A Surprise Michael Crichton

Thursday, November 04, 2010

It all started with The Barber of Seville...I was taking my class to a local university to see a Lyric Opera special one-hour performance of the show, and when I got on the bus I realized that there was nowhere to sit!  This meant leaving my students in the care of the other teachers and following the bus in my car.  By the time I found parking and entered the theater, it was dark, the performance had started, and I couldn't find my class.  I was not too pleased at the thought of sitting in the lobby for an hour waiting, until I remembered that I had passed a used book sale in the student commons.  Suddenly, an hour of boredom turned into a stolen hour of reading.  Huzzah!

The book that I chose was a beat-up paperback copy of Airframe by Michael Crichton.  I had been fairly certain that I read all of Crichton's books, so reading this novel was a surprise in more ways than one.  Airframe is the story of TransPacific flight 545.  One a flight from Hong Kong to the US, something happened that caused the plane to rapidly climb and descend, called porpoising.  The incident left 3 people dead, 56 injured, and the cabin in shambles.  It also left Norton Aviation, makers of the aircraft, with a lot of questions, a rabid journalist on their tail, and a company-saving deal with China in jeopardy.  Casey Singleton, part of the quality assurance team and the public face of the investigation into the accident, must navigate not just the waters of public opinion and outrage, but also something shady going on in her own company, as she rushes to find answers.

Like many of Crichton's books, Airframe is full of interesting scientific and technical jargon presented in a way that the average reader can understand.  I now know more about airplane construction and instrumentation that I certainly ever expected to.  I don't know how he does it, but in Airframe Crichton takes a story with very little actual action and makes it exciting.  Sure, there is the occasional union action or airplane ride to liven things up, but a lot of this book is basically people talking about aircraft or business deals, and I still couldn't put it down.

I also found myself in the rather strange position for a liberal American of feeling sorry for a large corporation.  You know an author is good if they can make a large non-human institution sympathetic.  Crichton's chosen protagonist, Casey Singleton, is very easy to  like, and the interesting cast of characters that surround her make the company feel more like a rather dysfunctional extended family than a workplace.  When the unscrupulous producer from a prime-time news show takes her limited knowledge of airplanes and tries to turn it into a story about the Norton "deathtrap", I actually felt angry on behalf of the makers of the airplane.  Now, I'll be the first to say I think that some media outlets have gone way too far to create stories out of nothing that distort the truth, but I'm not usually feeling that way in defense of a major corporation.  While I've become increasingly sure over the years I have read his books that Michael Crichton and I probably disagreed about every major political issue in the last few decades, somehow I am sucked into his world in spite of myself.

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