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The trouble with small details

By Walt Braun

Michael Crichton, who died while writing “Micro,” had no peer when it came to conjuring up complicated plots around scientific themes. That was the case with his first novel, “The Andromeda Strain,” it was the case with “Jurassic Park, and it was the case with “Timeline” and many, if not most, of his other novels.

So it is again with “Micro,” except instead of the science involving dinosaur DNA or technology that transports people back to the Middle Ages, the science in Crichton’s last novel is nanotechnology. In short, nanotech is the manipulation of matter on an atomic or molecular scale. As the plot reveals, nanotechnology has all sorts of application, not the least of which are medical and military uses.

In “Micro,” the company performing the research is Nanigen MicroTechnologies. It’s ruled by Vin Drake, who stays a step ahead of federal investigators, perhaps through military contracts, He recruits a handful of talented grad students specializing in botany, entomology, arachnology, venom and other fields. They all know one another, more as rivals than as friends, and they’re all quite capable.

One of them, Peter Jansen, has a brother who’s an executive in Nanigen, which is doing exotic research in the Pali area of Oahu. Peter’s brother sells the grad students on working for Nanigen, but he disappears in a suspicious boating accident before they fly to Hawaii. His last communication is a cryptic message to Peter warning, “Don’t come.”

Of course Peter and his peers go to Hawaii, where Peter learns enough to realize that Drake and his attractive assistant were involved in his brother’s disappearance.

When Peter, using a hidden microphone, tricks Drake into acknowledging to everyone in the lab that he was behind Peter’s brother’s disappearance, Drake turns on Peter and the other grad students.

Drake has them miniaturized — think “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” without the humor.

He plans to dispose of them by allowing natural predators — ants, spiders, wasps and birds - to feast on them. When one is a quarter-inch tall, an ant is a formidable enemy. And if the humans aren’t killed by bugs, their tiny bodies will begin breaking down after several days and they’ll die.

In coping with predators larger they are, the students are using what humans for ages have used — brains. So while these young scientists marvel at the myriad living things crawling about the soil of Oahu - things they couldn’t even see at their former size — they’re able to use their education and lab experience to fashion some weapons. Some are sharp, others are toxic, but those weapons and their own wits will have to keep them alive long enough to get back to Nanigen, return to their former size and deal with Drake.

Some of them do survive and reach the lab - courtesy of some of the company’s mechanical miniatures —and realize they have an ally they didn’t know existed. Perhaps it will be enough to help them combat yet another insidious opponent, one so small as to be unnoticeable until it strikes.

Among the highlights of “Micro” are the adventures the graduate students face on the ground. For them it’s a time of discovery for as well as a time of great fear. The authors find plausible ways to explain the grad students’ areas of expertise as well as some of nanotechnology’s strengths and weaknesses - and apply them to their story line. However, their villain, Vin Drake, is a cliché.

Crichton will be missed. Fortunately, Richard Preston, who was chosen to finish “Micro,” was up to the task. A bestselling author before “Micro,” he has won he American Institute of Physics Award and is the only individual who is not a physician to receive the Centers for Disease Control’s Champion of Prevention Aware for Public Health.

The writer is editorial page editor of The Mercury.

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