Michael Crichton has always been a writer more concerned with Big Ideas and scientific rigor than in developing believable characters and relationships – and that’s fine up to a point. But when the central conflict of your book revolves around whether or not the main characters are going to survive their encounter with a strange and mysterious entity, you need at least some reason to care about whether or not they make it out alive. In Crichton’s Sphere, he unfortunately abandons the book’s most interesting ideas and implications in favor of the frenzied survival of a group of arrogant, self-centered, childish characters we have no emotional connection with. While it follows the same basic formula as The Andromeda Strain (diverse team of scientists are brought together to investigate a strange phenomenon that has the possibility of affecting all of humanity), the story ends up devolving into a basic psychological thriller/action/monster movie. And although the fascinating premise is able to sustain the suspense and intrigue for a good part of the book, in the end it’s not enough to rescue it from a profound lack of characterization or insight.
The book begins as a group of scientists are brought to a naval vessel in the Pacific Ocean under the guise of investigating some sort of plane crash. Norman Johnson (psychologist), Harry Adams (mathematician), Beth Halpern (biologist), and Ted Fielding (astrophysicist) are are taken below the surface to a deep-sea habitat where they are shown exactly what “crashed” in the ocean (hint: it wasn’t a plane). In fact, it’s actually a spacecraft. While their investigation initially assumes the craft is of extraterrestrial origin, they soon discover that it’s an American ship, having traveled back in time before it was constructed. But that’s not even the weirdest thing about the discovery. Upon further investigation, the crew discover a giant mysterious sphere made of an unknown material. Deducing that it was some sort of artifact picked up by the ship when traveling through whatever worm-hole like phenomenon was able to transport them back through time, they try to open it to learn more about where it came from and what it is.
When the crew learn that there is now a raging storm up on the surface and that all of the military vessels had to evacuate, they start to realize that they may have to survive down there for a while without any help. After a series of unsuccessful attempts at penetrating the sphere, Harry is somehow able to mysteriously open it up and enter. But when he returns, he is unable to tell them anything about what happened inside the sphere. That’s when things start getting really strange. First, the scientists started to get coded messages from the ship’s computer (even though outside communication has been cut off). Harry, the mathematical genius, is able to figure out the code and determines that it’s coming from whatever entity is contained in the sphere. When the demanding, childlike temperament of the entity becomes bored with their conversation, a host of strange sea creatures start appearing around the habitat, culminating in a giant squid which tries to tear it apart. The scientists eventually come to the conclusion that the entity, named “Jerry,” is somehow able to manifest these creatures basically from thin air. But as the creatures become more and more aggressive, and the scientists become more and more unstable and frightened, we start to realize that there may be more going on than just a malevolent entity trying to harm the crew.
Crichton undoubtedly still has the ability to create taut, suspenseful scenarios interspersed with fascinating scientific tidbits that help lend an air of credibility to these fantastical events. And his flair for cinematic writing is part of the reason that so many of his books have been adapted into movies. But in Sphere, the exposition is clunky in a way that makes it seem more like the characters are talking just to help inform the reader about a specific topic that the author wants them to know about, rather than in a way that is natural for their character or makes sense in the context of the scene. While Crichton presents some interesting ideas, they seem more like talking points than real things people would say (especially in a tense, dangerous environment a mile below the sea). And because we know very little about these characters, aside from a few basic psychological traits that seem to define each of them (Beth resents the lack of respect that women scientists get, Ted is arrogant and just cares about his legacy, Harry was a child prodigy who grew to resent everyone, etc.), when Crichton tries to explore the psychological implications of their interaction with the Sphere, we aren’t as invested in the outcome as we could have been.
As a fun beach read, you could certainly do a lot worse than Sphere. But if you’re looking for something a bit more substantial and compelling, I’d probably give this one a pass.
Buy Michael Crichton’s Sphere