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Techno-thriller, horror, nanopunk
|November 25, 2002|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
|Followed by||State of Fear|
Prey is a novel by Michael Crichton, his thirteenth under his own name and twenty-third overall, first published in November 2002, making his first novel of the twenty-first century. An excerpt was published in the January–February 2003 issue of Seed. Like Jurassic Park, the novel serves as a cautionary tale about developments in science and technology; in this case, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and distributed artificial intelligence.
The book features relatively new advances in the computing/scientific community, such as artificial life, emergence (and by extension, complexity), genetic algorithms, and agent-based computing. Fields such as population dynamics and host-parasite coevolution are also at the heart of the novel.
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The novel is narrated by the protagonist Jack Forman, an unemployed software programmer who used to work for a company called Media Tronics but was fired and blackballed for discovering an internal scandal. As a result, he is forced to take the role of a house husband while his wife Julia serves as a high ranking executive at a nanorobotics company called Xymos. Julia claims that she is working on a new piece of revolutionary imaging technology with her company, which takes up most of her time and makes her grow distant to Jack and her family. He starts believing that during her long hours away from home she is having an affair and becomes watchful of her changes.
One night Julia comes home late and shows Jack a video of her demonstrating the Xymos nanobots. In the video, the nanobots are put into a human test subject, and video from inside the body is broadcast in real time. Jack is impressed but becomes more suspicious of her straying when he notices the video was not made on the same day as she said it was.
Later in the night, their baby girl Amanda awakens in agony as her body turns red from an unknown cause. Jack takes her to the hospital, but the doctors cannot identify the cause of her pain. She is given an MRI for more examination, then suddenly her pain stops and the skin changes disappear. Bewildered and exhausted, Jack returns home to a strangely indifferent Julia who leaves in a hurry, claiming to go on an urgent business trip.
Strange events happen that lead Jack to suspect something bigger is going on with Julia as their son Eric claims he saw "silver men" cleaning the house in the middle of the night, and Jack finds a strange device found underneath Amanda's bed that wasn't there before, memory chips on their son's MP3 player have turned to dust, Julia has not only become distant but has also become abusive to her family, and Julia was seen driving one night with an unidentifiable passenger in her car. On that same night, Julia is injured in a car crash, and Jack is recruited to consult at Xymos, because the project manager, Ricky - a good friend of Jack's and former colleague - is having software issues with the nanobots.
Jack is taken to the Xymos research facility in Nevada's Basin Desert, where he is given a tour of the lab, meets the programming team, and is shown a complicated machine used to make the nanobot assemblers from bacteria. Ricky refuses to show Jack the source code for the nanobots, and later Ricky claims that building contractors failed to properly install filters in a certain vent in the building. As a result, hazardous elements such as the assemblers, the bacteria, and the nanobots were blown into the desert, evolving and eventually forming autonomous swarms. These swarms appear to be clouds of solar-powered and self-sufficient nanobots, reproducing and evolving (necroevolution) rapidly. The swarms exhibit predatory behavior, attacking and killing animals in the wild, using code that Jack himself worked on. Most alarmingly, the swarms seem to possess rudimentary intelligence, the ability to quickly learn and to innovate. Jack also learns that Julia helped teach the swarms to improve their intelligence and become more benign, but they regressed when she left. The swarms tend to wander around the plant during the day but quickly leave when strong winds blow or night falls.
The nanoswarm kills a rabbit outside the complex, and Jack goes outside with Mae to inspect. They find that the rabbit died of suffocation resulting from the nanobots blocking its bronchial tubes. While Mae goes inside for equipment, Jack is attacked by the swarms. He barely manages to get through the airlock into the lab before falling unconscious from anaphylactic shock.
Persuaded by Jack despite Ricky's protests, the team decides to destroy the swarm or else risk its reproducing exponentially and becoming a grey goo plague that could endanger humanity. They believe the swarm must have nested in the desert to reproduce. They attempt to find this nest by tagging the swarm with radioactive isotopes and following them back to their nest at night. Under the cover of a strong wind that forces the swarms to remain dormant, the team goes outside to a storage shack to find the isotopes and build a spray device. However, the wind dies down, and four swarms attack the shack and eventually kill David and Rosie. The rest of the team are forced to take shelter in the cars parked outside.
The swarms find a way to enter the cars, but not long before the wind picks up in speed again. Jack and Mae manage to escape to the lab, but Charley falls unconscious outside his car after spraying his swarm with the isotope. Bobby, Vince, and Ricky refuse to go outside and help Charley. Jack, dizzy and nauseous, goes back out again to save Charley as the swarms attack again. Using a motorbike found in David's car, Jack manages to get himself and the semi-conscious Charley to the safety of the airlock before Jack falls unconscious again.
As night falls, Jack, Mae, and Bobby set out to find the swarms. While searching for them, they discover that the swarms are moving the now deceased Rosie through the desert. The team is also shocked to discover that the swarms can replicate the physical features, perceptions, and motions of humans when they see the swarms form replicas of Ricky, David, and Rosie.
The group follows the body to find the swarms nesting in a cave. As some of the Ricky-swarms come out of the cave after them, a Xymos helicopter arrives and wards off the swarms using its powerful draft. Mae and Jack then venture into the cave and proceed to exterminate the swarms, their nest, and their organic assembly plant (which looks very similar to the original Xymos assembly plant) using explosive thermite caps. They return to the Xymos plant, exhausted.
At the plant, Jack, Mae, and Bobby are enthusiastically greeted by Julia, who had discharged herself from the hospital and was brought in by the chopper. Julia's behavior seems to be extremely aberrant; she seems to pay heed to nothing except trying to entice Jack and kissing him, even when Charley is found dead in the locked communications room with a swarm flying around him and the communication links cut. Jack cannot understand how the swarm got inside the rigorously protected airtight building, why Charley would have disabled the facility's communications, or why Julia and Ricky seem to be coming up with various out-of-character ways of how he died.
