First edition cover
|Genre||Science fiction novel, Techno-thriller|
|May 12, 1987|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|LC Class||PS3553.R48 S6 1987|
The novel follows Norman Johnson as a psychologist who is engaged by the United States Navy to join a team of scientists assembled by the U.S. Government to examine an enormous spacecraft discovered on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The depth of coral covering the craft suggests that it has been lying there for over 300 years and so could only be of alien origin.
A group of scientists, including psychologist Norman Johnson, mathematician Harry Adams, biologist Beth Halpern, and astrophysicist Ted Fielding, along with U.S. Navy personnel, are dispatched to a deep sea habitat at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to explore a crashed spacecraft.
To their surprise, they discover the spacecraft is not alien, but an American spacecraft constructed in the future and accidentally sent through time, "arriving" 350 years before its creation. On further exploration, the team discovers a mysterious spherical artifact, clearly of extraterrestrial origin, which quickly becomes the focus of their attention. Harry becomes quite certain that, because the ship's future builders didn't seem to learn that their ship had already been discovered, the members of the team aren't likely to survive. At this point, a storm traps the scientists on the ocean floor without contact or support from the surface for over a week.
The crew soon focuses on asking questions about the sphere and then on attempting to open it and learn about its nature, contents, and origin. Harry eventually succeeds in opening it and goes inside. Upon returning, he has a terrible headache and he remembers little about what happened inside or how he opened it. The scientists are eventually contacted by an intelligent, seemingly-friendly lifeform which calls itself Jerry, apparently from within the sphere. It first contacts them via a numeric code, which Harry translates. But while they struggle to communicate with Jerry, increasingly bizarre and deadly events occur, including the appearance of "impossible" sea creatures that Beth claims can not exist. Jerry tells them he is "manifesting" the creatures. Members of the team start to die in various attacks by sea life, and the dwindling survivors struggle to placate the unthinkably powerful, childlike, and temperamental Jerry.
Norman suddenly has an important role when he realizes he must use psychology to keep the surviving team (now only himself, Beth, and Harry) alive by placating Jerry. Translating the original code himself, though, Norman discovers that Jerry is actually Harry: by entering the sphere, Harry acquired the power to manifest his subconscious thoughts into reality. As Harry noted his childhood fears of squid and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, he has unconsciously created them as an enemy.
Beth and Norman tranquilize Harry with a powerful mixture of sedatives and wait for contact to be re-established with the surface. However, although Harry is sedated, the manifestations continue. Beth accuses Norman of having entered the sphere and gaining access to the power. Though unable to recall this incident, Norman is close to yielding until he watches a security video of Beth entering the sphere herself. Concluding that Norman is a threat to her, Beth irrationally plants potent explosives around the spacecraft and habitat and then attempts to suffocate Norman with the habitat's climate systems. Norman escapes to the spacecraft and, figuring out at last how to open it, enters the sphere. Norman begins to ascend by himself in the submarine, but realizes that he could never leave the others to die. Now with the same power of thought as Harry and Beth, Norman fights Beth and brings both her and Harry to the escape submarine before the explosives destroy the site.
Afterward, while in a surface decompression chamber, the three survivors ponder what to tell the Navy about what happened. Realizing they could not control the power, they decide to use the power to remove it from themselves and their memories simultaneously, replacing it with memories of a technical failure. Afterwards, as they mourn the colleagues lost to this scenario, Norman notes that Beth looks lovely despite their hardship in the deep, hinting that Beth actually kept the sphere power.
Norman Johnson — Norman is the protagonist of the story and is probably the most important in terms of story revelation. He is a psychologist, and years earlier was responsible for defining the operational procedures should the US ever come into contact with alien life - although he admits that he treated the "ULF" as a joke at the time. Despite physically being the least fit to be in the underwater habitat, he is arguably the most level-headed of the group, though even he exhibits moments of irrationality. Nonetheless, Norman is usually working to make everyone get along with one another.
Harry Adams — Harry is a young, intelligent, African American mathematician. However, he is also very arrogant, unsympathetic, disdainful, and often uncooperative with the others. Harry tends to be the most thought-provoking character in the story, often mentioning concepts that encourage readers to think about certain issues (some of which remain solely within the context of the story, and some of which do not). While very secure intellectually, Harry tends to be lacking emotionally due to his isolation. Harry was a genuine mathematical prodigy growing up and living in ghettos. He was often picked on as a child because of his lack of athletic talent.
Theodore Fielding — Though good-natured, Ted is portrayed as an annoyingly enthusiastic opportunist. His pretentiousness tends to inhibit his relationships with the others, despite his good intentions. It is revealed later that his annoying nature is due to his drive to do something that will make him famous, and the reality that (in his eyes) the time for him to do that is running out.
Elizabeth Halpern — Beth is both gentle and caring while at the same time fierce, combative, and confrontational. Being the only female scientist, she sees herself being dominated by the male scientists — though some of these times only in her mind. As evidenced later, she is arguably the most out of touch with her emotions. It may have been indicated that Beth did not rid herself of the power, as during the novel, she used the power to gain beauty. In the end, Norman compliments Beth, saying that he just realized how beautiful she was.
Harold Barnes — Harold (Hal) is a former Navy officer in charge of the underwater scientific investigation. Given that he's more of a military man than a scientific one, his interests tend to conflict with the other main characters. His manner is usually brusque, impatient, and distrustful. He also has a tendency to withhold crucial information from his crew and follow his own hidden agenda at their expense.
Tina Chan — Tina is a Navy habitat crew member. She develops a friendship with Beth throughout the book. She is one of the last Navy personnel to be killed by the manifestations.
Alice "Teeny" Fletcher — The Navy engineer in charge of maintaining the habitat. A heavily built woman, she is friendly, and despite Norman's initial skepticism, extremely competent. It is not specifically explained how she dies, but the survivors found a trail of blood and one of her shoes after the squid attack.
Crichton says he started writing the novel in 1967 as a companion piece to The Andromeda Strain. He began with American scientists discovering a spaceship underwater that had been there for 300 years but with stencilled makings in English. However after that beginning Crichton realised "I didn't know where to go with it" and put off completing the book:
The idea of doing a story about contact with superior intelligence, a time honoured theme, is that it's very hard if you stop and think about it. Most writers evade the issue by making the aliens recogniseably human. It's 9 feet tall with spiky teeth and it wants to eat you. Or its 3 feet tall and it wants to hug you. In either case its humanlike... What's more likely about first contact with an extraterrestrial is that the alien wouldn't look humanlike at all. You might not even be able to see it or detect it. And its behaviour would be absolutely inexplicable. Trouble is, it gets hard to dream up a story where at the center there is something inexplicable.
The book was made into the film Sphere in 1998, directed by Barry Levinson, with a cast including Dustin Hoffman (Norman Johnson, renamed Norman Goodman), Samuel L. Jackson (Harry Adams), Peter Coyote (Harold Barnes), Liev Schreiber (Ted Fielding), and Sharon Stone (Beth Halpern, renamed Halperin). The film largely follows the novel, although there are many differences between the novel and film. The film received very negative reviews from critics and bombed at the box office.
Reviews were mostly positive for the novel.
- An author of pleasurable fear: Michael Crichton takes fiction where you wouldn't want to go Gorner, Peter. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 24 June 1987: D1.