Zero Cool, by Michael Crichton (as John Lange)

January isn’t typically the time for beach reading, but struggling with a post-travel cold virus led me to take a break from a Frank Herbert book and find something less demanding. Hard Case Crime to the rescue! Now, which author to pick for some dependably shallow reading …

zc alt

Before he wrote his very famous and lucrative techno-thrillers, Michael Crichton (1942-2008) was a medical student who wrote pot-boilers under the name John Lange. The Lange books remained out of print for decades until their emergence under the Hard Case Crime label.

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Gregory Manchess cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

Zero Cool (1969) is the far-fetched tale of Peter Ross, a young radiologist who is beginning a vacation on the shores of Spain’s gold coast. He is supposed to attend a conference in Barcelona at some point, but that’s just to get his airfare paid for. As soon as he can manage, he gets to the beach and meets the flight attendant Angela (that’s her on the Manchess cover). There are a few awkward sentences exchanged between the two, but in accordance to the laws of pulp fiction, she agrees to meet him later.

Unfortunately, that’s where the book starts to go south (yes, on page 20). Peter and Angela’s conversation is interrupted by a raving Spanish man, who insists that Peter not perform an autopsy later in the day. Peter is a radiologist, not a pathologist, and on vacation, and drinking a beer at the time, so he’s not planning on performing an autopsy anyway. A few hours later, another Spanish man, this time accompanied by some suspicious-looking friends, attempt to plead and bribe Peter into performing an autopsy.

In both conversations with mysterious Spanish men, Peter is threatened with death if he performs/does not perform the autopsy. However, we already know that Peter survives his trip intact, because Michael Crichton added a prologue to ZC, featuring a still-alive Peter Ross! Why do this? To spare me the hair-raising suspense? To imply that Peter is an unreliable narrator, when he commits unethical medical procedures or, perhaps, abandons a love-child? My theory is that in his editing ZC for the HCC edition, Crichton felt the desire to disown it in his own peculiar way. If this was the case, it makes my running scorecard of author-renounced genre novels:

  • Survivor, by Octavia Butler
  • The Saliva Tree, by Brian Aldiss
  • The Zap Gun, by Philip K. Dick
  • The Jugger, by Donald Westlake

All of the above made interesting reading in my estimation, but they are all made more interesting when considering what their respective authors thought of them. Butler thought she made the aliens in Survivor too familiar, deriding it as her “Star Trek” novel.** Aldiss claimed to have completely forgotten writing The Saliva Tree, but I found it to be a good, sharp satire of H.G. Wells and his idealistic Socialism. The Zap Gun was a mess of some very interesting concepts and characters. The Jugger was an odd fit into the Parker series, mainly because some un-Parker asides were written into it at the editor’s insistence. Whether ZC and Crichton belong on this list is a more compelling mystery than the events of ZC itself.

As we would expect, Peter soon performs the autopsy, and is also coerced into sewing a heavy package inside the chest cavity of the body. The corpse thus becomes a macguffin to be chased by the competing parties who introduce themselves to Peter throughout the rest of the story. We learn that the package is likely a giant emerald that was once the property of the Aztec civilization, but the historical discussion seems dodgy.

Angela is the most interesting character in ZC, but that’s really by default. There is a large cast of gangsters, villains, other women, cops and even predatory animals, but there is no depth to any of them. I couldn’t bring myself to care who died, who ran away with the giant emerald or who was responsible for all of the dead bodies that keep turning up. The winding plot is a sequence of pulp gimmicks, pushing well beyond the threshold of eye-rolling absurdity:

He glanced at the elevator lights. The elevators were already to the eighth floor. The police were closing in.

He had no choice. He knocked on the door that was ajar and pushed it open.

“Excuse me,” he said as he entered the room and closed the door behind him, “But I’m afraid I –”

He stopped.

