PW: Why did you pick nanotechnology gone amok as the subject matter for Prey?
Michael Crichton: Well, I found myself thinking about Frankenstein, you know? I'd given a speech at the American Association for the Advancement of Science a while ago talking about how all of our images of science and scientists were so outdated, and it occurred to me that the image we have of Frankenstein is of Boris Karloff staggering around with a bolt in his neck—and if a monster is created and gets loose in the 21st century, it's probably going to look quite different from that. I also think we're coming to a time when we have to look at a range of self-reproducing technologies and address them. That's something that in terms of human technologies is relatively recent.
PW: The novel is very much a cautionary tale. How scared should we be?
MC: The technology is a serious subject of concern. You have somebody like [Eric] Drexler, who is the leading proponent [of nanotechnology], saying that this stuff makes him queasy—and that's as far up the intellectual food chain as you can go in this field. I think that the notion that we have some time to address it and that we may be able to draw some analogies to our ongoing experience with biotechnology may be helpful for us. But this is a technology that's going to have to be regulated, with serious intent, and regulated worldwide.
I do think that it's sort of our nature to put up the traffic light after the fatal accident. And we may be dealing with technologies that are not so forgiving, that won't wait for round two. But I've always been an optimist about this. I think we need to pay attention, and I think in terms of technologies that we have experience with, we are starting to pay attention.
PW: The book opens with a quotation that warns that a new class of organisms will emerge "within 50 to 100 years." It seems as if we're looking at a shorter time frame than that.
MC: Oh, I think so, too. I think an object lesson is that, around the time Jurassic Park came out, people were saying mammalian cloning was 20 years in the future. And it turned out to be six years or so.
PW: A subplot that runs through the book concerns sexual politics, especially in the novel's first third, where you have the father and former breadwinner out of a job and taking care of the kids while his wife is now the moneymaker—and she is acting erratically and may be having an affair. Why did you put that in?
MC: Well, for me the book began with an image of a successful businesswoman coming home and hitting her kids, and beginning to act strange toward her own children. It was an image that I'd had for maybe four years. I kept thinking, "What is that about?" Because it kept coming up. Finally, it seemed to attach itself to this story. I don't know if I have a better explanation.
PW: This is your first book with HarperCollins. What's it like being there?
MC: So far it's terrific. Jane [Friedman, Harper CEO] has been my friend for, oh my God, 20 something years. There was a period when the book was delayed, and she was just great about it. I was on an 8 a.m. flight [out of JFK] going to Los Angeles [on September 11]. And Jane called me up to talk about it and commiserate about it and she never, ever mentioned the book. She's a remarkable person.
PW: What sort of publicity are you doing for the book?
MC: We're setting the schedule now, but I'll be doing a tour. I ordinarily do one [that lasts about] two weeks.
PW: The announced first printing is two million. How do you think your readership will respond to this one?
MC: I have no idea. I've kind of trained myself to not think about that. If you try and do what you think they'll want, it's death. For one thing, I think the readers will probably smell it, and for another thing, you probably can't anticipate very well. I just kind of write it, and then it's written. [Laughter]