Jurassic Park is a 1990 book written by Michael Crichton. Beyond that, I don’t think much more introduction is needed. A film adaptation released three years later, which spawned a massive franchise that continues to this day. Even if you’ve never seen the movies, the cautionary message has percolated through our culture. So I figured, why not read the book that it all came from?
To be fair though, I did also want to read the novel because of strong similarities with my current work-in-progress. I’m writing a grounded science-fiction drama thriller, and I had hoped that Jurassic Park would help me learn how to do it. My hopes were definitely met. Cutting through all the hype and the many, many films, Jurassic Park has all the makings of a science-fiction classic.
Tone: Blurring Fiction and Fact
Right away, Crichton jumps into establishing the world of his book. He chronicles a brief history of the development of genetics, up through Watson and Crick discovering its helix structure. It then jumps at once into the birth of fictional companies. The transition is seamless though. For a moment I wondered if I was actually still reading fact. The melding of fantasy and reality help to give the book a very grounded feeling.
Near the beginning of the first act, a young girl is attacked by a dinosaur on a Costa Rican beach. Scientists pass the case back and forth, considering it a new species of lizard or some other rational anomaly. We follow the convoluted process of reports and samples and more reports as the specimen changes hands. The grounded rationality of the scientists helps establish the novel’s setting as a realistic place. If they had immediately shouted “It’s a dinosaur!” it would have crippled the book’s attempt to establish an environment that matches our own world.
The novel further reinforces our tone by including actual graphs and lines of code. I’ll address those later on when I discuss theme. It’s worth mentioning here though, as it further helps to ground the book into a real-world setting.
The People of Jurassic Park
With this tone established early on, our characters come into the scene. What’s perhaps most noteworthy is that Jurassic Park has no real villain. That is, no person deliberately engineers the overall conflict. Instead, a single mishap snowballs thanks to a clash of egos. You have Hammond, the millionaire behind Jurassic Park who is determined to make a wonderland – and billions in profit. His vision is so strong, though, that it blinds him to the difficult realities that the park faces. Hammond’s naivete ends up blocking many safeguards that could have prevented tragedy.
There’s also Arnold, the chief engineer running the park. He’s had years of amusement park experience, and considers the climax of his career to be at Jurassic Park. His confidence in his own ability leads to oversight though. Dr. Wu is a geneticist responsible for bringing the dinosaurs to life, and his confidence in his sterilization methods again lead him to overlook dangers. All it takes is for one disgruntled employee to “temporarily” turn off the park and abandon his post to spark chaos. His plan goes awry, and the weak links in all the safety measures emerge.
Add into this mix Malcom and Gennaro, a consultant and lawyer respectively who come to check on the park. Gennaro represents investors’ interests, and he already suspects that foul play may be afoot in Jurassic Park. Malcolm meanwhile believes with certainty that the park will fail thanks to his work with chaos theory. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler are a pair of archaeologists who are also invited to preview the park. And finally, Tim and Lex are Hammond’s grandchildren, whom he invites to experience the park. The entire group ends up swept into the “malfunction.”
There are even more characters that I could dig into, like Muldoon the cutloose park ranger or Ed Regis the cowardly PR manager. I think I’ve made my point that there are plenty of characters though. And yet, reading the book, Crichton juggles them around with sharp skill. He gives them each unique names which helps us to tell them apart. “Lex” and “Gennaro” evoke different emotions in the reader that correspond to their characters. Everyone gets the right amount of backstory and development to make them compelling and worth following. As a result, the story can rest on the characters, thus making it a “dinosaur story” that’s really about human drama.
The Events of Jurassic Park
Why Does It Work?
Again, the story is well-known at this point. Everyone comes to Isla Nublar and Jurassic Park, for one reason or another. The park malfunctions, and the dinosaurs break loose. A desperate bid for survival ensues. This plot is in the movie, as well as its four sequels. What makes it work so well in the original novel but not as much in, say, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom?
The first important ingredient here is the tone. Because the book grounds itself in a realistic tone, the reader feels assured that both the characters and the author have thought through possible scenarios. This is a world where people do not jump to conclusions, where people act rationally.
Second, consider the characters. Wu, Arnold, and Hammond obviously have holes in their safety measures — otherwise there would not be a novel. However, those measures are not, in fact, obvious. They explain to us how it’d be impossible for dinosaurs to escape, impossible for them to overrun the island, so on and so forth. The author addresses every trip-up we might think of, and then even more beyond that. The characters do think ahead, and they are smart. It just so happens that the scale of the operation leads to so many moving parts that cannot be controlled.
The plot would not have worked without intelligent characters. If there had been a bunch of idiots running Jurassic Park, we the readers would have rolled our eyes. Of course it’s going to go wrong! As a result, there would have been no tension. It’s an issue that plagues several films in the franchise. However, the novel does not fall into this trap. It takes a lot of creativity, outwitting smart characters, but Crichton pulls it off well.
Two Kinds of Killer Dinos
As I mentioned before, I would not consider any of the human characters as villains. To be sure, some of them are clearly responsible for the situation at hand. But no one actually intended for any dinosaurs to get loose or for anyone to get hurt. Instead, the antagonists are the dinosaurs. Everyone’s goal is to survive — the dinosaurs are their biggest obstacle to that goal.
There are two primary antagonists in Jurassic Park. The Tyrannosaurus Rex is an imposing predator, perhaps the most fearsome predator ever seen on Earth. Meanwhile, the velociraptors pose a very different threat. They are clever and manage to outwit the humans several times. The T-Rex poses a physical adversary, one that can toss a Jeep through the air. The velociraptors are mental adversaries, intelligent creatures that run on pure bloodlust. By combining them together, Crichton creates a thrilling conflict that tests the characters’ abilities.
The Themes and Lessons of Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park’s greatest strength lies in its themes. It’s partially a critique of empiricism, and the idea that humans can ever fully control the world. While we can influence it to our benefit, it’s folly to assume we can tame it. Graphs and charts are presented that show the population of dinosaurs is under control. We hear them soundly explained — and then later realize why those interpretations were mistaken.
It’s also a critique on the marriage of science and business. Conflicts of interest lead to a distortion of procedures. Corners are cut, and the primary concern is dodging regulations. More emphasis falls on keeping stock prices high than on actually promoting benefits. Scientists face pressure to deliver results instead of the truth. The result, as the novel shows us, is a nightmare scenario that spirals out of control.
Jurassic Park has the same blood as any science fiction classic, especially Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In a way, it’s a 20th century Frankenstein, just updated with modern anxieties. My only criticism with the themes, though, are that they get pushed a bit too baldly. I had gathered most of the message withoutIan Malcolm acting as a mouthpiece to deliver the moral of the story again and again. His protracted sermons can get on the reader’s nerves. Thankfully, it’s not too common, but he definitely could have been used a bit more sparingly. The book would be even more powerful if we were allowed derive the theme on our own from the story.
Other than a bit too much preaching from Malcolm, and one action scene that could have used a bit smoother of a transition, Jurassic Park is exceptional. It has the trappings of a sci-fi classic, with compelling characters and a gripping plot that engages the mind as well as the adrenaline. It’s a must-read for any fan of science fiction, and for anyone hoping to write science fiction. I can see why such a strong franchise sprung out of Jurassic Park, and I encourage everyone to read the root of the cultural phenomenon.
Have you read Jurassic Park? What did you think? Leave a comment below with your thoughts, or suggestions on what book I should review next!