And stared, as anyone might, when faced with a beautiful girl, standing in the middle of her apartment at midday, wearing a very sheer nightgown, and beneath that, nothing at all.

“Lover!” she cried, and flung her arms around him.

It might be tempting to compare ZC to Westlake’s comedy God Save the Mark, in which a lifelong target of con artists (a regular schlub named Fred Fitch) suddenly finds himself with a large inheritance. He attracts new friends and interesting women almost by the minute. The difference with the Westlake novel is twofold: God Save the Mark is a farcical statement on the opportunism of ordinary people, and Fred Fitch is an interesting, sympathetic character. ZC is, ignoring the tacked-on prologue and epilogue, given to us as a straight adventure yarn, and Peter Ross is just never interesting. We’re told he has “zero cool,” but his reactions to everything are generally flat – maybe he has too much cool. “Zero cool” would describe my chihuahua.

Despite all of these shortcomings, ZC reads quickly and features plenty of action. I did get to the end without difficulty. 3/10.

NOTE: See this for a more focused and less critical take.

** Butler was, of course, a great author but always struck me as very self-critical. Of the books I’ve read, her central characters consistently and aggressively interrogate themselves.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
This entry was posted in books, crime fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Zero Cool, by Michael Crichton (as John Lange)

  1. bormgans says:

    What Herbert were you reading?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pete says:

    Children of Dune. It’s been about three years since I read Dune: Messiah, the second book, and I know I’m convinced that I underrated it.

    Having read, and thought over, that Poul Anderson story – and that PNAS article on Free Will your site links to, actually – inspired me to pick up on that series again. Paul’s struggle with knowing his future, and thereby being doomed to live it, was something I didn’t really appreciate back when I read Dune: Messiah.

    Getting into Children of Dune, while re-evaluating my experiences with the other two books, required more concentration that I was capable of at the time – so I went for the shallowest-looking HCC book in the local library.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fredfitch says:

      I know what you’re saying, and it’s not as if Herbert wasn’t setting up the conflicts of the later books in the first one. Dune Messiah was a somber comedown from the high-flying triumphalism of Dune, and that was the point.

      But Children of Dune was where I got off the sandworm, and no regrets about that. The ideas may still be valid, but the writing sucks.

      The further Herbert got into that series, the more he was writing it to pay his wife’s medical bills, and I don’t blame him, but they’re both dead now, and I don’t give two solitary shits about that association of money-grubbing grave robbers called The Estate. If only there were some way to terminate copyright early.

      Liked by 2 people

      • pete says:

        My only beef with The Estate is their refusal to allow the 1979 board game (https://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/121/dune) to be republished and updated. There are quite a few home-brewed versions, and I’ve had the good fortune to play one, but the overcomplicated rules need to be distilled by a professional design team. The game (games cannot be complicated, but the thematic content obviously is) has been remade into something called Rex, but what the people want is Dune.

        Like

    • bormgans says:

      I urgently need to reread the whole series, I’ve only read it once, and at the beginning of my onset into speculative fiction, but there’s only so much time, and so many other books to read, so I keep pushing it further. I also have one other none-Dune Herbert novel on my TBR (Soul Catcher) so I guess I’ll read that first before I restart Dune. I’m hoping 2018 though. The second reading should be another experience, even better I hope, as you say, there’s so much you don’t really know to appreciate at the onset of the series.

      I think the last three books are maybe even better, as the tragedy of Leto’s story grows, (and the scale becomes more epic, which I liked a lot in this case). The philosophical implications of his story, and the Golden Path, are something I haven’t fully grasped, as well as Herbert’s take on determinism, so I hope a reread will make things more clear. The 2 sequels by his son & that ghostwriter didn’t really help, obviously, but I guess it is good to know the full construct Herbert intended (or allegedly intented, I’m still waiting for a publication of thet transcript of that 30-pages outline). But maybe the writing indeed sucks as fredfitch says in the comments here. It didn’t really struck me 5 or 6 years ago, but I guess I was a different reader then. Anyhow, I’m guessing I won’t get to Chapterhouse before 2019 or even 2020 so time will tell.

