Tag Archives: 4.5-star

Sphere (1987) by Michael Crichton


One of the fun things about reading is coming across echoes of other books you’ve read. I recently finished After Worlds Collide, and in one scene, a couple of characters discover a kind of plaque or road marker left by an alien civilization. On it is a design; not words or any real picture, just a design. In some inexplicable way, that design seems somehow un-human. And now, in Sphere, etched upon the titular object, is another strange design, one which, again, the hero finds to be un-human. Now, these are basically two-dimensional abstract patterns. Humans, of course, are very familiar with both these dimensions, which have been well explored not just by artists but by billions of doodlers throughout history. I kind of figure just about any design imaginable has been rendered by someone at some time in history. And I sure can’t get my mind around such a drawing being so odd that it is essentially inconceivable, and therefore un-human. Nope, with all due respect to the authors, I’m just not buying it.

Happily, this being a Michael Crichton novel, that’s about the only thing that isn’t, on some level, believable. The guy was a master of milieu, whether the setting was a large corporation, a dinosaur theme park, or a deep sea Navy habitat.

That’s where we find ourselves here, a thousand feet down in the Pacific ocean, where the Navy is investigating a very large, very strange vessel at least 300 years old. But it isn’t any boat; it’s a spacecraft.

Though the Navy is in charge of the overall mission, the primary investigators are a group of civilian scientists — a mathematician, an astrophysicist, a zoologist, and a psychologist. This allows Crichton to attack the problem of the ship, and the mysterious sphere found inside, on a number of different fronts. But Norman, the psychologist, is the hero. He’s there to keep everyone working together smoothly, a decidedly difficult job under the best of circumstances, given the egos and insecurities of the other scientists.

But these are hardly ideal circumstances. First of all, there’s all that crushing water above them. Farther up still, a cyclone blows in and sends the support vessels running for safe haven. Meanwhile, down below, strange things begin happening. And then the monsters attack.

In broad outline, that might sound like any number of other books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen, and it is. The difference is that Crichton handles it all ridiculously well. In an early scene, Norman discovers that Harry, the mathematician, tried to make out his will shortly after arriving in the habitat. It’s a small detail, but one that pays off not once, but twice during the course of the story, in two different ways. A Crichton thriller is anything but ham-handed  (State of Fear being, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule).

In fact, it’s Crichton’s subtlety that can make him difficult to synopsize: everything connects and whatever you might mention comes off sounding like a spoiler. The truth is, beneath the outline, the details of the story aren’t the typical blend of science fiction and horror. There’s the ship, for example, and the sphere, and the monsters…but I’ll just have to leave it at that.

This is one of Crichton’s best books, and Crichton at his best is exciting, suspenseful, funny, and perfectly plausible.


Soylent Green (1973), directed by Richard Fleischer


I guess it’s something about the early 70s and The Omega Man. The Omega Man is the 1971 Charlton Heston version of everybody’s favorite Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend. Everybody except me. I didn’t particularly care for the novel, and I didn’t much like The Omega Man either. Somehow, I guess, that soured me on early 70s science fiction, so, for example, I never watched Silent Running (until recently) and Soylent Green (until yesterday). But I really liked Silent Running and Soylent Green is just terrific. What else have I missed?

I’m taking Wikipedia’s word for it that the film is “loosely” based on Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room! I’ve never read it, and in fact I’d forgotten it was the basis for this movie until I saw it mentioned in the credits. So no comparisons for this one.

This is a dystopian story set in 2022 when the Earth is so overcrowded that dead bodies — even murder victims — are picked up by the Sanitation Department. Apartments are scarce, but apartment house stairwells overflow with sleeping men and women. Certain enterprising women find comfortable lodgings as “furniture” for wealthier men. And food, of course, is a major concern.

Solving the food problem is the Soylent Corporation, which produces wafers made from plankton. Even that, however, seems to be running low. Then a high-ranking member of the Soylent board is murdered and New York City Detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) is assigned the case. Scoping the crime scene for clues (and anything he can steal for his own use), Thorn is convinced that the victim, who put up no struggle, wasn’t so much murdered as assassinated, and that he both knew it was coming and accepted it. The question is why, when he had so much to live for: a beautiful daughter, a luxurious apartment, real produce and even beef.

The victim was a man who knew too much and couldn’t handle it. You probably already know his secret (as I did), but I won’t spoil it for those who don’t. Even though — and this is significant — knowing doesn’t spoil the experience at all.

Why? Because this film builds its world with great confidence; it doesn’t ask you to believe, it dares you not to. It doesn’t hide itself in darkness and it highlights the little things — like a hot shower or a good meal — that make a world believable. This extends even to the psychology of its characters. One scene has Thorn beating up a suspect who tells him he’s too smart to hit a cop. But when Thorn smacks his girlfriend, he changes his mind. Better still is a very poignant yet exciting scene set in an assisted suicide center, with gorgeous classical music from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Grieg playing on the soundtrack. It is, really, the signature scene of the film, for it shows us what has been lost to this future world while suggesting that it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

Edward G. Robinson, in his last film role, plays Sol Roth, Thorn’s “book.” He’s the educated research arm of the team (Thorn, of course, is the muscle), old enough to remember the days before strawberries cost $150 a jar. He’s very good, and the film scores again for making this team a real one. It’s not the usual good cop/crazy cop kind of thing; it’s legwork and knowledge, working together (rather like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, only with more action). Neither one alone could have solved the case.

A movie of surprising depth and swagger, Soylent Green is top-drawer, classic science fiction.

