Monday, September 27, 2010

Yellow Peril- Rising Sun by Michael Crichton

Though the idea of the ‘Yellow Peril’ is basically a 19th century one, and I do love all things Victorian, I’m not going to get into that period of its development right now. To anyone who’s unfamiliar with the term, I’ll direct your attention to the incomparable Jess Nevins once again, as he seems to be the reigning authority on the subject, at least as far as pop-culture goes. Instead, I’m going to talk about a bizarre resurgence of this idea in media approximately one hundred years later. Specifically, I’m going to talk about the late, great Michael Crichton.

I think Jurassic Park was the first ‘adult’ book I read, not counting Victorian fantastic fiction or Asimov/Clarke- type sci-fi. Not that those aren’t ‘adult’ in the true sense of the world, but they certainly didn’t have sexual misconduct or bloody decapitations in them, which, unfortunately, is how much of the world classifies ‘adult’ entertainment. Asimov and Clarke may have dealt skillfully with deep and meaningful themes, but nobody was going to forbid you from reading them, so they weren’t ‘adult.’

At 12, Jurassic Park rocked my world, as I reckon it should for any 12-year-old-today, so around that time I tracked down a bunch of his other books (but only the sci-fi themed ones. No Disclosure, then.). Sphere and Congo in particular went down particularly well, though The Lost World felt thin, as though it had been written specifically to inspire a movie (which is exactly what happened, though the movie ignored most of the book anyway. Stupid world.). I was blown away by his ability to mix fact and fiction- he introduced just enough of various complex scientific and social theories into his narratives to make you feel that you were actually learning, instead of just enjoying an empty- reading-calorie paperback thriller.

Today, I still think he was great. What I think he was, in fact, is this: the greatest of all writers who dealt with 'paperback thrillers' or 'airport novels'. He elevated a format I normally find uninteresting to something better. Whatever you want to call the kind of books that have the author's name written in huge, embossed font (I find it interesting that these books are classified by their function- that is, as easily-digestible page-turners for holidays or airplane journeys- rather than genre, which can vary quite a bit), he was the best at it. Whenever I get carried away arguing for a difference between 'real' literature and paperback crap, I have to remind myself: you friggin' LOVE Michael Crichton. So there.

So recently, I came into possession of one that I had scorned in my youth (because it didn't have any dinosaurs in it, obviously)- Rising Sun. And yeah, it's good. It's damn good. I flew through it in a weekend. See, Crichton books actually do the things that other thrillers only claim: they actually make you keep turning the pages. They actually cannot be put down. He was a master of his craft, and Rising Sun is no exception, even if there aren't any dinosaurs in it.

The plot kicks off when Lieutenant Peter Smith of the LAPD gets called to investigate a murder on the forty-sixth floor of the brand-new Nakamoto Corporation in downtown LA. Downstairs, there's a glitzy party going on for the grand opening of the building (we're told that Madonna, Tom Cruise and even Chuck Norris are attending), but upstairs, Smith finds a weirdly calm atmosphere surrounding a dead girl in one of the boardrooms. The Nakamoto representatives seem bizzarely unconcerned. All they care about is that their party is not disrupted, and they refuse to co-operate with Smith and the other policemen. Is something amiss? Are the Japanese up to something nefarious? How could anyone commit a crime with Chuck Norris just downstairs?

See, one of the things that made Crichton rise above the others (besides the dinosaurs, of course) was that no matter how loopy the plot was, he always had a point to make; something connected to the real world. Genetic engineering is dodgy. Corporations are ruthless. Global warming is a scam. Whatever. Reading his books is a bit like arguing with a crotchety but well-informed conservative uncle- he may be wrong, but he's not an idiot, and he knows why he believes what he does. It's the kind of thing that makes us look at the world more closely.

Anyway, in Rising Sun, his bugbear is that American free-market economics are being taken advantage of by Japanese big business. To anyone who was more interested in dinosaurs than economics circa the early nineties, recall the similar situation in Die Hard: John Maclane endures his unfortunate trials in the Nakatomi Tower, home of an enormous Japanese corporation that own property in LA. Also recall the scene in Back to the Future Part 2 when we learn that in the future, Marty McFly's boss is Japanese. Think of the Weyland-Yutani corporation from the Alien movies. This is not a coincidence. Once again, pop culture provides us with a slic of the times: there were very real fears at the time that Japan was going to swallow the US economically through foreign investment.

Smith hooks up with his sensei, Captain John Conner, a retired cop who has lived in Japan and understands the Japanese better than any other American does. He lives in a Japanese-style apartment and lounges around in a kimono in his spare time. He's an almost Sherlock Holmes-like figure, who makes mysterious pronouncements that appear to make no sense at first, but he's always right, and it's always because of his understanding of the wily Oriental. The Japanese are treated as being so alien and inscrutable that Conner has to give Smith ridiculously precise pointers as to how to behave when dealing with them. Don't break eye contact. Don't speak to the boss, only the subordinate. Don't bow. Don't lose your temper. It's as if he's going for a meeting with lizard people or something.

So, Smith and Conner drive around a lot, visiting universities and businesses (following cop/buddy movie rules, they also go to a titty bar). Of course, because it's the Crichtonverse, every single person they meet on their journey provides them with some well-researched exposition. Let me tell you how the world really works, they say. Business, politics- no subject is safe. And of course, they're all hung up on the Japanese. Really, the amount of times that people from widely varying industries bring up the Japanese issue, independent of each other, is staggering. So we learn how Japanese protect their own companies in their own country but viciously exploit free market rules to corner markets in America, buying companies and property. Pretty soon, America will have no home-grown industries. And, Crichton screams at us from every page, this is not just plot for some paperback. THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING! Fair enough. I mean, it didn't exactly turn out like that, but GM is finished. But what becomes slightly ridiculous is how 'the Japanese' are treated as if they're all in on the plot. Seriously, it's not just one corporation, or even a conglomerate- it's all the Japanese. United by their weird, alien culture and disrespect for Americans, they all help out their evil corps to destroy the red, white and blue. Janitors, security guards, whatever. Anytime Connor and Smith find that a company has links to Japan, the conspiracy takes effect.

Crichton is never less than compelling, and all these oddities help to make Rising Sun a bizarre reminder of the paranoia that took hold in the US at this time.

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