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by Michael Crichton
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HarperCollins, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, CD

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* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Readers who have in the past entered into Michael Crichton's fictional worlds realize that the physician-turned-author has a knack for writing what his publisher correctly describes as 'spine-tingling thrillers' that are 'genuinely frightening and disturbing.' With Crichton's latest science-based novel, Next, the publisher might also add blatantly nightmarish and downright bizarre to the list of descriptors that readers will attach to their reading experience.

With multiple plot lines running rather helter-skelter through most of the book - but finally converging in something resembling coherence near the end - Next explores the ethically challenged and potentially unlimited world of genetic research.

In one plotline, Frank Burnett has survived leukemia only to realize that his recovery might not be attributable to the medical treatments he endured; in fact, he may have a unique genetic predisposition to suppressing cancer. So, Burnett and his family suddenly become the centers of attention in scientific research, courtroom litigation, and corporate shenanigans as some people are more than a little determined to do absolutely anything it takes to capitalize on Burnett's rare and valuable cancer-fighting abilities. Even murder is a possibility.

In another plotline, Josh Winkler has been busily doing Alzheimer studies at BioGen Research, a southern California biotechnology firm. When his drug addicted brother brashly helps himself to an experimental drug that Josh has been using on laboratory rodents, Josh realizes that he - rather than BioGen - might be on the verge of unlocking the secrets of the so-called 'maturity gene.' If Josh is correct, the potential for scientific (and financial) success is remarkable; however, as even an undergraduate biology student knows, there are huge differences between mice and men, so Josh's optimism seems headed for a very dramatic course correction when his brother changes more than anyone could have predicted.

Then, in another plotline, Dr. Henry Kendall makes a bizarre discovery in which his past will irrevocably intrude upon his (and others') present and future. When Kendall was working earlier at the National Institute of Health (NIH), he was involved in research which sought to explain and understand the genetic similarities between chimpanzees and humans. Now working at Radial Genomics in San Diego, Kendall realizes that chimps and humans are even more similar than anyone could have possibly imagined. In fact, an offspring of one of the NIH chimps is about to forever alter Kendall's (and the world's) perceptions about the genetic similarities and possibilities.

So, take these three plotlines, throw in several others just for good measure, add in plenty of science and suspense - all adding up to a compelling novel - and you have a partial preview of Michael Crichton's latest look into a so-called future that is actually the here-and-now.

However, there is something else in Crichton's novel: wry, sardonic, and bizarre in his attempts at humor, the author too frequently moves off into directions that seem to get in the way of an otherwise damned good story, especially when transgenic animals (which are anthropomorphic in too many ways) become all-too-human in their behaviors. Even as SF or fantasy, which Next is not, these over-the-top characters interfere with the success of the book. With that being said, I'll say no more than this: In an epigraph at the beginning of the book, the author says, 'This novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren't.' With respect to his blending of fiction and nonfiction, I would have preferred that Crichton had shown a little more restraint in the fictional parts wherein not even a Dr. Doolittle is needed to talk to the animals. Enough said!

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