State of Fear, By Michael Crichton, HarperCollins, 603 pp, illustrated, $27.95
Michael Crichton's new novel, his 14th, comes equipped with appendices, an author's message, a 21-page bibliography, graphs and charts in the text, and even footnotes. A disclaimer at the front indicates that this is a work of fiction, but ''footnotes are real."
''State of Fear" is about global warming -- or rather about some pro-environment fanatics who believe in global warming and who will stop at nothing, including attempts at murder and mass destruction, to prove their thesis. Crichton does not believe in global warming, hence the bibliography, the footnotes, and frequent suspension of the plot so that the characters can discuss the hypothesis and related issues.
''Characters" and ''plot" are words perhaps too strong to describe what is going on here. The people in the story have names, but they are not characters in any reasonable sense of the word. Our reluctant hero is a lawyer named Peter Evans. One of his clients, George Morton, is a wealthy philanthropist who supports environmental causes. An institution Morton has generously financed is spinning dangerously out of control, and before he can do anything about it, his car has flipped over on the edge of a cliff, and there is a question of foul play.
This is an issue for Evans because he is a suspect, but it is the least of his problems, what with evil schemes to explode ice fields in Antarctica, flash flood a state park filled with children, and unleash a tsunami on the West Coast -- a frequent real-and-present danger, because Dirk Pitt in one of Clive Cussler's novels has had to avert it before. Not to mention the women who are vying for Evans's attention and affections -- not that anyone would want to participate in a sex scene written by Crichton, in which vixens go to bed wearing stiletto heels that leave ''dark streaks on the sheets." Nor should we neglect the dastardly attempt to poison Evans with an octopus in a plastic bag, a possibility duly substantiated by a footnote that draws attention to a scholarly paper on ''toxins and mode of envenomization of the common ringed or blue-banded octopus."
It is all utterly preposterous and extremely tiresome, especially when padded to spread over nearly 600 pages of breathless but sludgy narrative.
Surprisingly the discussions of global warming and the dangers of politicized science are far more compelling, and Crichton reveals abilities as a satirist; his digressions are far more entertaining than his story. The villains in the story are absurd, but the fools who read all the environmental articles in The New Yorker and believe themselves impeccably informed are entirely believable.
One of the subsidiary characters, for example, is a fading actor whose most famous role was as the president of the United States on a TV series. He has bought into the whole global warming thing and become a spokesman for the theory. We see him shooting an infomercial in a redwood forest. ''These trees are the oldest living things on the planet," he intones. ''They are the guardians of the Earth; they are wise; and they have a message for us: Leave the planet alone."
Soon the superinformed Jennifer Haynes (''an attractive but tough-looking woman in her late twenties, with short dark hair and blue eyes") is setting the TV star straight, giving him a geological history of California and dispelling the romantic mythology of the trees. ''And it's not surprising that one hundred fifty years ago, there was less old-growth forest than there is today." The star is unimpressed by science and history, so it is satisfying that he gets what he deserves when he finds himself among the headhunters on Gareda, in the Solomon Islands.
Or consider a retired professor's diatribe about what has happened to America's universities. ''[They] transformed themselves in the 1980s. Formerly bastions of intellectual freedom in a world of Babbittry, formerly the locus of sexual freedom and experimentation, they now became the most restrictive environments in modern society. Because they had a new role to play. . . . Today [they] are factories of fear. They invent all the new terrors and all the new social anxieties. . . . to be used by politicians, lawyers, and reporters."
So of all unimaginable things, it's possible to read a novel by Michael Crichton for the fun of it -- if you skip all that boring plot stuff -- and he can even leave you thinking.