The General’s Daughter (1992) by Nelson DeMille


The hook is hard to resist. The body of Captain Ann Campbell, daughter of General Joe Campbell, is found — naked, spreadeagled, and staked to the ground — on a Fort Hadley rifle range. The rope around her neck indicates that she was strangled and her condition suggests rape. Paul Brenner, of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, knows the bizarre scene must have an equally strange explanation. His job is to find it, and the murderer.

Nelson DeMille makes this stuff look easy, but that’s all smoke and mirrors. There’s nothing easy about writing a compelling mystery, especially one like this, which could easily have slipped into prurience. But this is a book that, as its title tells us, is about Captain Campbell — her life, history, and personality. Though she is dead when we first see her, it is about bringing her to life and showing us how she met her tragic fate.

And so, like any mystery, information is paramount: when we get it, how we get it, and whom we get it from. DeMille doles it out beautifully, with a mix of detective work and forensics, interviews with suspects and acquaintances, and clues in Campbell’s personal effects. As the suspense builds, so does our understanding of Captain Campbell.

It’s a sordid story, but that’s not to say the book is depressing. It begins on a humorous note, as Paul discovers that fate has put him on the same base and in the same room with an old lover, Cynthia Sunhill. Their previous encounter didn’t end well, but Paul has carried a torch for her ever since. Because Cynthia is a rape specialist, she is assigned to work alongside Paul on the Campbell case. Their personal and professional interaction provides just the relief the Campbell case needs.

And then there’s Paul himself, who is like an early, somewhat toned down version of the author’s John Corey character. Also a loose cannon, also smart-mouthed, also a man’s man, Paul, however, is military, dealing with a military crime with mostly military suspects; it helps keep him from indulging in some of the more outrageous behavior that Corey gets away with. I don’t think he’s ultimately any more sensitive than Corey, but maybe his sensitivity is a little more evident here. He’s funny and tough and his heart is in the right place.

It’s a description that applies to the book itself. This is a page-turner with heart. The crime, we learn, is far more devastating that it at first appears (which is saying something), and DeMille handles it all with tact and grace.

Marnie (1961) by Winston Graham


Man, I was smooth. I told my friend, Look, all you have to do is grab it and put it in your pocket like it’s no big deal. Like this. We were halfway out of the store and all was quiet when my friend said, That was easy, wait here. The key word, of course, is “halfway” out of the store. Soon as we hit the mall, some big lug was on our tail and we were toast. It’s possible I smarted off to the guy a bit. It’s possible that’s why he called the cops. It’s certain that an hour later, we were both downtown in a detention cell. What are you in for? this scary tough kid asks. Stealing a necklace, I say. Oh, man, you should be home watching Popeye. I didn’t ask what he was in for.

This is more or less how Marnie begins her life of crime, with a minor theft at the age of ten. Thankfully, it’s also where the parallels with my own life end. When we first meet Marnie, she’s passing a cop who wishes her a good night. She wonders what he’d say if he knew what was in her handbag. Over a decade later, she’s graduated to felony theft. Warrants have been issued for her arrest. But she doesn’t mind: the warrants are all under false names in towns she’s long since left behind. Now she’s on the move again.

But this time she picks the wrong target, or the wrong man to work for. Mark Rutland, of Rutland’s Printing, is a lonely widower whose wife died very young. Marnie captures his imagination. While it can’t be said she encourages his attention, she doesn’t entirely rebuff him either. It’s enough for Mark to fall in love. When Marnie makes her move, Mark catches her. Believing he can help her, he coerces her into marriage. And that’s when Marnie’s uncomplicated, if criminal, existence comes to an end.

I didn’t know until I saw the credits that Alfred Hitchcock’s film was based on this novel, or any novel for that matter. Unlike many of the books his films have been based on — Psycho, The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, to take those I’ve read myself — this one doesn’t seem to have come down to us with a reputation in its own right. I find this strange for two reasons. First, Winston Graham, the author, wrote over 40 books, including 12 in a series popular in Britain. Second, and more significantly, I think this book is better than the others I’ve read. Head and shoulders better.

Perhaps it has something to do with its genre. Where the other books are all considered thrillers, this one is classified as a crime novel. Whatever that is. I have to admit, if that was all I had to go on, I doubt I ever would have picked up this book. So let’s make this a little clearer: Marnie is a psychological suspense story that happens to involve crime.

Not that the crime is incidental — Marnie’s M.O. is richly detailed. Watching her go about the business of ingratiating herself into a company, planning the heist, and then carrying it out is one of the pleasures of the book. But what really makes it enjoyable is Marnie herself, who approaches her “work” with a detachment and matter-of-factness that is both funny and frightening. She’s pathological, but utterly charming. (She reminds me a bit of Julie Bailey, Cornell Woolrich’s dazzling angel of vengeance in The Bride Wore Black.)

Of course, Marnie’s crimes are only one manifestation of her mental condition. The other is her detestation of men. One leads to her marriage, the other threatens to destroy it. Though Hitchcock’s film is, in terms of plot, remarkably similar to Graham’s book, the two are unique in that their emphases are different. The movie pushes Mark into the foreground; the book, narrated by Marnie herself, keeps him at a distance — though not quite far enough away to suit Marnie. And we can’t help but sympathize with her. She was, after all, virtually blackmailed into marriage. But where the movie can be seen as a war for dominance, the book details a war of suppression. Mostly that means running away — distancing herself from Mark, going out with his hated cousin and business partner — but Marnie is too bright not to consider the implications of her lifestyle. As Graham drops one clue after another about the source of Marnie’s derangement, we begin to sympathize with Mark, as well, or with his aim at least. This isn’t about a man trying to tame a woman; it’s about a woman discovering that she has a problem. And it’s all played out against a tense backdrop of crime, jealousy, frustration, and intrigue.

With this book, at least (and now I’m curious about all those other books), Graham shows himself to be, like Hitchcock, a master of suspense.