Congo isn’t Michael Crichton’s best work, but it’s good, and it’s good in that special Crichton way — heavily researched, fast-paced, tense, and exciting — that makes it better than most books of its kind. It’s about an expedition into the African rainforest, to the Lost City of Zinj, where apes or ape-like creatures brutally kill anyone who comes near. If it had stuck to that premise all the way to the end, I’d probably be giving this an extra star. But Crichton goes off on a tangent at the last minute that, while interesting in itself, is still a tangent. Think of the effect on Jurassic Park if at the end someone started talking about the military application of dinosaurs and then went off to do something about it. Like that.
The characters are simply drawn but effective. The boss is an overzealous woman, a computer genius, looking for a particular kind of diamond mine, but the leader is an experienced mercenary-type, with knowledge of both the jungle and the politics of getting into it. Along for the ride are a primatologist and his talking gorilla, Amy.
Amy, of course, has a limited vocabulary and speaks in sign language. A character like this is a risky proposition with me (this is why I’ve never read Next), but I quickly grew to like her. Oh, she’s a bit too intelligent, but Crichton does a good job of keeping her on the rails with basic, believable behavior.
For me, books like this always come with a subtext: the arrogance and destructiveness of mankind. I’m not sure I’d like them if they didn’t. They’d probably come off as too touchy-feely if the heroes didn’t manage somehow to turn romance into rape. It happened in The Lost World, it happened in King Kong, and it happens here, too. But like I say, that’s okay. It validates my view of human nature.
Naturally, since this is a Crichton book, it’s packed with entertaining information about technology and other subjects including, in this case, African history (mostly from the white explorer’s point of view) — the bits about cannibalism are fascinating — and corporate espionage. The latter because the expedition is funded by a company that wants to find a certain kind of diamond mine, which the Germans and the Japanese are also hot to claim.
If anyone knows of a writer with a style like Crichton’s, I wish you’d tell me. I really miss him.