DRAGON TEETH, by Michael Crichton. Harper, 295 pp., $28.99.
Imagine this: One of the world’s bestselling authors seeks to outwit death by devising a technology that uploads his brain functions into an artificial intelligence that can continue to churn out page-turners after his demise.
Once the author has died, the AI starts writing — and at first things look rosy for everyone involved. But gradually, the books get weaker — the plots sketchily drawn, the characters undeveloped. In the face of diminishing sales, both the heirs and the publisher decide to unplug the robo-writer in order to preserve the reputation of the mortal one.
Sound like the plot to a Michael Crichton novel? The combination of cutting-edge technology, greed and hubris was the key to his greatest works, from “The Andromeda Strain” to “Jurassic Park.”
In fact, a much more prosaic version of that plot is playing out in real life, as Crichton’s estate publishes manuscripts found in the author’s computers after his death in 2008. “Dragon Teeth,” the third posthumous novel, is a historical thriller set during the 19th century rush to find dinosaur fossils in the American West. According to an afterword by Crichton’s widow, Sherri, its origins can be traced to a correspondence that began in 1974 between the author and Edwin H. Colbert, the late curator of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. (She doesn’t tell us when the manuscript was composed or if Crichton wanted to publish it.)
So the pitch is that “Dragon Teeth” is a precursor to “Jurassic Park.” The main character is a callow Yalie, William Johnson, who heads west in 1876 to hunt for dinosaur bones with the renowned (and real-life) “bone hunter” Othniel Charles Marsh.
Johnson soon finds himself a pawn in the battle that Marsh is waging with his paleontological archrival Edwin Drinker Cope (also real) in and around Montana Territory. There’s backstabbing and head-scalping (courtesy of the Crow and Sioux), a love interest and instructions on how to unearth fossils: “One did not just bang a fossilized bone out of the rock. . . . One studied the position of the fossil, tapped the stone with a chisel when necessary, hammered vigorously only rarely.”
The novel skids from remote train depots to fossil sites to Deadwood in the Dakota Territory, where Wyatt Earp is drafted for the plot’s creaky denouement.
Modern readers who grew up accepting dinosaurs as fact may be taken aback by the turmoil their discovery caused. The first paleontologists were considered heretics by most religious people since the existence of dinosaurs could not be squared with a literal reading of the Bible.
Then, too, Crichton writes, “as eagerly as religious men sought to discredit the doctrine of evolution, so wealthy men sought to promote it. In the principle of the survival of the fittest they saw a new, scientific justification for their own rise to prominence, and their own often unscrupulous way of life.”
Many nonfiction books have been written about Marsh and Cope, and their toxic rivalry has all the elements needed for a superlative work of historical fiction. Doubtless the mature Michael Crichton could have knocked this one out of the park. But the Crichton who penned “Dragon Teeth” was not up to the task. Already adept at weaving together a fabric of scientific and historical sources, he didn’t bother (or hadn’t yet learned) how to build a narrative structure on which to hang it.
In her afterword, Sherri Crichton writes that “honoring Michael’s legacy has been my mission ever since he passed away.”
I’m grateful to the estate for giving the green light to HBO’s mind-bending adaptation of Crichton’s 1973 film “Westworld.”
But half-baked works like “Dragon Teeth” should probably remain buried in his archives.