      That PNAS article is great, glad you clicked the link!

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Bear in mind, I’ve only read the first three. I’ve only reread the first. It impressed me more on rereading. But the thing about series fiction is, it can build on its foundation, it can just endlessly restate it–or it can destroy its foundation. (Case in point–Foundation. The trilogy was enough.)

        In the case of Dune, the first book basically said everything Herbert ever had to say with this set-up. There was clearly a lot more story where that came from, but the question was, how much did we need? (A very different question from how much did some people want.)

        “World-building” is often just another way of saying “Milk it for everything it’s worth.” There’s no reason to go on but money (and remember, this is SF–there’s never any money–Herbert must have been amazed. But he needed that money. His wife was dying.)

        So it just goes on and on. And then Herbert dies. And it just goes on and on. There’s no end to it. And there’s no point to it. Because the fact is, he made all his points in the first book, then critiqued them in the second, then tried to wrap it up in the third, and there was never any reason for any of the others. A lot of it winded up as prequel–can I say, with all of my heart, that I despise prequels? A handful are valid. The rest are just another way of milking it dry–while clinging to the past. If they do a Game of Thrones prequel, I’m not watching. If they do a follow-up, I may not watch that either.

        But let me say, as someone who has loved that TV series beyond all measure, I found the books nigh-unreadable (for once, television did the right thing–editing and altering the material down only keeping what worked). And that decades earlier, Frank Herbert did much the same thing in the first Dune novel–and made it work. In print. You will never convince me that Dune was not a primary influence on Fire & Ice.

        There are very few writers I like of whom I would say “You only need to read this book.”

        I mean no disrespect at all, when I say of Frank Herbert, “There are a number of books of his worth reading–the only one you need to read is Dune.”

        Liked by 2 people

      • bormgans says:

        It seems I can’t reply directly to the post on Dune by Fred above, so it goes here. I’m not sure if the first trilogy wraps up everything thematically. The vast scope of the God Emperor and his machinations aren’t on the same level as Paul’s. The themes are linked obviously, but I’d wage Herbert expands on them significantly. I should reread everything to confirm that though. Moreover, the books aren’t only about ideas: there really are great characters in 4-5-6, especially since we get to spend a lot more time with the Bene Gesserit. So also emotionally there is a lot to be found in 4-5-6. Where did you read on Herbert’s financial situation & his wife’s illness? Is it in the biography by Brian?

        I think Foundation 4-5 were also valid additions to 1-3: the concept of Gaia as a kind of animistic interdependent thinking entity was truly profound imo, admittedly maybe in a cheesy way. It was absent in the trilogy, and so I don’t feel 4-5 were an endless restatement of Asimov’s original ideas, let alone that they destroyed its foundation. But 6 & 7 were needless prequels indeed, cashgrabs I guess, boring boring boring, lacking any depth whatsoever.

        Viz. GoT & the books: I couldn’t get through book 1, and I enjoy the series, so we’re very much in agreement there. The last season was a joke though, seems like the writers didn’t take rules inherent to the world building serious anymore, which always is thet death of whatever speculative fiction in whatever medium.

        Liked by 1 person

      • bormgans says:

        (I haven’t come across any Herbert book outside of Dune worth reading btw, there are some reviews on my blog. I’m tackling Soul Catcher right now, 15 pages in, his best non-Dune entry so far, fingers crossed.)

        Like

      • pete says:

        Your mention of Herbert’s financial situation gave me an idea about what the very bizarre 1970 novel “The Whipping Star” may actually have been about. I’ve no idea about his finances either, but I tend to think it’s his ideas, and not his personal life, that drive the content of his works. I just don’t see any compromises for the market in anything I’ve read from him. Food for thought while I’m making my way through Dune 3…

        Liked by 1 person

      • bormgans says:

        (People reading this who’ve also read Whipping Star should really head over to the comments on the review of that book on my blog, as Pete was so kind to post his theory (an awesome idea btw) there, and join the conversation.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        It’s funny how a conversation about Crichton turned into a conversation about Herbert. Well, there’s not much you can say about Crichton except “Damn, he made a lot of money writing those crappy books.”

