For most of my life, I have been fascinated by the ocean but slightly terrified by it, by the sheer vastness of the sea, such a foreign environment for humans, the alien nature of the creatures within. I have noticed this sensation growing worse as I grow older. Still, stories like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and films like The Abyss stir my imagination as much as stories of interstellar explorers. I even enjoyed SeaQuest DSV. When I heard that Drew Scanlon and Dan Ryckert of my favorite video game website giantbomb.com were going to read Michael Crichton’s Sphere, watch the 1998 film, and then record a special edition of their podcast and that the story was set at the bottom of the ocean, I scurried to my local bookshop and snapped up the last copy on the shelf.
The military has discovered something at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. They say they don’t know what it is or where it came from so they collect a group of civilian scientists to help them study it. What the object turned out to be surprised me but what was within disappointed me. Still, the story was fun and Crichton’s inclusion of scientific debate by the characters gave me something interesting to consider. One thing Michael Crichton did well, at least in the novels I have read, is express scientific ideas via fictional narrative. He tricked unsuspecting readers into thinking about things like evolution, astrophysics, psychology, and ethics among others. In Sphere, as in his smash hit Jurassic Park, Crichton collects a group of scientists from varying disciplines and throws them into a situation that challenges their understanding of the existing world and the way they think about it and in doing so, challenges the reader as well. I found their discussions the most interesting aspect of the novel, my enjoyment of the action falling secondary.
One area of the novel I that felt was deficient was an exploration of the sense of claustrophobia I suspect one might feel living in a habitat at the bottom of the ocean. This was a military installation, not the Ritz Carlton del Mar. Crichton does describe the habitat as cramped and on one occasion, a character mentions they feel as though they have been buried alive in a tomb but aside from that, there wasn’t much made of the psychological effects – even with a psychologist on staff – on humans unaccustomed to living in such conditions with no possibility of escape. They couldn’t just step outside for fresh air. Even on the few occasions when the characters left the habitat, they were stuffed inside uncomfortable and restrictive diving suits. That would drive some folks stir crazy.
Okay, so perhaps the characters were too distracted by other events to fall victim to cabin fever. Those other events involve some pretty awful things (this is a Crichton novel so it is no spoiler to say some characters don’t survive) but they do not seem to faze anyone. “Huh… well, that happened” seems to be the predominant attitude regarding the horrific demise of many of the characters. It just didn’t ring true. I’d even be okay with characters experiencing shock or disbelief during these moments, but instead they just sort of move on with their day.
These gripes aside, Sphere is a thrilling page-turner. The story is suspenseful, has a cinematic pace, and the academic discussions are thought-provoking. It is easy to see why so many of Michael Crichton’s novels were translated to the screen. It is not my favorite of Crichton’s works (that honor belongs to Jurassic Park), but it is worth reading if you enjoy adventure tales.