'Micro' Picks Up Where Michael Crichton Left Off

In the new scientific thriller novel Micro, the author weaves a story of nano-technology, corporate greed and murder. Best-selling sci-fi author Michael Crichton started the book, but died in 2008 before it was finished. Audie Cornish talks to writer Richard Preston, who completed the novel after Crichton's death.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Three years ago, author and screenwriter Michael Crichton died of cancer, leaving behind a partially-written manuscript. When Crichton's family decided to publish that manuscript posthumously, they turned to fiction and science writer Richard Preston to help. Preston got the first part of the book that would be named "Micro" and a handful of Crichton's notebooks filled with handwritten scrawls.

RICHARD PRESTON: And then there were lists of things. For example, a list of the kinds of creatures that might be threatening - ants, birds, termites, question mark, and then he remarked: there are no termites in Hawaii.

CORNISH: Richard Preston spoke to us from studios in Princeton, New Jersey. The lists, he says, were a guideline for him to flesh out the story of a group of promising young science researchers who are lured into working for a mysterious technology firm.

PRESTON: These students end up in Hawaii with this technology firm run by a guy who turns out to be a total sociopath. And he has a giant machine that will shrink objects down to a fraction of their former size, including living organisms, including humans. So, these seven students get shrunk down to about half-an-inch tall. They become micro-humans. And then they end up abandoned in the rainforest of Oahu and they have to somehow find their way home. It's a story that has a kind of an odyssey quality to it. And what happens to them after they get into the rainforest is they begin encountering micro-monsters. And you can think of creatures the size of Tyrannosaurus Rex that are armored and equipped with shearing mandibles and chemical weapons. So, we're talking about pretty serious challenges here.

CORNISH: And, of course, these creatures you're describing are ants, birds, owls, all kinds of grubs. I mean, they're insects, basically.

PRESTON: Yes. And, to us, they seem somewhat harmless but Michael Crichton had this marvelous insight into the natural world, which is that we human beings are actually giants on the scale of size and nature. We are more akin to blue whales and redwood trees than we are to most forms of life on the planet, which are much, much smaller than we are. So, you know, I went around and I did a lot of research. Michael was scrupulous about is scientific research. And the species that appear in "Micro" are all the real thing, and I also took care to set them accurately in their ecosystem. So, for example, we have - I don't want to give too much away here - but we have an appearance of bats in the story. It's the Hawaiian Hoary bat. Now, to a micro-human, a Hoary bat is about the size of a Boeing 757 jet. And it's armed with a jaw, fangs that look eerily like those of a lion. And it also is equipped with ultrasonic sonar, which it uses to identify prey.

CORNISH: And all of this sounds - this is all as horrifying as it comes off in the book when you get to these scenes. It's scary.

PRESTON: Oh yeah. I mean, Michael Crichton, he dispatches a number of characters in this story in wonderfully Crichtonesque grizzly fashion, which is something I like to do in my own writing. When I was working on one of my books - I think it might have been "Demon in the Freezer" - that's about smallpox - and I was working with my editor, and at one point she put her hands on her head and said, oh, Richard, you're just a 14-year-old boy who likes to gross out the girls. I think Michael Crichton had something of that in him too.

CORNISH: One difference that I see sort of in reading the criticism of your work and Michael Crichton is that you're praised for humanizing scientists in your fiction and nonfiction. Critics of Crichton often said he did the opposite. And this book does follow the model of Crichton works, in that you have a kind of mad scientist figure.

PRESTON: Mad scientists are so great for drama about science. The thing about scientific disasters is that you have to be extremely intelligent to create a true scientific horror. I think that's what attracted Michael dramatically to the mad scientist scene. But also, I think our world shares a sense of skepticism and even fear of science, because science often brings us a double-edged sword. Let me put it this way: it seems to me that when a really true advance comes along, like biotechnology, for example, that biotechnology can be used as medicine to save human lives but these very same technologies can also be used for the creation of biological weapons to extinguish lives in a highly efficient way. So, essentially becomes a reflection of the dual nature of the human soul. And when science is misused in terrible ways, it's not the fault of nature, it's the fault of ourselves.

CORNISH: Do you think that is Crichton's legacy in a way when it comes to science writing - shining a light on that duality?

PRESTON: I think at heart Michael Crichton was an optimist, actually. I think he was absolutely in love with science and technology and he yearned, as I do, to explain its wonders to regular people. For "Micro," the real wonder is not the science itself but it's the spectacle of nature seen on a different scale. The beauty of the micro world is just it's incomparable.

CORNISH: Author Richard Preston co-wrote the new novel "Micro," out now. It's a book he recently completed for author Michael Crichton, who died in 2008 at age 66. Richard Preston joined us from studios in Princeton, New Jersey. Thank you so much for talking with me.

PRESTON: Thank you.

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