        I can’t have an informed discussion about the later Dune books without reading them. I don’t want to read them. Everything I’ve read about them makes me want to avoid them. They’re clearly going to explain everything to hell.

        There are mysteries in the first book–it conceals much more than it reveals. I like it that way. I don’t want the entire functioning of the universe explained to me. Particularly by somebody I don’t believe knows how the entire universe functions. Herbert had some knowledge of environmental science (a legacy from his dad), and he’d read a lot of history, and he found a way to link his interests together in that first book.

        But after a while, it got a little L. Ron Hubbard for me. (Okay, it never would have been THAT bad.)

        A writer of this type of story has to beware the temptation to over-explain. You have to leave the essential mysteries untouched–let the reader decide for him/herself what to believe.

        I love Westlake’s Parker novels, in part, because he never explains Parker, this engimatic being at the center of it all. Almost a figure out of science fiction himself–a man who behaves like a wild predator gifted with human-level sentience–but never explicitly.

        I can see some people would like to have everything spelled out, have the story keep going, everything getting more and more complicated, no mysteries left at all.

        It’s not what I want. So I don’t read it.

        I’ve read that Herbert wrote a lot more Dune books than he intended, because he needed to pay for his wife’s medical bills. Maybe that’s not true. But I question whether he wanted to be remembered entirely for the Dune universe. Well, that was going to happen, no matter what.

        All writers–without exception–write about their personal lives. They don’t all do it the same way. Writing stories is much more about telling the world who you are, than to spell out ideas. Otherwise, might as well just write philosophical tomes.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. fredfitch says:

    Whoa. How’d you keep all those balls in the air? And here I thought I was a juggler. Maybe this is more like those guys who juggle razor sharp implements. As Michael Davis once said, “Strictly for the amusement–of the people in the back!”

    I read Jurassic Park, then Congo, and that was it for me and the admirable Crichton. Who I don’t admire at all, except for his ability to spin gold (the spending kind) from leaden characters and hackneyed plots. You read authors like him when you want something stupid that can briefly pretend not to be. Same reason people read Arthur Hailey, who Westlake sent up to perfection in his paperback parody, Comfort Station (my personal fave of all the Westlake reviews I’ve written).

    Kudos to Hard Case for the senorita in the bikini, but I’m not biting. Unless there are some really graphic sex scenes, and I’m guessing not.

    So let’s get to the writers worth talking about here. Crichton made his pile (his bibliography is a pile all to itself, and I don’t need to tell you what of), so he’s got no cause to bitch from the hereafter if we all just ignore him for the rest of eternity. But you mentioned some names to conjure with there.

    I haven’t read Butler’s rejected child (just synopses online)–all the Patternist novels but that one, and I respect her wishes and all, but dammit. I’d like to decide for myself. It’s not really essential to the main arc of that disturbingly disjointed series about ‘psupermen’ (and women), that would have given John W. Campbell a brain embolism, but I think it might serve as a nice counter-balance to it.

    I have no doubt at all that she loved Star Trek, but she was a deeply pessimistic person, and it was hard for her to write even hopeful endings, let alone happy ones.

    Still, it’s hardly any more hopeful than Patternmaster, which is almost conventional for her. I’m going to guess that she’d have jettisoned that as well, if she could get away from it, but it’s too central to understanding the prequels that followed. This is a tangential storyline, and maybe she just didn’t like the notion that it didn’t matter what happened on earth, because there was this colony elsewhere that could survive if the Clayarks triumphed. Except wasn’t that the whole point of The Parable of the Sower?

