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Published: Sunday, 1/2/2005

Science, politics are dangerous brew


State of Fear. By Michael Crichton. HarperCollins. 603 pages. $27.95.

We seem to have an insatiable appetite for post-election red state/blue state comparisons. This already tired catchphrase has become a convenient way to demonize our fellow Americans, depending upon one's politics and cultural proclivities.

It's soooo yesterday, to borrow another lexical dinosaur.

But - and you knew one was coming - Michael Crichton finds himself a red-state resident in State of Fear, a gripping, if sometimes tedious techno-thriller that lumps global-warming worrywarts in the derisive and divisive camp of baby-seal-loving, tree-hugging, vegetable-munching pantywaists. Simply put, he tells us global warming is much ado about nothing. Damn conspiracy theorists!

Problem is ... well, we've got problems. A wacky, obscenely wealthy philanthropist, George Morton, gives a decidedly liberal national environmental group a virtual blank check to make its case that Earth is endangered, which is pretty good cover for his real intentions.

And they're not noble. It seems his band of misguided environmentalists wants to make the point by creating a series of natural disasters - stupendous storms, flash floods, a tidal wave - by unnatural means.

Fortunately, MIT professor/federal agent John Kenner is on the case, aided by a couple of Morton's associates, most notably lawyer Peter Evans. Their pursuit of the (red state alert!) evil-doers is nothing short of spellbinding, with a series of wild twists and turns, numerous and engaging subplots, and the introduction of many characters, most of whom resonate.

It's to Crichton's credit, of course, that he earns adjectives like "spellbinding" and "engaging." His books, as meticulously researched as they are, have an amusement-park feel. It's as if the author channels one of his own creations, Jurassic Park's John Hammond, and spares no expense when it comes to adventure, suspense, and, ultimately, satisfaction.

Still, while a piece of fiction that celebrates its attention to detail by way of footnotes, a bibliography, two appendices (the first of which is provocatively titled "Why politicized science is dangerous") and an author's message may stand as first-rate entertainment, you're left feeling a tad sermonized.

Maybe that's OK if your politics veer more to rabid than rational and you love a good one-sided debate. There's nothing wrong, I suppose, with stoking an appetite with some literary red meat.

But when all was said and done, State of Fear just left me feeling - what's the word? - blue.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Allan Walton is assistant managing editor for features at the Post-Gazette.

Contact Allan Walton at: awalton@post-gazette.com

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