Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Animal Behavior in Science Fiction: Prey

I love a good science fiction story. The melding of quirky characters, exhilarating plots and scientific ideas is like whitewater kayaking for the brain. But as you stroll through the science fiction section of your local bookstore, you may notice the stark contrast between the plethora of books on space exploration, time travel, and robots; and the dearth of books on biological themes. That doesn’t make any sense to me, since biology is clearly the awesomest of all scientific disciplines. And stranger still is how few science fiction stories involve the science of animal behavior.

The first edition cover of Prey by
Michael Crichton shows his
fictitious swarm of nanoparticles.
Hence my joy in discovering books like Prey by Michael Crichton. Michael Crichton is arguably the preeminent (not to mention the most prolific) writer of biology-based science fiction, with stories we all recognize such as The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park. His books often combine the suspense, action and terror of a Hollywood blockbuster with the intellectual scientific understanding of a college biology course. He firmly roots his plots in scientific fact and then bravely makes a leap of reasoning into the unknown, leaving us all wondering, “What if that could happen?” Prey is no exception.

Prey is a cautionary tale of what could result when we mix powerful biological concepts, creative engineering, and corporate pressure. At the core of this story is a corporate laboratory in the Nevada desert that is engineering nanoparticles, microscopic robots that work as a swarm to achieve noble goals. Injected into a body, they can form themselves into a camera to send medical images to doctors to help diagnose patients with blocked arteries or weak heart valves. Released into war zones, they can organize themselves into the ultimate spy machines that cannot be shot down because any bullet would simply pass through the swarm. A brilliant concept – and based on accurate scientific facts and theories.

Crichton’s nanoparticles are built using nanotechnology, a science reliant on chemistry and biology in addition to engineering. As you read Prey, you learn these concepts as you follow the main character deeper into his perilous predicament. Each microscopic robot is harmless in and of itself – What makes them a threat is their group behavior.

A photo of a real flock of starlings. Photo by John Holmes at Wikimedia.
Nanoparticle behavior is determined by their computer programming, and lucky for us, the main character is a computer programmer who can explain all of the details of how their deadly behavior may have come to be. Their programming is based on distributed intelligence, a subfield of artificial intelligence in which each individual in a group has limited capacity for problem solving, but when they share with and respond to one another, the group can quickly develop effective solutions. Distributed intelligence is strongly based on the biology of group decision making in social animals, like ant colonies, bee swarms, fish schools, and bird flocks. The integration of the biology of predator-prey interactions into these systems makes them simultaneously more interesting and more terrifying. And what’s more, the swarm can learn and adapt to new situations based on ideas from quantitative genetics. By weaving together concepts from these disparate scientific fields, Crichton has imagined nanoparticles that individually are ultra-simple micro-machines. But together as a swarm, they are intelligent, they can learn, they can strategize… and they can kill.

A photo of a real swarm of bees. Photo by Micha L. Rieser at Wikimedia.
One of the most important aspects of what makes this book so terrifying is its plausibility. Although we have not yet created nanoparticles with these powerful abilities (that we, the lay public, are aware of anyway), we do have the scientific foundation for their creation. Crichton even provides scientific references in the back of the book if you want to learn more about the genetics, distributed intelligence, or nanotechnology concepts he drew on for his fictitious novel. But as careful as he was in his accurate use of science to set up the plot and much of the story, the conclusion is where Crichton’s science becomes an obvious work of fiction.

Without going into too much detail, the final scenes fall apart on the plausibility factor. In order to avoid spoiling the end for those of you who wish to read it (and you should), I won’t say how, but some of the biological events just could not have happened as he described. And Crichton should have known better – he had a medical degree from Harvard for Pete’s sake! But when push comes to shove, sometimes accurate scientific principles move too slowly for the action-packed pace of a best-seller.

A photo of a real school of bigeye scad. Photo by Steve D. at Wikimedia.
In science fiction, does good fiction always have to be at the expense of good science? Even in science writing, which conveys complex scientific concepts to the public, scientific details are often stretched or overlooked in an attempt to make the overarching concept more interesting and comprehensible to as many readers as possible (although this is an issue for another post altogether). My point is, people are naturally curious about science, which aims to provide understanding of how everything works. But understanding lies in the details, and details can be tedious and confusing and don’t always fit the timeline of the plot or make the most exciting climax. There is a push and pull between accurate science and good storytelling. But I don’t think they are mutually exclusive… I think we can have it all.

In the end, Prey is a fantastic story and Michael Crichton does an excellent job incorporating and explaining current scientific ideas and how their application may lead to leaps in medical advances or to horrific scenarios of death and destruction. I highly recommend it to anyone willing to overlook a biological detail or two in the name of excitement and intrigue. But my search for the perfect biology-centric science fiction book continues.

Do you have a favorite science fiction book that incorporates animal behavior? Share it with us in the comments below!

4 comments:

  1. Great article. I have not read "Prey", but I have had the same reaction to other books by Michael Crichton. They are absolutely worth reading, but he did take liberties with the facts from time to time. As you pointed out, he was a highly educated man and probably knew better.

    Have you read the "Uplift War" books by David Brin? They also take many liberties with the facts, but offer a lot of insights into animal behavior and are a very entertaining read.

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    1. I haven't read it, but it looks interesting. It looks like the third book in a trilogy. Can it stand alone or do you need to read them in order?

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