I was six years old when Jurassic Park, the movie, was released, and I had dinosaurs on my brain.
I begged my parents to let me go to it. They refused, on the grounds that they had read in USA Today that many children older than me had been scared—even some 12 year olds! Nightmares, they said. I was indignant. Me? Nightmares?
But my parents held firm, and every time we drove past the mall on 28th St throughout the summer of ’93, the marquee sign tortured me, the block letters spelling out JURASSIC PARK, and then that dreaded code: PG-13.
JURASSIC PARK PG-13
And so while my friends’ parents took them to see it, my parents, in a fit of protectiveness, bought me what they perceived to be the safer option: Jurassic Park, the book, by Michael Crichton.
This was, of course, completely misguided.
Jurassic Park was a kids’ movie—a whimsical tale of a mystical land filled with wondrous creatures gazed upon by worshipful faces in gentle dolly shots, accompanied by with John Williams’ strings and brass fanfares that sound equally at home underneath images of Santa Claus’ sled bounding into the air behind his reindeer.
The book is another animal. Within twenty pages, escaped procompsognathuses are running amok on the mainland—found in a nursery room, chewing chunks of baby in their jaws.
I was hooked. I read the book in three days flat, under the covers, late at night, every gruesome death a thrill to my senses: “Nedry stumbled, reaching blindly down to touch the ragged edge of his shirt, and then a thick slippery mass that was surprisingly warm, and with horror he suddenly knew he was holding his own intestines in his hands.”
I was eight years old, and I loved it.
Jurassic Park was the first “adult” novel I ever read. My parents believed that while movies would give you nightmares, books could do no harm. And so I plowed through Michael Crichton’s back catalog: Sphere, Congo, The Andromeda Strain, and so on. I felt like I was getting away with murder—or at least reading about it. Like generations of kids before me, books became my refuge, my playgrounds, where I learned about the world. And none had more of an influence on me than Jurassic Park.
I re-read Jurassic Park this week for the first time since then, and it was like an extended experience of deja vu. It was eerie how much I recalled across eighteen years. At times, entire passages came streaming back to me, like restoring an old file from some corner of my brain. Other times, tiny phrases, combinations of words would ring bells in my mind and I would realize that my memories of them were so pure and so strong, they represented the very first time I had ever encountered them. And the emotions the characters felt struck me even harder. Fear, powerlessness, melancholy. When I first read them, these were emotions I’d never seen articulated, although I would recognize them soon enough. It’s not a terribly large exaggeration to say that Jurassic Park formed the foundation of my understanding of the adult world.
Yes, Jurassic Park was a world where dinosaurs ruled the Earth, where chaos theory reigned, and people got their guts slashed out. But it was also a glorious world where lucid scientific explanations of genetics, chaos theory, and fractals flowed from the tongue of every scientist, programmer, and systems engineer like liquid chocolate from a liquid chocolate spout. In its way, Crichton-dialog is as artificial and stylized as Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing walk-and-talks, but I didn’t know that. I simply assumed that was how highly intelligent people spoke about complicated ideas—clearly, dramatically, and perfectly understandably.
The world of Jurassic Park was also one where the adults, when they weren’t speaking about science, spoke in clipped, 1980s-era dialog, liberally pre-punctuating their remarks with that ever-faithful interjection, “Jesus”.
“You look hot. Want a beer?” “Jesus, yeah.”
“Jesus,” somebody said.
“Jesus,” Gennaro said.
“Jesus,” Malcolm said.
“—Jesus, if an animal like that gets out,”
“Jesus,” Ed Regis said.
“Jesus, hang that up,” Nedry said.
“Jesus,” Muldoon said.
“Jesus,” Arnold said.
And so on.
These things I learned from Jurassic Park:
That Crays were the most powerful computers in the world.
That needing a quorum meant people were going to make an important decision.
That prescriptions drugs were expensive to develop, and so why shouldn’t the drug companies be able to charge $1000 a pill, $2000—whatever the hell they wanted?
That morphine was something that made sick people say things that sounded really smart.
But even more fundamental than that—I learned not so much how to write, but that it was possible to write. I learned that characters could speak without quotation marks and think in italics. I learned that a carefully placed em dash and an exclamation point could make my heart leap and my blood rush.
I wondered, before I began re-reading, if I was giving Crichton too much credit, if my eight-year-old self had been taken in by a mediocre writer and seduced by the novelty of “an adult novel” alone. The debacle of his 2006 anti-global science screed State of Fear left a bad taste in my mouth.
But no. As I read, my eyes flowed over the words like quickening rapids, and I sank into the text, submerged and speeding through. I was just as entranced as I had been as a child. It was good writing.
Not all of the content holds up. I winced at Malcolm’s rantings and ramblings, which read to me now as a pitch-perfect parody of a pseudoscience peddler. It would be brilliant, if it weren’t so obvious that he is a vessel for Crichton’s true feelings.
