Rising Sun was my first encounter with Michael Crichton, and, since I wasn’t terribly impressed, I thought it would be only fair to read a second novel of his so I’d have something to compare it to: Airframe was superb.
The problem with Rising Sun is that Crichton is so busy pushing the plot forward on every single page that he has no room at all for character: even his central characters are flat; the surrounding ones are irritatingly, incredibly empty. It may well be that, when this novel was published, our covert business-war with Japan was all the rage, but I still can’t imagine that every single person who opened his mouth in 1992 would have had Japan at the tip of his brain. Each spoken exchange sounds only like the next segment in the author’s continuous monologue.
Crichton choses his subjects with exceptional care and goes into them almost with the view of delivering an education – so there is plenty of fascinating material here. But the essential problem is exactly as the NY Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt put it: “as a serious discourse…the book is far too entertaining. And as an entertainment, it is far too didactic.” It’s an exciting story – near the end, very exciting – but much too contrived to be rewarding and I would not read it again.
Airframe, however, is one of the most engaging novels I’ve ever read. It has much more, and much better character, though clearly this is not Crichton’s strongest suit: You get the impression that he builds supporting characters by reaching into a grab-bag of personality traits and sprinkling around random handfuls – this guy is fiery and irritable, that guy is depressed and quiet, etc. You could switch any of them around without fundamentally changing the story. But Crichton redeems that fault by writing about an unusual subject with an extraordinary depth of knowledge and an impeccable flair for tension, excitement and timing. The story has genuine intrigue. It has fascination. I can’t think of any book I’ve read that was harder to put down. You don’t have to be interested in airliners to be swept up by the story – but if you’re squeamish about air travel I wouldn’t recommend it as your in-flight reading.
And I wouldn’t read Airframe a second time either. Like a great joke or a magic trick or an Alfa Romeo, it only works once.
Nelson DeMille, like Michael Crichton, writes thrillers. But, though DeMille has Crichtonian plot-drive, he also has a powerful feel for character that doesn’t stop at engaging the reader with an ambient situation. DeMille pulls his readers into a sympathetic understanding with the protagonist. With Airframe, the excitement is in not knowing what will happen next. And Crichton beats the pants off anyone delivering that excitement. But with that gone, the reread value is zilch. With a good DeMille novel, though, there is something left over even after the mystery is solved: You return to his stories not because you want to find out, all over again, what happens, but because you’d like to say hello to an old friend.
Rising Sun, by Michael Crichton. Knopf, 1992, 385 pages.
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 6/10
Airframe, by Michael Crichton, Knopf, 1996, 352 pages.
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10