    You know Butler once wrote a story about how she’s forced by God into a situation where she has to choose between the survival and happiness of humankind and the future of storytelling as a profession?

    I love her beyond words. High-maintenance, but so worth it. Not sure she always felt the same about us.

    I’ve read The Zap Gun, and don’t remember much of anything about it. There was like a gun in it that zapped things, right? It wasn’t about Zapp Brannigan, I remember that much. I tend to remember PKD’s books for the characters, believe it or not. I don’t remember a single character from that one.

    I’ve read very little Aldiss. I probably shouldn’t have started with Barefoot in the Head, should I? Just like I shouldn’t have made The Sound and the Fury my first (and so far only) Faulkner. Now I’d like to read The Saliva Tree, and compare it with Westlake’s Smoke, as a Wellsian (as opposed to Wellesian) commentary. (As I believe Anarchaos to have been a commentary on Heinlein’s Coventry.)

    If I may dissent from your characterization of The Jugger–there are a lot of reasons why Westlake rejected that book (without actually trying to get it withdrawn from publication, though I can’t see him doing that to any of his books once they got published, and of course it would leave a yawning chasm between The Score and The Seventh).

    The problems with the book happened before the editor at Pocket stepped in (I would assume that was Bucklin Moon). Westlake was trying to come up with a reason for Parker to go to a small town and try to solve a murder mystery–an experiment that required too many things that were alien to the character.

    Moon called him in, they struggled with it, and came up with what I think are perfectly workable answers to the problems created by Westlake’s earlier draft, and it’s actually a stand-out entry in the series, as many have thought since, though it may not have sold well originally, since it broke with the expected pattern.

    But there was also a messy international lawsuit, involving Jean Luc Godard, of all people. Westlake probably found it too painful to go back and revisit it, so his jaundiced opinion of the book stuck. It’s a small masterpiece, far as I’m concerned. Other than Parker thinking to himself about a ‘code of ethics’ I don’t fault it in the least.

    Can you imagine Crichton ever rejecting any of his books? I can’t. Not because they were his children. Because that level of self-criticism was something he wasn’t capable of. Might as well expect Dan Brown to reject The Da Vinci Code because it’s a load of hooey. And…..? Blessed are the shallow of intellect, for they shall never doubt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I still have a few Crichton books on my to-read list, since the math and science he features can be familiar territory for me. I have a soft spot for Jurassic Park, so after Zero Cool he still gets another chance. No, I don’t think he would have rejected his own books – he liked money, I suspect, and with his little add-ons managed to own up to the unlikelihood of Zero Cool. Maybe that’s his way of saying that the manuscript wouldn’t have sold for “John Lange” in 2008.

      After Survivor, I read Mind of My Mind and was impressed (particularly with the villain father-figure). It seems I have much to look forward to with the other Patternist books.

      As for The Zap Gun, it has its fans but I rate just about every other PKD book that I’ve read above it. The main character swaps out his long-time girlfriend for a younger woman, for reasons that are difficult to explain – it forms the most compelling aspect of the novel. Unusually for PKD, the two women in the book are the most interesting characters.

      I too had a lot of difficulty with Barefoot in the Head. Aldiss seems to forget about his audience when he experiments with structure like that, and he does have a fair amount of weaker material as a consequence. However, there’re a lot of good – even great – Aldiss books and stories, also.

      I’ve got a stack of Parker books from the holidays, so I’ll be continuing on with that series through Butcher’s Moon. At some point, I’ll go back to The Hunter and revisit the first six books, including The Jugger. Who knows? Maybe I’ll warm up to it the second time around.

      As always, your commentary is greatly appreciated!

      Like

      • fredfitch says:

        Mind of My Mind was my entry point to the Patternist books and is still my favorite–it would make for an interesting discussion, where are you supposed to start?

