I finished the 2nd leg of the Michael Crichton Experience last night, I still have the movie to watch but I will discuss that in a separate post. Fair warning there will be spoilers ahead if you have not read The Terminal Man. This book much like The Andromeda Strain took me a while to actually get into reading it. It wasn’t super long but so far the trend has been for me to be pretty bored for the first 100 pages or so and then the book grabs me. I don’t remember this happening with the other Michael Crichton books I have read in the past, but I guess we will have to wait and see if that is the case when I start getting into some of those books further down the line. My buddy Jim had a teacher tell him once that for the first 100 pages of a Michael Crichton book he just likes to prove how smart he is. So far this has been the case.
I picked up my copy of The Terminal Man at my favorite local book store, Adventures Underground. It is a paperback copy, was only a couple of bucks, and I liked how the cover looked so I decided to forego trying to spend more on a 1st edition and snagged this one instead. I have never read this book before so I didn’t really have much to go on besides what was inside the front cover and I must say the book was quite a bit different than I had imagined.
In typical Crichton fashion, at least so far, the book covers a 5 day period from Tuesday March 9, 1971 to Saturday March 13, 1971. It follows the surgery of a man named Harold Benson who has a debilitating condition known as Psychomotor Epilepsy. Whenever Mr. Benson has an epileptic seizure he forgets what he is doing and becomes a giant rage monster attacking anyone and anything within his range. One of his most recent episodes of this happening left another man severely beaten and he is in quite a bit of trouble for doing so as he heads into surgery to try and get his problem fixed. He also appears to be severely delusional, at the least, and potentially fully psychotic because he believes that machines are going to take over the world. He also believes that having this surgery will turn him into a machine himself, all part of the machines master plan. The story tends to follow the doctors who have been working with Mr. Benson more than Mr. Benson himself. The Hospital is in Los Angeles and there are three doctors who work in a section of the Hospital known as NPS (what does it stand for). Dr. Janet Ross, his psychiatrist, seems to be followed the most in the book with Dr. John Ellis performing the surgery and Dr. Arthur McPherson being the head doctor of NPS who made the ultimate decision to perform the surgery on Mr. Benson. All in all I didn’t really care for the characters in the book, Benson is obviously insane and the surgeon and head of NPS aren’t fleshed out very much. The female psychiatrist seems to be pissed off a lot because she doesn’t think Benson should have been chosen for the procedure in the first place, but I found myself rooting for her in the end.
The surgery and setting of the hospital was all very intricately detailed. I enjoyed it and it seemed to really set the scene for what was going to happen, Crichton was a doctor at this point and had even published a non-fiction book called Five Patients, a year earlier, about his experiences as a resident and I think he conveyed the setting extremely well. Computers and technology are again a very big theme in this book. People talk about them all the time and their wondrous capabilities and one even plays a very large role in the final scene. Crichton again seems to sense the way the world is heading with computers becoming more and more a huge part of our lives, even though the more powerful computers at this point still take up an entire room. He talks about many technologies and achievements that computers will enable us have and some of the things he discusses actually came to fruition. At one point he mentions how a doctor envisions in the future being able to perform surgery from halfway across the world with a robot doing the actual surgery with the surgeon at the controls from a far. I know events like this have actually happened in recent years and his grasp of things to come in our modern world is quite amazing. It is actually quite easy to get sucked into believing that this book could be set in modern times, until you realize that everyone is smoking INSIDE the hospital. There is a cop stationed outside of Benson’s room after he has the surgery, because of the previous event of him beating the crap out of someone, and he chain smokes pretty much the whole time. Benson had 2 holes drilled in his head, had electrodes implanted, and is just out of surgery recovering and there is a cop sitting outside of his door smoking like a chimney. I could not even imagine something like this happening today. I actually found myself laughing out loud at the thought of that happening in modern times.
Another of the overarching themes of the book, besides computers and technology, was the subject of mind control. Mind control is plastered all over the back and inside the front cover of the book in big bold letters to try and draw you in. I honestly didn’t get the mind control thing very much though. Maybe it is because I am reading this book from a modern perspective and the things that they did to Harry Benson, implanting electrodes in his brain to try and stop his seizures, doesn’t seem all that farfetched. I actually did some research on the subject and the procedure done to Mr. Benson doesn’t actually get performed all that often nowadays but it is not cutting edge science the same was that it was back in the early 1970’s. The surgery scene in the book was described in intricate detail and I think it would be interesting to compare how surgery happened in 1971 with a similar surgery today. Computers and other technologies were just starting to be used more back in the 70’s but like I mentioned before the whole hospital and technology aspect of the book had a very modern feel to it.
The procedure they perform is very interesting as well. They drill 2 holes in Harry Benson’s skull and then implant 40 electrodes in a very specific part of the brain that they have found causes the seizures. The electrodes are then hooked up to a nuclear power source, which is sewn in to Benson’s shoulder, and every time Benson has a seizure, it is detected by a computer that is also in his shoulder and pulses are sent to a specific area of the brain and the seizure is stopped. The process of determining which of the electrodes should be used was also very interesting and detailed thoroughly in the book. They test each one of the individually by sending a pulse and measuring the reaction that Benson has. They take their best guess and which ones should be used to stop the seizures and then activate only those ones. The problem turns out to be that they pick the wrong electrodes to activate. Benson ends up causing himself to have seizures so that he can get the electrodes activated and receive the sensation that he desires from the shock. There is a specific scientific term for this phenomenon but the book details it much better than I can. Benson ends up escaping the hospital and going on a killing spree across Los Angeles eventually tipping over the edge of insanity and becomes a full time giant rage monster. The doctors seem to think that if they can just capture him and get him back in the hospital so they can reprogram the electrodes then they can fix him, but that never happens. I still didn’t really get the mind control thing, they only mentioned it a few times in the book and the doctors seem to pretty much dismiss it as nonsense.
Again Crichton seems to try to warn us about the dangers of technology, yes a lot of the things that we can do are amazing and wondrous. But should we be doing them? Should we be metalling with things like the human brain and trying to fix them? Crichton seems to have a very good grasp of technology and the path that it is leading us down and at the same time he is able to take a step back and look at things objectively. I think this is one of the reasons that I enjoy his writing so much. He seems like an extremely smart man, I never met him though I wish I would have, but at the same time he seems to be able to look at things and how they will affect us in the long run and as a society. He seems enamored with computers and the technologies that were springing up at the time, but not to the point that he can’t stop and question their purpose and impact.
Overall I enjoyed The Terminal Man even though it took me a while to get into it. It feels a little dated at times but if you are interested in the subject or the author I definitely recommend it. Up next is The Terminal Man movie! I plan on watching it before the end of the weekend so should have another post fairly soon. I need to amend the MCE Timeline to include some older books that I found, that also have movies to go along with them, but up next I have several films before I get into his next book The Great Train Robbery. I have never read this book of Crichton’s before so I am quite interested to see what it is all about.