purpose should not be used for another purpose without getting permission from the donor. Unlike other donated items, human tissues (should) belong unquestionable to the person who donated them, even though they are no longer contained within the person’s body.
  • Pass laws to ensure that information about gene testing is made public. Otherwise there is rarely any truly independent verification of findings, as companies sponsoring the research make certain that only material that reflects favorably on them is published.
  • Avoid bans on research. Crichton points out that bans on behavior never work as intended. The research gets done somewhere by someone – better to have it done in the open, subject to appropriate rules.
  • Rescind the Bayh-Dole Act. Its intent was to make discoveries made by researchers in public universities more widely available to the public, by giving researchers a financial incentive to get their discoveries into other hands by selling them. Instead, it has so blurred the line between public university and for-profit corporations that research funded by public money no longer belongs to the public, and is motivated by the desire for profit rather than increasing human knowledge.

I have no expertise in these areas, and I do not know what the unintended consequences would be of following Crichton’s recommendations. (Every public policy change, no matter how well thought out, seems to have such negative unintended consequences.) But Crichton’s novel illustrates the significant negative consequences we currently have, or could have, from current policy.

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