"The morphine is making me philosophical."
The book of the week (day?) is Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. I haven’t read it in several years but it is just as good as I recalled – chock full of colorful language, dangerous dinosaurs, greedy corporate muckety-mucks and smart people snarking their way out of desperate situations. Actually it follows the Crichton formula to a T but I don’t really mind as I like the formula.
It runs through so many of his books I can write a recipe for it. Take one technology related company and mix in one or two ruthless and short sighted executives who break the laws of nature and the United States to turn a profit and achieve their ends. Add one to four really smart scientific specialists who will get roped in based on having accepted grant funding from the aforementioned corporate creeps. Include the merest hint of a romance between two of these but don’t go anywhere with it. Some initial crisis with the corporate enterprise will involve all of the above and a few intermediately moral characters in an incipient adventure, usually in some geographically (or temporally) isolated location. Allow the whole thing to stew for something just shy of a week while the situation progresses from bad to worse and the clever scientists try to save themselves and everyone else while the corporate scumbags deny that anything is going wrong and generally make things worse. Eventually nearly everyone except most (but not all) of the scientists will die – usually in rather dramatically painful ways. A certain amount of cosmic retribution will be dealt out to the corporate entity. But in the end the survivors shake it off and return to their research (supported by the huge payouts they get to pad their non-disclosure agreements) and the company covers its ass and claims none of it ever happened. Off the top of my head I have just perfectly described Jurassic Park, the Lost World, Congo, Timeline and Prey. It’s a less perfect summary of Airframe but that is harder to fit into the type as the whole thing takes place in California. But still … you take my point.
Jurassic Park is pretty much my favorite example. I have actually quoted some of Ian Malcom’s morphine-induced philosophizing in academic papers and I really do think its quite worth listening to. His indictment of science is biting and I always wonder that he doesn’t continue with my favorite youthful argument and pin the blame on Renee Descartes, taking the words out of my mouth. Here’s a few favorite rants:
“God, no.” Malcom said. “That’s like saying scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast is human nature. Its nothing of the sort. Its uniquely Western training, and much of the rest of the world is nauseated by the thought of it.” He winced in pain. “The morphine’s making me philosophical.”
“You want some water?”
“No. I’ll tell you the problem with engineers and scientists. Scientists have an elaborate line of bullshit about how they are seeking to know the truth about nature. Which is true, but that’s not what drives them. Nobody is driven by abstractions like ‘seeking truth’.
“Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. So they are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something. The conveniently define such considerations as pointless. If they don’t do it, someone else will. Discovery, they believe, is inevitable. So they just try to do it first. That’s the game in science. Even pure scientific discovery is an aggressive, penetrative act. It takes big equipment, and it literally changes the world afterward.” (284)
“You know what we are really talking about here,” Malcom said. “All this attempt to control … We are talking about Western attitudes that are five hundred years old. They began at the time when Florence, Italy, was the most important city in the world. The basic idea of science – that there was a new way to look at reality, that it was objective, that it did not depend on your beliefs or your nationality, that it was rational – that idea was fresh and exciting back then. It offered promise and hope for the future, and it swept away the old medieval system, which was hundreds of years old. The medieval world of feudal politics and religious dogma and hateful superstitions fell before science. But, in truth, this was because the medieval world didn’t really work anymore. It didn’t work economically, it didn’t work intellectually, and it didn’t fit the new world that was emerging.”
“But now,” he continued, “science is the belief system that is hundreds of years old. And like the medieval system before it, sciences is starting not to fit the world any more. Science has attained so much power that its practical limits begin to be apparent. Largely through science, billions of us live on one small world, densely packed and intercommunicating. But science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live. Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it. Science can make pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it. And our world starts to seem polluted in fundamental ways – air, and water, and land – because of ungovernable science.” He sighed. “This much is obvious to everyone.”
“At the same time, the great intellectual justification of science has vanished. Ever since Newton and Descartes, sciences has explicitly offered us the vision of total control. Science has claimed the power to eventually control everything, through its understanding of natural laws. But in the twentieth century, that claim has been shattered beyond repair. … Science has always said that it may not know everything now but it will know, eventually. But now we see that isn’t true. … We are witnessing the end of the scientific era. Science, like other outmoded power systems, is destroying itself.”(pp312-313)
I love Malcom’s rants – he’s such a detached pessimist. Even after he gets chewed on by a T-Rex he’s able to wax philosophical about the propable success or failure of Jurassic Park on a theoretical level. And he never fails to annoy Hammond – who is an idiot and pathologically unable to see the reality of the mess he’s made – which never fails to annoy me. As a quiet introverted type who rarely says what she thinks of people, I take a lot of vicarious pleasure in reading about Malcom saying exactly what he wants. He can do it even before the morphine kicks in.