There’s no shortage of doomsday scenarios out there. Glance through the daily news and
take your pick. We will soon destroy ourselves through nuclear weapons or climate change
or political malfeasance or biological terrorism or just sheer stupidity. And if those don’t
get you scared, pundits have a hundred other options, some in small case (asteroid
impact, solar flare), others in bold capital letters (the Rapture, the Singularity).

Pick your poison!

But the most subversive notion of all is a seemingly
benign one: namely, the idea that we will
entertain
ourselves to death
. Only a few iconoclastic writers
have tackled this very idea in recent years, perhaps
most notably David Foster Wallace in
Infinite Jest,
where he describes a video so mesmerizing that
viewers can’t stop watching it. (I note that Wallace
opts for the big capital letter here too, calling his
destructive film
The Entertainment—and also
that his working title for
Infinite Jest had been A
Failed Entertainment
.) Around the time Wallace
died by suicide in 2008, I started seeing people
everywhere staring into small screens—so addicted
that they had to carry those screens with them
wherever they went. He didn't live long enough to
experience smartphone addiction, but he v
ery
much anticipated it in his most famous book.  

Horror fiction has rarely tackled this scenario. After
all, how scary can entertainment be? Is there really
much room for suspense and dramatic tension in
death by diversion?
Yet a handful of genre writers
have explored this notion.  Kathe Koja, in
The Cipher, presents us with a group of
slackers who can’t stop watching a videotape made inside a bite-sized black hole. Even
earlier, Robert W. Chambers explored the notion of a dangerous literary work, called
The King in Yellow, that destroyed the lives of all who stumble across it.  

But no one did more for the notion of "death by entertainment" than Michael Crichton.
More than any other author, Crichton grasped that this story line possessed untapped
dramatic potential. The problem with tales such as
The King in Yellow is that they work
better as concepts than plot devices. Few things are less suspenseful than an account
of someone dying by sitting in a comfy chair and reading a book or watching a video.
(Just thinking about that puts me in mind of that
Monty Python comfy chair Inquisition
skit.) But Crichton smartly realized that death by entertainment in an era of advanced
technology could involve some very terrifying spectacles indeed.

Crichton
first explored the dark side of entertainment in his 1973 film Westworld
for which he served as screenwriter and director.  He found movie studios reluctant
to make this film about a high tech amusement park that can prove fatal to its paying
customers. Who can be surprised when you consider its implicit commentary on

the entertainment industry? Crichton claimed he offered this story to every major
studio. "They all turned down the project except for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer….
Nobody who had a choice made a picture at Metro, but then we didn't have a
choice." The studio, for its part, kept a tight control on the budget, which was around
one million dollars, and forced Crichton to film the entire movie in just 30 days. Yet
the end result was not just a highly profitable film, but that most craved of all
Hollywood ambitions: a brand franchise. The success of the recent HBO
Westworld
TV series shows that Crichton’s vision can still grab audiences almost a half-century
after his initial cinematic treatment.

But Crichton had an even bigger vision for death by
entertainment, which he unleashed on his readers
17 years later with his novel
Jurassic Park. This
too would turn into a hit film and brand franchise.
Universal secured movie rights in a bidding war
involving four studios, even before the book’s
publication, and Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film
adaptation became the highest-grossing film ever
at the time of its release.

I’m hardly surprised. Death by entertainment
becomes much more interesting when the
entertainers are enormous dinosaurs. The spectacle
of a T-rex chasing a jeep or velociraptors stalking
frightened children is sure to grab an audience’s
attention. In the heat of the action, the more
philosophical aspects of the story might get lost
in the jungle mist. That’s a shame, because Crichton
has many important things to say about the
shallowness of a society obsessed with entertainment
and the irresponsibility of scientists in the under-regulated world of genetic and
biological science. You don’t need to go to Westworld to experience a Wild West
free-for-all; just read about the experiments underway at labs around the world to
come up with human-animal hybrids or lay the groundwork for DNA-build slave servers.
But if Crichton’s message is dwarfed by his dinos, it’s not because is message is too
small-minded. It’s just because those dinosaurs are so bloody large.

The plot could hardly be simpler. An obsessed business man named John Hammond
has found a way to bring back extinct dinosaurs from DNA strands embedded in amber.
He embarks on a plan to create a dinosaur theme park on an island off the coast of Costa
Rica, where well-heeled tourists can see these Jurassic era creatures up close and
personal.

But delays and cost overruns have raised the suspicions of his investors. To allay their
concerns, Hammond agrees to bring a small team of experts to the island to view Jurassic
Park in advance of its official opening. He hopes to secure their vote of confidence, and
reignite the enthusiasm of his nervous backers.   In this tense situation, paleontologist
Alan Grant, paleobotanist Ellie Staler, mathematician Ian Malcolm and lawyer Donald
Gennaro arrive in Isla Nublar, where the top secret park in is the final stages of
preparation.

Crichton adds a few interesting subplots—a rival company is trying to steal dinosaur
embryos, babies in Costa Rica are getting bitten or devoured by mysterious ‘lizards’, etc.
But the power in Crichton’s writing isn’t the narrative arc—or prose style or character
development. His strong suit is his science, learned during Crichton’s student days at
Harvard and Harvard Medical School.  

From the moment he made his reputation, with the amazing bestseller
The Andromeda
Strain
from 1969, this author grabbed readers with the eerie plausibility that he imparted
to his tales through the careful gathering and presentation of the scientific methodology
of his characters. When you read
The Andromeda Strain, you believed in the possibility
of a disease spreading in just the manner outlined in Crichton’s pages. And when you
saw
Westworld or Jurassic Park, you found enough of it credible to get you thinking—
and worrying—about the entertainment options of the future.  In a revealing admission,
Crichton once mentioned that people misunderstood
Westworld as a story about
technology malfunction. Instead, they should have focused on the motives of the
people running the theme park. That, he felt, was the real locus of danger.

The same could be said of
Jurassic Park. The obvious monsters are those huge dinosaurs.
But the real problem is the people who brought them back to life. How odd to think that
the scariest things in this story aren't the T-rex and the velociraptor, but that person in
the three-piece suit, and that other one in the white lab coat.

Too bad they don’t make brand franchises about the people who create the brand
franchises. But that may be the most compelling horror story of them all, and it’s laid
out in Crichton’s oeuvre for those who have the eyes to see it.  Yet how many people
even consider that his entertaining stories are actually a critique of entertainment? Maybe
the audience should mull over that idea. For a start, they might consider turning their
attention away from that flickering screen in their hands and wonder, instead, why they
are holding it in the first place.


Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.


Publication Date: December 12, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
annus
horribilis
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
Dracula
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
Carrie
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
Tales
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
Nausea
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
Rebecca
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
Psycho
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
Fledgling
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
Grendel
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Week 35
King Kong
by Edgar Wallace

Week 36
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole

Week 37
The John Silence Stories
by Algernon Blackwood

Week 38
The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

Week 39
The Other
by Thomas Tryon

Week 40
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

Week 41
Ghost Story
by Peter Straub

Week 42
John Dies at the End
by David Wong

Week 43
The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

Week 44
The Cipher
by Kathe Koja

Week 45
Let the Right One In
by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Week 46
The Nameless
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 47
Horrorstör
by Grady Hendrix

Week 48
Strangers
by Taichi Yamada

Week 49
World War Z
by Max Brooks

Week 50
Jurassic Park
by Michael Crichton
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

Death by Entertainment

A Look Back at Michael Crichton's Westworld and Jurassic Park
Essay by Ted Gioia
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.
Fledgling

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gardner, John
Grendel

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.
Tales

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

_____


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


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