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Michael Crichton’s NEXT

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NEXTWritten clearly with an eye to being the next Hollywood blockbuster, Michael Crichton with his latest novel NEXT has made a bold foray into the world of genetic engineering.

Blending fact and fiction, Crichton has packed in data that startles which he weaves into loosely linked subplots, spinning a breathless tale that challenges our sense of reality. Though cast differently from the high octane stories we’ve come to expect from this amazing writer, NEXT with its amalgam of the comic and the bizarre, the frightening and the sensational, holds the reader’s attention to the very end.

The novel begins on an exciting note. Vasco Borden, private investigator and fugitive recovery specialist, hot on the heels of fugitive Eldo Tolman, is all set to zero in on him before Tolman is about to be seduced by a Russian hooker. In Tolman’s hand is a container of stolen embryos. A short while later, Tolman trapped in an elevator, ends up dead, smothered by the nitrogen that escapes from the container.

Proceeding at breakneck speed, NEXT takes us to a place in time where the lure of magnificent cures is made possible by the strides taken in the field of stem cells, cytokines and protoenomics. This unleashes all that is scary and ugly in man as he finds himself in a situation where commercial exploitation yields power and riches beyond his wildest imagination.

The scenarios described in the book are disturbing. You have universities using gene patents for profit instead of research for the common good; corporations claiming rights over body tissue, insurance companies forsaking clients because of a gene found in a relative, teenage girls on fertility drugs in order to sell their eggs to the highest bidder, genes being held responsible for anti-social behaviour, bodies robbed of their bones before burial and so on.

Thickly peopled with characters plagued by problems peculiar to urbane life, the novel consists of parallel storylines, sometimes incredible and sometimes down to earth. Among the various characters, the most fascinating are Dave, a transgenic monkey boy, created by a scientist when he inserted human genes in a chimpanzee embryo; Gerard, a parrot, also a product of genetic interference who is a genius at math and an orangutan who can curse in several languages.

Dave is endearingly plucky and loyal to his half brother, while Gerard is precocious and engaging with his inappropriate comments. Holding their own amidst a hugely unsettling background of genetic oddities, human greed and deadly deals, Dave and Gerard provide something close to comic relief. In fact you just wish they had a bigger role to play.

While Crichton in his author’s notes at the end of the novel reveals he’s not against genetic research, his novel  is evidently a sort of plea to consider the ethical, moral and legal implications of gene manipulation and pre-empt the harrowing fall-out of human greed.

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