But oh, the craft and construction. I still marvel at how the science serves the story, and the different strategies he uses to seamlessly weave it into the narrative—not just by providing crucial exposition, but using it to propel the plot forward. Often, he inserts the science as characters’ inner monologues that are then interrupted by a cliffhanging plot device. The science doesn’t serve the plot, it is the plot. It’s the setup, a pause in the pacing.
Other times, he dumps scientific jargon in front of the reader and then decodes them in the dialogue. For example, this little snippet of conversation comes a bit after he’s already discussed Cray supercomputers:
“You know who did their algorithms?”
“No,” Nedry said. “This company is very secretive.”
“Well, my guess is they’re doing something with DNA,” Barney said. “What’s the system?”
“Multi-XMP? You mean more than one Cray? Wow.”
He didn’t need to slip in the XMP model designation, but doing so adds a little bit of color, and he manages to explain it unobtrusively in the dialogue.
He uses this to aid his characterization, as well. When we meet Ian Malcolm, Ellie’s curiosity at his all-black attire in the Dallas desert heat prompts a classic Malcolm quip that’s half science, half personality: “As a matter of fact, black is an excellent color for heat. If you remember your black-body radiation, black is actually best in heat. Efficient radiation.”
Crichton builds his world out of these scientific anecdotes, bringing Jurassic Park to life as a world where, in the middle of a ferocious raptor attack, there is time for the geneticist to assert to himself that behavior is only a second-order effect of DNA, and muse upon the distinction between empirical and theoretical work.
Indeed, the world of Jurassic Park, the Book, is nothing like the world of Jurassic Park, the Movie. This stuck out even more at me as I reread the book. Yes, the tone is darker—I knew that. But the characters are also so much more interesting.
Spielberg’s players have archetypal story arcs thrust upon them almost apologetically—perfunctory penance to offset the campy thrill of the dinosaurs, whom we all know are the real stars. Thus, we get the dopey subplot in which Grant has a hatred of children that is never motivated, but then—surprise! comes to love them. We also get the mushy Grant–Sattler love plot, and hints of a subplot revolving around Lex’s adolescent crush on Grant.
But in the book, Ellie Sattler’s character is a progressive portrayal of a woman in STEM. Instead of being Grant’s contemporary and love interest, she is his 24-year-old graduate student. Grant regards her completely on a professional level. And interestingly, none of the scientist or technical characters (excepting Malcolm) objectify her—but the nonscientists do. One after another, in throwaway moments, Bob Morris (an EPA investigator), Gennaro the lawyer, and Muldoon the hunter gaze upon her with astonishment or condescension—and each time, she either ignores them or stands her ground.
In Crichton’s world, she’s a woman who really does have it all. Not only is she on track for her PhD, “she’s marrying a nice doctor in Chicago sometime next year”—and she can outrun, outclimb, and outsmart velociraptors just as well as the men. Ellie is not a love interest for the men to fight over, and she’s not a Rambino, a Sigourney Weaver-in-Alien. She is simply, a scientist who is a woman. What could be more refreshing than that?
When I was 8, I saw the characters as either kids or adults—there was nothing in between. But now I can see how Crichton has a cast of research scientists at various stages of their careers, using them to portray the rigors and stresses of academia. At 40 years old, Alan Grant is a fledgling star in his field, probably recently tenured. 33-year-old Henry Wu is a desperately ambitious scientist with a funding crisis, for whom the role of Jurassic Park’s lead geneticist was an industry position he couldn’t refuse. (Before accepting, he asks Hammond: “Will my work be publishable?”) And at 24, Ellie is a PhD candidate—brilliant and undaunted.
And then there is 12-year-old Tim.
Tim is the beating, emotional heart of the novel. He’s intelligent, quiet, and vulnerable. In the movie, he’s an insufferable little snot. He talks Grant’s ear off, and for a while, seems to exist only to justify Grant’s otherwise odd hatred of children.
In many ways, in the novel, Tim is an honorary adult. He analyzes the dinosaurs in his head, comparing them to what he’s read in books. Are they nocturnal, he wonders? The famous T-rex attack is written from his point of view, and you see his thought process as he’s the first to realize the electric fences are down.
Tim knows who Grant is, respects him, and is nervous. When he first meets him, he mentally scans his encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs to recall Grant’s theories and published work. He tells him a poignant story about visiting the Museum of Natural History with his disinterested dad. He’s a kid who has read about his passion for his entire life and is now finally getting a chance to meet his heroes in real life.
This resonated with me. That same feeling crosses my mind every time I meet someone in the worlds of science and writing whose work I’m familiar with.
And as I read, I realized: Tim was the twelve-year-old my eight-year-old self wanted to grow up to be.