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Scientists Beware!
by Michael Crichton

Reviewed by
Kate Dalke

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In Michael Crichton’s latest novel, Prey, a team of irresponsible scientists cooks up a swarm of self-replicating robots bent on devouring every living thing. Next thing you know, micro-robots are threatening to take over the world.

The robots have a collective mind and will of their own. They are solar-powered, endowed with memory and cognition, and evolve and reproduce at a rapid pace. The swarms can take over the human body, turning people—their targets are usually scientists—into micro-robotic zombies.

Sound far-fetched? Well, it is. This novel isn’t based on the latest peer-reviewed research, but can you read on?

Sure, although the first 100 pages are slow going. Here we meet Jack, an unappreciated stay-at-home dad, who is unsatisfied and looking for work. He has flip-flopped from a cutting edge computer programmer to Mr. Mom—diaper shopper, placement coordinator and taxi service.

But when Jack is called out to the Nevada desert to save his wife’s high-tech venture capital company from tanking, the story picks up. Crichton’s blend of computer programming, genetics and nanotechnology is engaging enough, as when scientists use computer programs to solve problems based on how bees and ants behave socially.

‘Suspend your disbelief and super-size the microwave popcorn.’

Prey is pure fantasy, with a dash of science. A microbrewery (that resembles an octopus) churns out E. coli bacteria that make molecular assemblers, which then create micro-robots. These robots learn and evolve simply by watching humans. And a bottle of viruses that kill bacteria turns out to be the magic weapon against the enemy.

Seems like the novel doesn’t take itself too seriously? Well, unfortunately it does. Crichton’s preachy and unconvincing introduction lectures the reader on the pitfalls of nanotechnology, including the unknown consequences of creating artificial, self-reproducing organisms.

In fact, scientists have been talking for years about the dangers of nanotechnology and precautions that should be taken in order to ensure responsible development of this technology. Prey might just be scariest to scientists who have tried to tell the public what nanotechnology can and cannot do.

If you’re a computer scientist, biologist, or physicist, you might just steer clear of Prey and its gross generalizations. Except for Jack and his sidekick, every researcher is a reckless, money-grubbing glory hound. And it’s doubtful that molecular assembly could “change human life in a matter of days—as soon as someone figured out how to do it.”

But if you want to be entertained and can put aside the science, do read Prey. It’s scary: Just when you’re tiring of Crichton’s cardboard characters and sloppy science, you’ll find yourself breathless and sweaty in the middle of the Nevada desert, running from a swarm of micro-robots.

It’s kind of like running from angry, genetically engineered dinosaurs on a Caribbean island in Jurassic Park, also by this author.

Prey will probably make a blockbuster summer movie someday. If you can suspend your disbelief, super-size the microwave popcorn and get cozy on the couch, you’ll like the book.

For information about nanotechnology visit the Foresight Institute

Crichton, Michael. Prey. HarperCollins Publishers, New York (2002).

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