“Micro” by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston (Harper, 2011)

Micro
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Found as an incomplete manuscript on the late Michael Crichton’s computer, Micro is an example of the old style of Crichton’s work, with a great extension of cutting edge science, pushing it into the field of science fiction.  In some of Crichton’s more recent novels there has been an overbearing philosophy and biased political angle; fortunately, there is little of this in Micro, though his “corrupt” characters are thin and painfully obvious.  Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer, was brought in by the publisher to complete the manuscript, and he does a good job of making the whole novel feel seamless, working off of Crichton’s outlines, notes and research.

Micro opens with the scene of three unknown bodies found in a business office in Honolulu; cause of death is uncertain at first, and then attributed to a number of micro cuts and lacerations over the whole body, including, when it is investigated, inside the body on tissues and organs.  Cut to Nanigen Technologies, an up and coming company with a number of secret projects going on.  Seven graduate students are picked from MIT to become assistants for the company located in Hawaii, but stumble onto some details they shouldn’t know anything about.  Before they know it, they find themselves shrunk down to just inches in size and abandoned in a rain forest arboretum, left to die.  The question is whether they can first keep themselves alive at this size, with everything out to get them, and then get themselves back to normal size and stop the people behind all this.

Micro definitely has its high points, and while the characters can seem predictable and shallow, overall it’s an entertaining novel that doesn’t hold up to any of Crichton’s greats, like Jurassic Park and Congo, but is nevertheless a fun last book from this bestselling author.

Originally written on December 28, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science” by Richard Preston (Random House, 2008)

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Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Wild Trees, returns with Panic in Level 4, featuring six of his articles which have appeared over the recent years, in some form, in the New Yorker.  While the title refers to the highest level, Bio Safety Level 4 (BL-4), of biosecurity in the laboratory, the articles run the gamut of subjects from the number Π, to the search for the origin of Ebola, to a unique type of cannibal.

In Preston’s introduction, “Adventures in Nonfiction Writing,” he tells a story of the time when he was finally granted access to Level 4, offering description step by step as he is taken to the room where the suits are, each baring the name of its owner, and is handed a suit with no name; Preston takes this as a bad sign.  Inside Level 4, Preston observes these daredevil scientists who face the risk of infection and death as their day job, watching them investigate blood samples of a possible Ebola victim.  As Preston bends down to look into a microscope, the front part of his suit bursts open and Preston is rushed from the lab and checked for Ebola infection.  Since Panic in Level 4 has been written and published, Preston obviously survived his brush with one of the most lethal viruses ever discovered.

In “The Mountains of Pi,” we meet two brothers who live in a small apartment in New York and spend their time building supercomputers and furthering their research into Π and its possible pattern.  In “The Search for Ebola,” Preston travels to different countries in Africa, tracing the history of Ebola outbreaks to their original sources in an attempt to find the genesis of the deadly virus.  In other articles, Preston discovers a treasure-trove of wondrous trees in the most unlikeliest of places; as well as the finding of an ancient tapestry at the Metropolitan Museum that when turned over for repair, reveals a back side that has rarely seen the light, still in its original breathtaking detail.  In the final article, “The Self-Cannibals,” Preston educates the reader about the rare disease Lesch-Nyahn syndrome, where a single altered letter in one’s DNA makeup creates the occasional mental state that your limbs are out to attack you and must be stopped through self-cannibalism and self destruction.  Preston meets and becomes friends with sufferers of the syndrome, revealing a human side to this devastating disease, making the reader realize that even those these people are threatened by their very own body, they are still people just like you or I.

Preston seems justifiably proud about the fact that he seeks out the humanity in the difficult subjects he writes about, and in this way it is accessible and understandable to anyone, no matter your background.  Panic in Level 4 aims to not just educate the reader in some of the mysteries of this world, but also to reveal the complexity and incredible brilliance of the human species.

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Originally written on June 26th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring” by Richard Preston (Random House, 2007)

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Wild Trees is a big departure from Richard Preston’s usual nonfiction works of deadly diseases, but it is just as unusual and unique.   This is a story of the giant redwoods of California and the crazy people whose passion it is to climb them.  It is a story of daring adventure, but also of a humanity that holds great respect for some of the Earth’s dwindling survivors.

Wild Trees begins by revealing its real life characters who mean very little to the reader at first, to the point where the reader is wondering where it’s all going, but as the book progresses, each of these characters – their life stories revealed – come together because of their discovered love for the redwoods and their passion and what some might call obsession to climb them.  There is Steve Sillett, a botanist who discovered his passion for the gentle giants when challenged to climb one of them.  Michael Taylor, son of a wealthy real estate developer, never amounting to anything until the day he decides to find the world’s tallest redwood.  Finally there is the Canadian botanist Marie Antoine whose mother died when she was young, and from a young age was obsessed with trees and climbing them.  These three are brought together from their seemingly doomed and turbulent lives to a place of escape and rest in the Humboldt and Mendocino counties of California.  Perfecting the art of climbing, they are three of the few who have discovered most of the great redwoods that have come to be known today.

Preston himself has an obsession with redwoods and climbing them, which becomes part of the book, as he travels with these three, climbing trees, but not always giving specific locations.  This is a group that is fully aware of the dwindling number of redwoods that can be thousands of years old, and wish to see them remain hidden and protected.  A “wild tree” is one that has never been climbed and Preston is clear that for some trees he wishes this to remain so.  It is an interesting execution with Wild Trees, for while he wishes to enamor and amaze the reader with these majestic creations that have stood the test of time, he wishes to maintain this hidden Eden in a way that prevents it from being seen and experience by the readers.  Nevertheless, the book is an interesting introspective into these mighty trees about which little is known, most importantly their history and existence, which Preston does not hold back on.

A delight with the audiobook is that it is read by the author, Richard Preston, adding all the more to the tone and emotional resonance of the book.  His voice is clear and strong, keeping the reader’s interest from start until finish.  There is even a section where Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine each talk about their love for the redwoods and how important it is that we maintain them.  The audiobook begins and ends with the a chorus of chirruping birds, as the reader imagines the reddish brown thick trunks reaching from the fertile earth to the cloudy heavens.

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Originally written on July 13th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.