Crichton's latest warns about genetic technology

Michael Crichton: Give Michael Crichton a millimeter, and he'll take a mile.

That's how it works with America's favorite science fictionalizer - show him a scientific advance that's as mystifying as the metric system, and in no time he'll conjure up a crowd-pleasing swashbuckler replete with time-traveling archaeologists, killer nanomachines or reconstituted dinosaurs.

This time it's biotechnology that's under Crichton's lens. In "Next," he depicts a world where suburban parents are raising human-chimpanzee hybrids along with their natural children, who are doing their arithmetic homework with the help of pet parrots that are so smart they can add, subtract and reveal marital infidelity.

Clearly, Crichton means to warn us that biotechnology is woefully unregulated, its power unappreciated by politicians and the general public.

Unfortunately, this lesson isn't as entertaining as some that Crichton has offered in the past. In "Jurassic Park," he pushed the science just past credibility to create a gripping thriller set in a fantasy world so rich that anyone with an ounce of imagination would gladly suspend pounds of disbelief for the privilege of visiting.

But "Next" never quite makes that leap into the fantastic. Even when it ventures into territory where science has not yet, and almost certainly will never tread, the book just doesn't grab the imagination the way those dinosaurs did. It just flits among various unrelated characters and plot lines, only some of which eventually come together.

Much of the book revolves around BioGen, a troubled California biotech company that is having problems developing a "maturity" gene therapy that is supposed to cure irresponsible behavior and drug addiction. The company also owns a line of cells derived from a man whose biochemistry allowed him to beat cancer. But he doesn't want to share.

Then there's the menagerie; you might as well be reading "Doctor Doolittle" for all the talking animals. We meet an orangutan in the Sumatran jungle that curses at tourists in French and Dutch, though nobody knows where it came from or how it acquired such a colorful vocabulary.

The parrot comes from a French laboratory, where it has been injected with human genes that enable it not just to mimic language, but to speak it. The bird clearly must have received a piece of Y-chromosome, because it has the same habit of constantly quoting popular songs and movies that is so distressingly common among certain males of the human species.

But the real spectacle is the "humanzee," a human-chimp hybrid created illicitly by a scientist in a federal laboratory. The humanzee doesn't speak as fluently as the parrot, but its instinctual primate social behaviors make it the perfect addition to a human family.

"Next" is bound to make a great movie. You can't go wrong with sinister corporate misdeeds, killer viruses, bounty hunters and talking animals. But with so many confusing plot elements flying, swinging and knuckle-walking about, Crichton's latest book is nearly as hard to follow as the complicated, fast-moving and ethically charged scientific field on which it is based.