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How to Write Scientific Fiction: Analyzing Michael Crichton’s 'Sphere'

In this post, Dustin Grinnell explores the tactics that author Michael Crichton used to craft realistic science fiction within one of his most popular novels, 'Sphere.'

It’s been said that readers will believe anything; it’s the author’s job to convince them. Keeping readers absorbed in the fictional dream is challenging, but it seemed to be second nature for Michael Crichton, a science fiction author who got readers to believe that scientists could bring dinosaurs back to life in his blockbuster novel, Jurassic Park. Few authors blended fact with fiction more elegantly. Few authors better embedded scientific information within an engrossing story. This article explores the tactics Crichton used to mix science with fiction within one of his most popular novels, Sphere.

Grinnell_How to Scientific Fiction

Invent characters to serve the plot

The story’s protagonist, psychologist Dr. Norman Johnson, is brought to a Navy ship in the South Pacific to investigate a mysterious vessel, suspected of being a spaceship, found a thousand feet below the ocean’s surface. Norman specializes in anxiety disorders and was previously asked by the US government to write a report on how the public might react in the event of an alien invasion. “The most likely consequence of contact is absolute terror,” Norman wrote in his report.

(20 ways to write better characters.)

It’s perhaps not surprising that Crichton chose to write from the perspective of a psychologist. According to his memoir, Travels, around that time in his life, he had begun psychotherapy. By writing from the perspective of a psychologist, Crichton could explore the psychological dimensions within his narrative. He could also use Norman’s expertise to deliver scientific material without seeming contrived. For example, Crichton uses Norman to explore the psychology of group dynamics.

Crichton invented characters to serve the plot and/or the science he knew would drive the story. For instance, the undersea habitat is attacked by various creatures—a swarm of jellyfish, a giant squid—and by having a marine biologist in the story, Crichton can have the expert share realizations with others. In this example, the marine biologist identifies the squid and explains its capabilities, informing the naïve reader.

Set up a conversation between an expert and a layperson

In order to deliver technical information in simple terms, Crichton sets up conversations between experts and people who know little about the topics of conversation. For example, the story’s mathematician asks Norman if he knows about the Drake equation. As a psychologist, Norman likely wouldn’t know, but the narrator claims that he does. “It was one of the famous proposals in the literature on extraterrestrial life,” Norman thinks, but Crichton then magnanimously has Norman say, “Refresh me.” This prompts the mathematician to explain the equation as he might in introducing it to a naïve person, using simple terms as well as a demonstration. Crichton does this again later with Harry’s question, “You mean like the Davies Message?”

Norman also knew about the Davies Message. It was one of the episodes that the SETI promoters wished to forget, Norman thought. Crichton then seamlessly transitions into exposition.

In a sense, Crichton liked to make his point of view characters Renaissance men. Norman is diamond smart, well-educated, widely read, and intensely curious. He knows a little about a lot. By writing from the perspective of a polymath, Crichton can inform a reader of many subjects, tapping into the character’s knowledge by jumping into their thoughts.

Set up a conversation between two experts

Crichton delivers a great deal of scientific information via dialogue between well-educated, scientifically inclined characters. Early in the book, the characters become convinced that the vessel on the ocean floor is extraterrestrial. Crichton dumps information about a theory known as “The unique hypothesis.”

“We’ve shot the ‘unique hypothesis’ to hell,” one character points out.

“The unique hypothesis?” Barnes says.

“He’s referring,” Beth says, “to the fact that physicists and chemists tend to believe in intelligent life, while biologists do not. Many biologists feel the development of the intelligent life on earth required so many peculiar steps that it represents a unique event in the universe, that may never occur elsewhere.”

Crichton can get away with this information dump because scientists actually talk to each other this way.

Educate yourself, then teach it to your readers

It’s practically a law in science writing that if you don’t understand the material yourself, neither will the reader. When authors don’t understand their subject matter, it’s reflected in the writing. It’s obvious that Crichton goes to great lengths to understand his material. Crichton educated himself on these subjects and then teaches them to the reader through his writing.

