First edition cover
|Genre||Science fiction novel, Techno-thriller|
|May 12, 1987|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|LC Class||PS3553.R48 S6 1987|
The story follows Norman Johnson, a psychologist engaged by the United States Navy, who joins a team of scientists assembled to examine a spacecraft of unknown origin discovered on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The novel begins as a science fiction story but quickly transforms into a psychological thriller, developing into an exploration of the nature of the human imagination.
A group of scientists (psychologist Norman Johnson; mathematician Harry Adams; zoologist Beth Halpern; astrophysicist Ted Fielding; marine biologist Arthur Levine) together with U.S. Navy personnel travel to a deep sea habitat at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
During the descent the marine biologist (Levine) becomes claustrophobic, and is returned topside. The other scientists arrive safely at Habitat DH-8. After their arrival and subsequent pressurization to the habitat's exotic-gas environment, the Navy sends a robot to enter the spacecraft first, which locates and opens a panel near the spacecraft door.
As the robot's cameras focus on the opened panel, labels in English indicate the spacecraft is an American spacecraft constructed in the future and sent through time, appearing on the seabed at least 350 years before its creation. The robot is unable to open a hatch leading further inside, forcing the team to don pressure suits and explore the spacecraft, discovering a mysterious spherical artifact that is clearly of extraterrestrial origin.
Reasoning the ship's future builders were apparently unaware that it had already been found in their past, Adams becomes convinced that the team will not survive to report their discovery.
Remaining behind after the rest of the team returns to the habitat, Adams succeeds in 'opening' and 'entering' the sphere. Meanwhile on the surface a Pacific cyclone forces the supporting Naval ships to evacuate, trapping and isolating the scientists on the ocean floor for five days. Adams is found and returned to the DH-8 Habitat where he awakes with a terrible headache and little or no memory of how he opened the sphere or what occurred while he was inside, just before the team is contacted by an intelligent, seemingly friendly alien entity which calls itself Jerry.
At first 'Jerry' communicates with the scientists using a numeric code transmitted to the habitat's computer which Harry eventually translates. While the team struggles to communicate with Jerry, increasingly bizarre and deadly events occur, including the appearance of impossible sea creatures that Beth claims cannot exist, confirmed when 'Jerry' informs them he/she/it is "manifesting" the creatures.
At this point Members of the team start to die in various attacks by sea life, the dwindling band of survivors struggle in their dealings with the unthinkably powerful, childlike, and temperamental alien entity. Johnson realises he must use psychology to keep the remaining survivors alive (Johnson, Adams, Halpern).
After retranslating the original code, Johnson realises by transposition the entity's name should be 'Harry' (Adams), who it transpires has acquired the power to manifest his subconscious thoughts into reality by 'entering' the alien sphere. (Confirmed by his childhood fear of squid, especially the giant squid in the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, manifested in the form of a vast number of small squid and later a giant squid that attacks the DH-8 Habitat.)
Johnson and Halpern sedate Adams and wait for contact to be re-established with the surface but the manifestations continue. Halpern accuses Norman of having entered the sphere and gaining access to the power. While unable to recall this incident Johnson comes close to yielding until he watches a security video of Beth entering the sphere herself. Rejecting the notion, Hapern decides that Johnson is an imminent threat and defends herself by planting potent explosives around the spacecraft and habitat, then she attempts to suffocate Johnson by manipulating the habitat's life-support system.
Escaping from the habitat, Johnson goes to the spacecraft and enters presence of the sphere, then the sphere itself, and decides to escape using the submarine docked at Habitat DH-7, a nearby habitat for Navy personnel but cannot abandon the other survivors. Now empowered in the same way as Adams and Halpern, Johnson returns to DH-8 and using the submarine the trio escape before the explosives set by Halpern count down and destroy the spaceship, the research habitat and surrounding site.
On the surface, confined to a decompression chamber, the trio ponder on what version of their story to tell the Navy.
Realising they could not control the power granted them by the sphere they decide it is knowledge too dangerous to be communicated and so resolve to use the power to remove it from themselves and alter their memories, replacing the fantastical experiences with more mundane memories of a technical failure.
Finally, as the trio mourn the colleagues lost, Johnson notices Halpern looks lovely despite her hardships, hinting that she has not entirely given up the powers granted by the sphere.
Norman Johnson is the protagonist and a psychologist who 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 request to do so as a joke at the time.
These procedures were outlined in a report entitled Recommendations for the Human Contact Team to Interact With Unknown Life Forms, often abbreviated ULF. Despite being the least physically fit team member in the context of an underwater habitat, he is arguably the most level-headed of the group (though even he exhibits moments of irrationality). Nonetheless, Johnson takes time and trouble to tallow the group to collaborate.
Harry Adams is a young, intelligent, African American. While intellectually gifted and professionally secure the mathematician is arrogant, unsympathetic, disdainful and often uncooperative with the others, a legacy of growing up as a mathematical prodigy in who was often picked on as a child because of his lack of athletic talent.
Elizabeth Halpern is gentle and caring while simultaneously fierce, combative, and confrontational. She perceives herself as being dominated by the male scientists, with the implication she kept her 'powers' at the end of the novel to redress the perceived imbalance.
Theodore Fielding is portrayed as an enthusiastic opportunist whose pretensions tends to inhibit his relationships with the others despite apparently good intentions. (It is later revealed his ambition is driven by anxiety, and a conviction he has to achieve fame and do so fast, because he believes that the time for him to do so is fast running out.)
Arthur Levine is the sole member of the team not chosen by Norman (mentioned in the ULF report). He is also the only team member who doesn't make the descent to the crash site.
Harold C. Barnes is a former Naval officer who has charge of the underwater scientific investigation. His manner is usually brusque, impatient, and distrustful - possibly as a result of his military background - leads to conflicts with the other main characters, all of the academics, and it is implied he has withheld crucial information from the team and his crew, following his own agenda at the expense of the others with tragic consequences.
Alice "Teeny" Fletcher is a Navy engineer in charge of maintaining the habitat. Friendly and - despite Norman's initial skepticism - extremely competent. It is not specifically explained how she dies, but the survivors find a trail of blood and one of her shoes after the second giant squid attack.
Tina Chan — is a Navy habitat crew member. She develops a friendship with Halpern throughout the book and is one of the longest surviving Navy personnel killed by the manifestations.
Rose Levy — Naval officer and the cook in the habitat.
Jane Edmunds — Navy's archivist responsible for recording events and transferring the tapes to the submarine at DH-7, pre-programmed to return to the surface if not reset before a failsafe 12-hour countdown reaches 0, intended to ensure that at the very least a partial record will survive in case of catastrophe.
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 stenciled markings in English. However, after that beginning Crichton realized that he "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 differences. The film received negative reviews from critics and has been described as 'bombing' at the box office. Rated 12% by Rotten Tomatoes (audience score of 39%) with the consensus opinion: 'Sphere features an A-level cast working with B-grade material, with a story seen previously in superior science-fiction films'. Film critic Roger Ebert opined Sphere 'is a watered-down take on the sci-fi classic Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, which was made into an immeasurably better film by Andrei Tarkovsky'.
Reviews were mostly positive for the novel.
- Peter Gorner (1987-06-24). "An Author Of Pleasurable Fear - tribunedigital-chicagotribune". Articles.chicagotribune.com. Retrieved 2015-10-18.
- "Anybody Home?". NYTimes.com. 1987-07-12. Retrieved 2015-10-18.