Michael Crichton: artist of science

The runaway success of techno-thriller author Michael Crichton, who has died aged 66, made him one of the world's leading engineering popularisers. E&T assesses his legacy.

Michael Crichton did not so much write books as engineer them. The medical doctor turned author, director and screenwriter once described his creative process as "an assembly line. Some of the ideas on the line are just collections of unassembled parts, some of them are the chassis, a few have windshields but no engine. A lot of them will never make it to the end of the line."

His output was sometimes panned by critics, but readers proved more responsive: in his lifetime more than 150 million copies of his novels were sold, and the 6ft 9in writer became a dominant Hollywood force.

Crichton's novels combined basic prose and characterisation with intricate, urgent plotlines, invariably centred on new technological developments running amok, be it alien micro-organisms, runaway nano-robots or - most lucratively - cloned dinosaurs. Along the way, Crichton became an influential science populariser; general readers who would never dream of cracking open a scientific book happily consumed Crichton's detailed asides on polymerase chain reaction technique, remote sensing or chaos theory.

Born in Chicago in 1942, Crichton was - unusually for authors - trained in the scientific method. He enrolled at Harvard to study English but was dismayed by the discipline's subjective marking. He decided to perform an experiment, submitting a George Orwell essay in place of his own: "Orwell got a 'B minus' at Harvard, which convinced me that the English department was too difficult for me," he wryly commented.

Crichton switched to anthropology, gained a medical degree then worked at the Salk Institute. But he retained his interest in writing, producing a series of pen-name paperbacks. His first, 'Odds On' (1966, written as John Lange), shows the Crichton formula in prototype: a robbery planned with a then state-of-the-art punch-card IBM computer.

The Crichton novel reached maturity with 'The Andromeda Strain' (1969), the first released under his own name, about a satellite re-entry that carries with it an extra-terrestrial contamination. Key to its success was Crichton's editor Bob Gottlieb, who advised him the manuscript should read like a New Yorker profile. "I began to imitate that non-fiction writing style," Crichton remembered. "It yielded a cold, detached book that was also weirdly convincing."

To enhance the authenticity he included graphs, diagrams, footnotes and even a bibliography - features that became Crichton staples. He was father of the 'techno-thriller', a genre Crichton consciously distinguished from science fiction, saying, "my books are all set in the past and they are all about actual possibilities."

As the gory 'Jurassic Park' (1990) demonstrates, Crichton's interest in technology had its sceptical side, an attitude which grew more explicit. 'State of Fear' (2004) saw Crichton argue that the scientific consensus on climate change was bogus. The book won him a meeting with US President George W Bush but also a barrage of criticism.

He completed a final book, scheduled for release next year. But his best and most personal work is probably his non-fiction 'Travels', which blends biographical and travel writing with musings on medicine, science and mysticism.

Crichton died on 4 November 2008 after a struggle with cancer he chose to keep private.

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