Crichton isn’t just an entertainer; he’s a teacher. Sphere touches on many scientific disciplines, including astrophysics, human psychology, mathematics, computer programming, physiology, and marine biology. When we finish the novel, we are grateful to have been entertained, but we have also learned a lot.

(3 strategies for solid research.)

In one scene, Norman asks the team’s mathematician to explain space-time. Norman is as naïve as most readers (and this was 1987, before the exploding popularization of astrophysics, so the public knew even less back then). The mathematician then becomes a mouthpiece for Crichton to teach the reader about space-time—and it’s a thrill to learn from him.

“I’ve never really understood that [space-time],” Norman says.

“Why? It’s quite straightforward,” says the mathematician.

Norman asks to explain the science “in English,” without mathematics.

The mathematician uses a demonstration to illustrate Einstein’s theory of general relativity. He places pieces of fruit on a table to represent objects in space, such as planets or stars. A ball-bearing is used to represent a spacecraft. The mathematician explains that objects with mass warp the geometry of space. Planets, stars, or spacecraft are not being “pulled toward” an object with mass, but rather “falling” into the curved geometry.

Many movies have used this device, and it’s almost cliché now. For example, the movies Event Horizon and Interstellar both have a scene where an astrophysicist uses a similar demonstration to explain the warping of space-time to naïve listeners.

In an interview with Charlie Rose in the 1990s, Crichton said that it’s hard work to get a reader to believe the imaginative leaps he makes in his fiction—namely that dinosaurs could be brought back to life—and he noted that his early drafts were usually unconvincing. To make the science as clear as possible, Crichton likely wrote and rewrote expository sentences countless times. With each iteration, the sentences became clearer, more convincing.

Use real science to persuade readers

Crichton’s use of specific facts from scientific literature gives his work credibility and authority, which helps the reader overcome their natural skepticism and keeps them engaged with the story. In Sphere, Crichton’s writing is dense with concrete technical information. For example, he describes a boat “laying a new fiber-optics cable” with a “carrying capacity of twenty thousand simultaneous telephonic transmissions,” and a “nuclear submarine with SY-2 misses.”

His use of real science from scientific literature helps convince the reader that the vessel on the ocean floor could be real by explaining how the military team used coral growth to estimate the vessel’s age. Through dialogue, he gives us the impression that such a thing is done in reality. “We can estimate the date from coral growth with great accuracy. Pacific coral grows two-and-a-half centimeters a year, and the object—whatever it is—is covered in about five meters of coral.”

It’s also worth mentioning that Crichton was consistently timely with his choice of subjects for his novels. It’s almost as if he had a crystal ball; around the time he finished a book, the subject matter—whether it was time travel or nanotechnology—was just capturing the public’s imagination.

Summarize difficult-to-understand material

Crichton often delivers an easy-to-understand summary paragraph after hard-to-understand material. In Sphere, the narrator explains a series of studies Norman conducted to study anxiety within groups. After almost two pages of exposition, the narrator sums up what’s been said in lay terms: “If you were trapped in an elevator, it was better to be with a few relaxed, athletic people you knew, to keep the lights on, and to know someone was working to get you free.” This sentence communicates to the reader: Even though I used plain language to explain that complex scientific material, you may still be lost, so here it is in the most basic of terms.

(Showing and telling in scenes and dialogue.)

In addition, in order to clarify, Crichton occasionally ends a passage of exposition with a metaphor. For example, one character says, “Basically, a star is like a big beach ball inflated by the atomic explosions occurring inside it.” Later in the book, after a description of decompression sickness, Crichton writes, “Your bloodstream is saturated with helium gas in solution. Right now, you’re under pressure, so everything is fine. But if you release that pressure suddenly, it’s just the same as when you pop the top off a soda bottle. The helium will bubble explosively out of your system. You’ll die instantly.”

