The Daily Bongo

Michael Crichton's Next

I just finished reading Michael Crichton's latest book, Next. Crichton is notorious for writing thrillers that are well researched and cover a multitude of topics, mostly about science. In this novel, Crichton takes on the people and companies involved with genetic research. The main theme of the book deals with a man, Frank Burnet, who developed cancer and recovered from it. As he was being examined afterwards, the doctors found that Burnet's body had a genetic makeup that made it possible for him to successfully fight off malignant cancer. Of course, that started the scavenging for Burnet's genes. When Burnet found out that his genes were going to be marketed by a company called BioGen, he tried to sue to stop the marketing with the help of his daughter. Unfortunately, the court found that Burnet had lost the rights to his genes because earlier signed consent forms might imply that future marketing might be in store.

The problem with the book is that the Burnet story isn't the only story line. The book jumps back and forth between several stories. Some of them tie in with each other, and some don't. So we hear about the half human/half chimp boy, a guy who gets arrested for biological terrorism, the controlling researcher who dominates genetics research, BioGen's owner and his escapades, and a lab person with BioGen who is testing a maturity gene on rats that winds up getting used by his addict brother. The book just leaps all over and that really doesn't let you get emotionally involved with the characters. I know that in the other Crichton books, the plot seemed to be more centralized on one theme. He might jump between different aspects, but all still tied to that central theme.

With that said, I did like the book and was able to read through it quickly. There were some tense moments when the bounty hunter was after Frank's daughter, Alison, and her eight-year-old son, Jamie. We had the typical action packed hunt and chase scenes (that were unfortunately interspersed with the other characters doing random things). I was glad that I borrowed the book from the library instead of purchasing it because I might have been a smidge disappointed if I put down hard cash. However, the topic of genetic research is interesting, and Crichton was trying to get people to think about a few points which he listed at the end of the story. His basic point was that we didn't know where genetic research was going and he wants to break up the monopoly that some may have by patenting genes. The concept of having a patent on something that nature makes is asinine. As Crichton says, having gene patents winds up hurting patient care because doctors can't work on gene therapy to help with illness because the gene is patented. Also, Crichton wants clearer guidelines on the use of human tissues. A few of the plot lines dealt with possible improper handling of tissues--mostly with the Burnet plot. Crichton also wants all gene testing made public so you would know if someone is doing a test that might have implications for your future health insurance needs. We also shouldn't have bans on research because who knows where research may lead us. If we prevent research from happening, we may never find the cure for the common cold. Finally Crichton wants the Bayh-Dole act rescinded. This act allows University researchers to sell their research for a profit in order to get the research into the public domain quicker. As with his other books, Crichton provides a bibliography so readers can "read more about it."

Crichton's urge to educate us and to make us more responsible thinkers is an admirable one. That is why I would recommend that others read Crichton's books. If spoon feeding the public topics with a thriller chaser, gets folks to think and question, then I am all for it. So give Next a chance, but be forewarned of the jumps in plot.

December 20, 2006