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Treading the line between fact and fiction

By Lorraine HirschSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 1981

New York

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."

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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.

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.