Michael Crichton,
(Knopf, 1987)

I was recently surprised to find this novel on one of my shelves; I saw the movie adaptation of the novel recently but did not remember owning the book. The movie was full of promise but ultimately disappointing, so I was pretty curious to see how good a read the actual novel was. Sphere is my first Michael Crichton novel, and I have to say I was quite impressed with Crichton's prowess. There are some logical flaws and inconsistencies in the plot, but Crichton is an incredibly gifted storyteller; I eagerly breezed through this novel in short order.

While it is heavy on dialogue, the story touches on a number of aspects of the human personality while mixing in some profound if problematic science fiction in the process. This is a fast-paced thriller that definitely registers impressively on the suspense meter, particularly during the climactic late chapters. The ending is something of a letdown, but the story leading up to it is gripping and fascinating, and important clues and plot points are presented with much more subtlety and effectiveness than what you will find in the movie adaptation.

The novel is built around an incredible discovery; in the middle of the South Pacific, lying all but buried on the bottom of the ocean, rests a spacecraft of unknown origin. Psychologist Norman Johnson, the author of a secret government paper on "Recommendations for the Human Contact Team to Interact with Unknown Life Forms" (a less than serious paper he wrote primarily for the money) is called to the site, where he is informed that he will be part of a team of scientists sent to study the mysterious craft. Alongside him are an irascible Navy project commander, a brilliant, young astrophysicist/planetary geologist, a complicated female zoologist/biochemist and a noted mathematician/logician -- an unlikely team of deep ocean explorers.

They soon find themselves in an artificial habitat resting alongside the location of the mysterious ship. Their exploration of the site yields more questions than answers, as the ship turns out to be an American spaceship from the future. The truly enigmatic discovery onboard, though, is a giant sphere of unknown composition. As the story unfolds, they find themselves effectively stranded on the ocean floor for a period of some days, and strange and frightening things begin to happen after one scientist somehow enters the sphere. The scientists find themselves in communication with a supposedly alien entity who calls himself Jerry; whoever and whatever Jerry is, he seems to have the power to manifest remarkable physical creations and changes in reality. The habitat and the team inside it soon comes under attack by such dangerous creatures as giant squid and killer jellyfish, but the problems eventually internalize themselves inside the group dynamic, a group that is shrinking in size as time goes by. The mysterious sphere imparts an amazing power to those who enter it, a power that such individuals may not even be consciously aware of wielding.

Ultimately, the last remnants of the research team begin pointing fingers at one another and take steps to ensure their own individual survival in the face of an unquantifiable threat, making this novel a gripping psychological thriller based in a fascinating science fiction environment.

Once the team arrives in the underwater habitat, nonstop action ensues. One emergency after another challenges the crew, and the group dynamic of the team ebbs and flows along with each jarring crisis. Along the way, we see ever more clearly into the minds and ways of thinking of our main characters, and a significant amount of ideas are expressed concerning the human condition. Crichton provides for no obligatory rest areas along the way, as he takes the reader for an incredible ride that had me turning pages hand over fist in anticipation of what was to come. Some of the science is questionable, but Crichton surely makes it all sound more than plausible. The only real problem with the novel is a logical breakdown of sorts in the concluding chapters. Still, the desperate attempts of the remaining explorers to survive, when they cannot even trust one another, make for a riveting reading experience.

Sphere is by no means a perfect novel, but I found it captivating and addictive up until the somewhat disappointing ending. The movie adaptation takes significant liberties with the original story, so I would urge you not to let the movie's failings prevent you from immersing yourself in this eminently readable novel.

by Daniel Jolley
25 February 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.