Mae discovers security footage of when they were in the desert. To Jack's horror, the video not only reveals that Julia and Ricky had an affair but also shows how Charley engaged in a vicious fight with Ricky and Vince. All of them end up in the communications room where Julia kisses a subdued Charley, injecting a stream of swarm into his mouth while Ricky sabotages the communication systems, and they leave Charley to die from the swarm.
Eventually, Jack and Mae realize that everyone in the facility except themselves have been infected by a symbiotic version of the nanobot swarms. These nanobots, although evolved alongside the other swarms, do not show aggressive predatory behavior. Instead, while they seem to invigorate their hosts' physical attributes and their emotional perceptions, the nanobots slowly devour and take over their hosts to produce more nanobots, and in the process affect their decision making and then the bots control them, while allowing them to travel and contaminate others.
Jack comes up with a plan to destroy this new strain. Mae and Jack drink vials containing a form of phage that kills the nanobot-producing E. coli bacteria and thus would protect them from infection by the nanobots. Jack then proceeds to take a sample of the phage and pour it into the sprinkler system and drench everyone with it. He has Mae alert Julia and the infected team. They set out to stop Jack. In the vicious struggle that ensues, Jack is captured and thrown into a magnetic chamber, with Ricky threatening him to either reveal his plan or be killed by the magnets. Jack feigns surrender when Julia walks in to interrogate him, but Jack then reactivates the magnetic chamber with Julia inside, remembering the incident with Amanda in the MRI. Julia's body disintegrates as a swarm is pulled away by the magnetic field to temporarily reveal the real Julia, who has slowly been consumed by the parasitic swarm. Before the swarm can repossess her body, Julia begs Jack to forgive her for putting him in danger, says she loves him, and tells him to stop the swarms and save their children from the same fate, as they have been infected too. Motivated, Jack runs to the roof, fights off the infected team, and finally manages to place the sample into the sprinkler system.
In order to prevent the sprinkler system from triggering, infected-Ricky disables the plant's safety network. However, this is exactly what Jack wants, as Mae has already allowed the phage into the assembly line, causing the phage to reproduce rapidly. The assembly line is rapidly overheating because of the de-activated safety system. If infected-Ricky and infected-Julia don't turn on the safety system the assembly line will burst, filling the lab with the phage. The infected-team, who are now doomed either way, choose to re-activate the safety network and get drenched with the phage. Jack and Mae escape the facility in a helicopter shortly before the facility explodes due to a methane gas leak combined with thermite Mae has placed in the building.
After returning home, Jack doses his children and sister with the phage to eradicate the potential nanobot infestation. Mae calls the U.S. Army and sends a sample of the phage to her lab.
Jack puts together all the missing links. The corrosion of the memory chips in his home's electronics and Amanda's skin rash were caused by nanobot assemblers spread by infected-Julia. The MRI's strong magnetic field detached the assemblers from Amanda. Knowing this, Julia called in the Xymos special team to scan Amanda's room. The person whom Jack spotted in Julia's car was in fact the Ricky-swarm. Xymos had intentionally released the swarm into the desert so that it would evolve to stay in a cohesive group in the wind, but then they called him in to destroy the wild strain once it became uncontrollable.
- Jack Forman – A former team lead/manager at MediaTronics working on distributed, multi-agent systems and advanced computer algorithms
- Julia Forman – Jack's wife, Vice president of the Xymos company.
- Mae Chang – A field biologist on Jack's consulting team
- Ricky Morse – A friend of Jack's, works for Xymos
- Charley Davenport – A member of Jack's team who specializes in genetic algorithms.
- David Brooks – An engineer on the team.
- Rosie Castro – A specialist in natural language processing.
- The "Swarm" – Any of the many predatory clouds of nano-machines that "eat" animals serving as an antagonistic force in the novel. "Eating" means suffocating the animals and growing bacteria on them, thereby producing more nano-machine assemblers, and more nano-machines. A notable aspect of the swarm is its capacity for fully Lamarckian evolution, as each cloud's members can effectively choose exactly which aspects are to be transmitted or modified down into the next generation through manipulation of the E. coli bacteria used to produce the new robots.
- Vince Reynolds – the maintenance operator of the Xymos lab.
- Amanda – Jack and Julia's baby daughter.
- Nicole – Jack and Julia's preteen daughter.
- Eric – Jack and Julia's son.
- Ellen – Jack's sister from out of town. She takes care of his kids while he is in Nevada and believes Julia is on stimulants.
- Don Gross – Jack's former boss, who fired Jack.
- Gary – Jack's lawyer.
- Maria – Jack and Julia's housekeeper.
- Annie – Jack's headhunter.
- Carol – Julia's assistant.
- Mary – Ricky's wife.
- Bobby Lembeck – Computer programmer at Xymos
- Tim Berman – The man that took over Jack's job.
Peter Guttridge, writing for The Observer, said that it finds Crichton "doing what he does best", in that he takes "the very latest scientific advances" and shows "their potentially terrifying underbelly".
- Boehm, Erich. "20th hunts Crichton's 'Prey'". Variety.
- Holt, Jim (24 November 2002). "It's the Little Things". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 January 2011.
- Guttridge, Peter (15 December 2002). "Outlook cloudy". The Observer. Retrieved 28 January 2011.
- Jones, Richard (December 9, 2004). "Social and economic aspects of nanotechnology". Soft Machines.
- Dyson, Freeman (February 13, 2003). "The Future Needs Us! Prey by Michael Crichton". The New York Review of Books.
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