But Jurassic Park, which came out in 1990, was pretty much it for Crichton as an effective, hard-SF prognosticator. When he returns to science fiction in 1999 with Timeline, something clearly has changed. The topic is time travel, and true to his career-long hard-SF principles, Crichton does at least sketch out for the reader how such a thing might actually be possible. Sort of. The key, he ventures, might be “quantum foam.” In the real world, quantum foam is a term used by hard-core physicists standing beside vast, cantilevered chalkboards full of squiggles to describe a theoretical state, or scale, or reality at which particles of time and space blink in and out of existence in a soup of their own mathematical justification. But in Crichton’s hands, it’s actual foam. His heroes step into their time machine, pass quickly through a metaphysical car wash of suds, and then spend the rest of the novel jousting with black-armored knights and rolling under descending portcullises. The science, in other words, is pure nonsense, and the science fiction is not so much “hard” or “soft” as what you might call, well, “bad.”See, the thing is that Jurassic Park isn't very good prognostication either. Filling in the gaps in the recovered dinosaur DNA sequences with frog DNA is not a very likely scenario.
Of course Maddox's real point appears to be that fiction itself is dead.
The sense I get is that Maddox isn't much of a science fiction reader. If he was, he would realize that science fiction isn't just about predicting the future of technology. There's also social commentary - all the way back to H.G. Wells - and simply entertaining stories. And if you read science fiction by author's other than Crichton you would know that there is many a tale out there that is on the cutting edge of science. Certainly that's true in biology based sci fi - cloning, genetic engineering, uploading of memories to silicon and other biological wonders abound. We can only know in retrospect whether today's tales predict the future or are flights of fantasy.
As to the question of what happened, not just to Crichton but to all serious science fictionists, I reckon it boils down, like so many things, to a pair of factors.For one, it was around that time, the mid-1990s, that fiction—all fiction—finally became obsolete as a delivery system for big ideas. Whatever the cause—dwindling attention spans, underfunded schools, something to do with the Internet—the fact is these days that if a Top Thinker wakes up one morning aghast at man’s inhumanity to man, he’s probably going to dash off a 300-word op-ed and e-mail it to The New York Times, or better still, just stick it up on his blog, typos and all, not cancel his appointments for the next seven years so he can bang out War and Peace in a shed.
* It also wastes a whole paragraph that on a slightly bizarre bean dip analogy.
Tags:science fiction, biology, future predictions