Dump information after a character introduction

Crichton effectively delivers scientific information after a character introduction. For example, after Crichton introduces the mathematician, Harry Adams, he dives into theory about how humans might communicate with extraterrestrials. “Adams appeared even younger than his thirty years; he was clearly the youngest member of the group—and arguably the most important… Many theorists argued that communication with extraterrestrials would prove impossible, because human beings would have nothing in common with them.”

The exposition doesn’t feel like a poke in the eye, because it seamlessly followed the character introduction. We also get the sense that the information will be useful later, so we understand the information is relevant to the plot. The reader now knows there might be a significant conflict if the expedition team tries to talk with the aliens. And we assume it’s only a matter of time before they do.

Writing where you hang your hat

Writers should write what they know, right? Crichton was a Harvard-trained medical doctor, so the science-based thriller was a natural genre for him. He was comfortable with the material, and his connection with the language of science gave his writing plausibility and authority.

(Originality isn't everything.)

In one scene in Sphere, Norman undergoes a comprehensive medical workup. The scene is dense with the names of medical tests, exams, and procedures. One gets the sense that Crichton was writing directly from memory there.

Write about your passions and the reader will be fascinated

Crichton clearly derived pleasure from building stories around high-concept premises that involved cutting-edge science. The reader is interested because Crichton is passionate. For example, in Sphere, three characters walk along the ocean floor, a thousand feet below the surface, and they come upon a sea snake. The marine biologist says the snake is poisonous and then spends a long passage discussing poisonous creatures within the animal kingdom. The group is in a survival situation, and they are the last remaining people left in the underwater habitat, so why is this character discussing poisonous creatures as if they were strolling through a zoo? A conversation about dangerous snakes builds fear, of course, but Crichton probably thought the material was fascinating and he just couldn’t help himself. The reader is delighted.

To keep a reader from becoming bored, Crichton sprinkles in curiosity-piquing scientific information whenever there is a lull in action. His books are wildly cerebral, and it’s hard to read three pages in Sphere without encountering a conversation between two people discussing some theory about extraterrestrials or time travel or psychology. This has the effect of keeping the reader intellectually stimulated throughout the story. If a reader’s heart isn’t into the story or a character, their mind is in overdrive as it consumes the sporadic delivery of fascinating information.

Use the presentation format to deliver exposition

Crichton delivers a lot of science via presentations. In all his books, scientists explain their field or a discovery through a lecture, speech, usually during a meeting or conference. The reader understands the presentation ritual and can thus tolerate the information dump.

In Sphere, a character explains Dalton’s law to a group of scientists. Graphs and equations flash onto a screen. The information becomes so technical that Crichton has the protagonist doze off. Cleverly, as Norman drifts in and out of consciousness, the narrator shares snippets of only relevant information (e.g., nitrogen narcosis) through the character’s point of view.

Engage the head as well as the heart

In addition to entertaining and educating, Crichton also stimulates self-reflection. He writes not just for the mind but also for the heart and spirit. At the end of Sphere, he writes with the insight of a psychologist about one’s capacity for self-delusion. “It was a psychological truism, this blindness about self. Did he [Norman] imagine that he was immune?” He continues, “And your ignorance about yourself was even greater than that. Self-awareness was the most difficult of all. Few people attained it. Or perhaps nobody attained it.”

After reading such a passage, the reader can’t help but look in the mirror. Haven’t we all consciously avoided or denied painful thoughts or emotions? Haven’t we all deluded ourselves, sometimes consciously? Don’t we all sometimes find it hard to accept the truth about ourselves and our life? Sphere engages us on so many levels: mind, heart, and spirit. We finish the novel thinking that our time was well spent. We might even hope to be a better person. This is the storyteller’s job, after all, and Michael Crichton is masterful in this role. 

Do you daydream about distant worlds and mythical creatures? If so, take this six-week workshop and transform your ideas into creative science fiction and fantasy novels.

Do you daydream about distant worlds and mythical creatures? If so, take this six-week workshop and transform your ideas into creative science fiction and fantasy novels.

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