Treading the line between fact and fiction

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Michael Crichton came to the interview without Amy the gorilla. "Gorillas are tropical creatures," he says. "It's much too cold for Amy here. Besides, she doesn't really exist."

It's hard to be sure. Mr. Crichton's new novel, "Congo," is so gripping that you almost expect Amy the gorilla, a key character, to bound into the room behind him. If she did, it would look like a zoo tableau of the African veld, because Michael Crichton reminds one of nothing so much as a giraffe.

It's partly his height -- he is an astonishing 6 feet 7 inches --and the most patient, shy curiosity of a giraffe. Talking with him is almost like being watched over the fence at the zoo by an aloofly curious ruminant.

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Perhaps the most surprising thing about him is his shyness. He seems almost embarrassed about the success of his novels, which include "The Andromeda Strain ," "The Terminal Man," and "The Great Train Robbery."

"I was astonished that 'The Andromeda Strain' sold as well as it did," he says. "I was also surprised that a lot of people thought it was up-to-date. I thought it was about 70 years behind the times."

A bacterial invasion from outer space behind the times?

"In sensibility," he explains. "The idea of the world's faith in technology ending a crisis. That just is not realistic in today's world. It's amazing that, among all the lessons of the Vietnam war, we didn't have our faith in technology challenged. Here we were, the greatest technological nation on earth , and we marched into a litle jungle nation -- and lost! Obviously, technology doesn't have all the answers."

He stretches his long legs out in front of the desk and tries to hunch into a comfortable position. The back of the chair reaches only to his shoulder blades.

"Sure, there's a lot of technology in my books, but that's because I come from a scientific background." Mr. Crichton graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1969, but does not practice. "I think technology is an important issue. We right now have more control over our environment and our biology --kind."

He talks about his latest book. "I first saw the rain forests on a trip to Africa in 1976. That was really the genesis for 'Congo.' I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the place and its sense of ancient mysteries. The rain forests have always been the most stable environment in the whole history of the world, and in 20 years they will be gone. Destroyed. . . . Do we really know enough to do that? I don't think we do. And with something like that we'd either be very careful -- or very sure of ourselves."

He gets up out of the low-slung chair and walks over to the window. He is so tall he must bend down to see the Chrysler Building outside.

"In writing 'Congo,' I was struck by two opportunities --the chance to challenge our technological dependence and the chance to examine our attitudes toward the great apes in a fictional framework. We are so used to our stereotypes about these animals that we forget that we don't know much about them. They look enough like people and act in many of the ways people do -- they scratch their heads when they're confused, they do all kinds of things -- that it's easy to think that they are more like us than they are. But there is a gulf between us.

"Men are Homo sapiensm and gorillas are Gorilla gorilla.m An educated gorilla will still be a gorilla. But we must ask ourselves what we're doing to them when we teach them language. We are making them into different animals, and after all, they are not our toys. This sort of research must be approached with responsibility and a conscience.

"A lot of people tell me that Amy is the most human character in the book. She's not. She's just the most sensible. That's an important distinction.

"I am not a science fiction writer. My books are all set in the past and they are all about actual possibilities. I don't write about fantasies. I write about near-reality. It's funny, but the two books which are most realistic in terms of current research -- 'Terminal Man' and 'Congo' -- are often treated like Tolkien, like some sort of farfetched fantasies. But the people who are actually in the field doing the work understand what I'm trying to do."

He settles back into the chair. "I set out to blur the lines between fact and fiction. I do that intentionally, I think facts should be a sort of protective coloration for the fiction. I try to blend what people know into their sense of possibility. Besides, when you look at things that do not map out exactly onto our reality, it can do a lot to illuminate our approach to problems, the tools we use to study problems." When he quotes a fictional study of East Africa, for example, it conforms to actual research methods that would have been used in a genuine such study.

"I think it's important to be congruent to people's sense of reality. I try to do that, and I guess that's why I can take almost any criticism except 'That's unbelievable.' I don't mind if people don't like my work. But I hate it when they find something utterly inconceivable."

Perhaps, he thinks, that is one thing he likes about directing moves. The audience is willing to accept things on the screen that they would balk at in a novel.

Mr. Crichton has written and directed three feature films, "Westworld" (1973) , "Coma" (1977), and "The Great Train Robbery" (1978). He is just beginning work on the movie version of "Congo."

Michael Crichton may puzzle or annoy in his occasional lapses in taste, but he cannot be dismissed. Serious questions and important issues often lurk beneath what can seem to be a slick commercial surface.

Asked about the violent and grisly images that sometimes dot his work, he grew serious.

"I don't think my work is violent," he said. "At least, I hope I'm not. Sometimes gruesome or violent images are the best way to suggest to the reader that the things you're writting about are the things with serious consequences. But I try not to be gratuitous.

"I think concern about violence in art is legitimate. We don't really know how people are affected by it. They may be directly affected, or it may serve as a release valve. But in any case, I don't think you can completely divorce art from the society which is its context. We live in a violent society, and our art will reflect this.

"In fact, the whole Western narrative form is traditionally filled with violence, from Greek tragedy though Shakespeare and on down to the present day. It's difficult to unravel which causes which, whether violence in art causes violence in society or vice versa. But, as I say, I tend to think it can serve as a release valve."

But what of the gorillas who kill people in "Congo," something real gorillas have never been known to do? Isn't that bolstering the bad reputation that the gentle gorilla has undeservedly gotten?

"But you see, the gorillas [in the story] have been trained to kill -- by man. In 'Congo,' man has made the gorilla into a kind of technology and the technology has gotten out of hand. The whole book is trying to show the limits of technology and to suggest that you cannot treat gorillas and other apes as though they were a technology for our convenience."

What would make Michael Crichton happiest?

"To get married again." His response is as quick as it is soft. "I'd like to get married again and have children and live like a normal person," he continues. "I can't explain it. It's like being hungry for a certain food. I'd like to be like the wild gorillas in 'Congo,' s itting back and watching my children play in the sunshine."

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