        The first book in the series, in terms of publication, takes place further into the future than any of them and reads like something from an earlier era of SF–then she goes back to where the Patternists began, which reads like something entirely new. Then she goes back to a generation before that, and it reads like a historical novel. Then she goes to another planet entirely, in a book she prevents from being reprinted because it’s too Star Trek (how did you even read it?) Then she explains where the Clayarks came from, and that is on the whole my least favorite, I just can’t identify with them, but it’s a good variation on another old idea, the alien contagion taking over humanity, only if you’ve read all the other books, you know that doesn’t happen. It’s really more horror than science fiction. Invasion of the Body Scratchers. You’ll laugh when you get there. 😉

        Doro is the most compelling villain I’ve encountered in SF. Or is he? A villain, I mean. Yes and no. A necessary evil? Butler’s moral conflicts can make even Poul Anderson’s seem soluble.

        Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        I actually found a hardback Doubleday edition of Survivor in the local public library. At that point, I had read Dawn and “Speech Sounds,” enough to seek out more of Butler’s work. When that happens I make note of what might be scarce, in case I find a copy. Fortune favoring the prepared mind, I suppose. It doesn’t happen all that often.

        Other (well, at the time) scarce ones I can recommend:

        The Old Men and the Zoo, by Angus Wilson
        The Brightfount Diaries, by Brian Aldiss
        The Sound of His Horn, by Sarban
        anything by Barry Malzberg, as long as it’s not under a pseudonym
        Japan Sinks, by Sakyo Komatsu

        Like

      • fredfitch says:

        Not the first recommendation I’ve read regarding The Sound of his Horn.

        http://www.existentialennui.com/2012/12/the-sound-of-his-horn-by-sarban-sphere.html

        But seriously–Sarban?

        Like

      • pete says:

        In my Ballantine edition of Sound of his Horn (the only edition available at the time), Kingsley Amis has an introduction that begins: “We can be pretty certain that our literary tastes are arrived at not so much by conscious choice as in response to the less-than-conscious demands of our temperament.” I don’t think I can fully explain why I liked the book so much when I read it 19 years ago – I certainly was not what I had expected. Maybe I appreciated the raw energy of it, like Lord of the Flies. I’d have to revisit the book to tell you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        As it happens, The Sound of His Horn is cheaply evailable now. I’m reading it (there’s two more Sarbans after it–praise Kindle). Just started. Very traditional and British in presentation, someone calmly telling a story by the firelight, that gets ever more horrible as it goes (how many M.R. James stories run along those lines?). I’d hazard a guess it was inspired in part by Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, as I believe Westlake’s Slayground was. Could also have been an influence on The Man in the High Castle, which showed up around ten years later.

        I should finish it pretty soon. Goes quickly.

        Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        More of a novella.

        H.G. Wells. He’s not hiding the influence. The Time Machine crossed with The Island of Dr. Moreau. Perhaps he got the idea of the hunt from Connell. It’s not really about Nazis, or totalitarianism–it’s about a man whose perspective changes, and he’s never the same again afterwards.

        Good, but he could have developed the idea more. I almost wonder if Suzanne Collins read it (I haven’t read Collins, probably never will). More likely she was influenced by Battle Royale. Still, the same basic idea can occur independently.

        Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        I read the Hunger Games trilogy last year (my daughter had read it earlier, and sometimes I follow up), and yes it would seem more Battle Royale than The Sound of His Horn. Those were fun reads, if a little disturbingly indicative of how dark YA science fiction tends to be. What happened to optimism?

        Like

      • fredfitch says:

        Replaced by the notion of being special–The Chosen One. Which is a type of optimism, but more self-centered. Not that you couldn’t find that in early science fiction (Slan). The John W. Campbell influence again. But so diffused now, many don’t even know they’re being influenced by him.

        Like

  4. fredfitch says:

    (Correction–Survivor came before Wild Seed. I meant to fix that. I forgot. I get too used to being able to edit my comments on my own blog)

    Like

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