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It was a struggle, but I finally made it through The Scottish Chiefs. To reward myself, I decided to read a modern (of sorts, it was written 16 years ago) thriller. The book is Utopia (renamed Lethal Velocity, perhaps to entice readers to buy it again 16 years on) by Lincoln Child.

Reading a book like The Scottish Chiefs is like reading poetry. In this particular case, not very good poetry, but poetry nonetheless. You can’t really race through it and much of the time the “story” seems to take a backseat to the exposition. Done right, one imagines, this would allow the reader to wallow in the prose and appreciate the beauty of the imagery while, at the same time (still being a novel), being told a story of value. A modern thriller, on the other hand, is like a drug. The text seems to have been weaponized, propelling you through the story as fast as you can read for as late as you can stay up at night.

Lincoln Child has written a few dozen dozen books at this point, many of them as a joint effort with co-author Douglas Preston. The authors (the pair) were recommended to me almost five years ago by a friend who described it as “beach reading.” My first impression on digging into the novel Relic was the similarity to the writing of Michael Crichton (also considered beach reading, I suppose). I may or may not have been influenced by a suggestion in one of the blurbs that compared Relic favorably to Crichton’s writing (maybe even specifically Jurassic Park). This, too, was my impression – Relic is a more intelligent version of a Crichton novel.

At some point (unrelated to Relic), I realized there was a formula to Crichton novels. They will start out with a “prologue” mini-story, related to the events of the book, but absent any of what will come to be the main characters. Those who do appear in the first section are free to be slaughtered, maimed, or otherwise misused, the reader having not yet invested any attachment in them. Then the “real” chapters start and we meet the main characters. Usually (at least at this point), they removed from whatever the action is. Continue another chapter or two and the main characters begin coming into contact with whatever we, the reader, encountered in that first bit. Often there are multiple characters, multiple story lines, such that the book can jump back and forth between as the story advances. Many chapters are left with a cliff-hanger ending, leaving the reader loath to stop at the convenient break, instead eager to start into the next chapter just to see what happens. But that next chapter is a different character/story-line, so now you’ve got to read a couple more chapters before turning off the light for the night. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Crichton’s works often have a “moral” lurking below the story itself. If you agree with the moral (think the global warming critique of State of Fear) such deeper meaning may add to the experience. If you’re not quite on board with his thesis (the fundamental uncontrollablity of complex systems in Jurassic Park), then it becomes a distraction.

Utopia shares the subject matter, high-tech control of complex systems, with Jurassic Park. A keystone of the story is the self-learning network that controls the robotics in a (slightly beyond the) state-of-the-art theme park. Unlike with Crichton, there is no deeper analysis of the societal implications. Cool technology is cool technology – no stern pontifications needed. In terms of the structure, it almost seems like someone picked apart a Crichton novel and built this one to match. There is a particular cliff-hanging technique used in both Utopia and Jurassic Park. One of the primary characters, either the hero or a close advisor to the hero, has an epiphany and announces to everyone that he sees the big picture and has figured it out. Just as he is about to explain, something else happens and he is cut off in mid-sentence. As they rush off to deal with the sudden crisis, the chapter ends. The next chapter is a jump to another thread in the story, leaving you with a good chunk of the book to read before you can know what the character apparently has figured out. Both books (and many others) follow this formula to the T.

With Crichton, it was noticeable because it was also frustrating. The “reveal” when it eventually came (many, many chapters later) was often so much less than the promise of it. Indeed, there are more than one of Crichton’s works where the story just kind of fizzles out at the end. For all the build-up, the ending feels a little tacked on. On this point Child’s writing seems to be an improvement. The endings seem more worthy of the build-ups. And yes, the overall writing style is just a notch more “intelligent” than the Crichton thriller. One glaring tick in the Child and Preston/Child novels, though, is there is occasionally bits that just seem that they’re trying too hard to be “intelligent.” The example, contained in Utopia is some detailed discussion of fine wine by one of the main characters, attempting to lead into an analogy about a fungus present in wine-making versus the rot that is the bad guys who are in the theme park. The analogy pretty much flops and, instead, seems just to be in the book to show off the author’s knowledge of top-tier wines. A little broadcast that “this book is not just beach reading, it’s for smart people!”

That last bit aside, I’ve never turned away a Crichton novel and don’t expect I’ll turn away a Lincoln Child novel either.