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 (psychologist Norman Johnson, mathematician Harry Adams, zoologist Beth Halpern, astrophysicist Ted Fielding, and marine biologist Arthur Levine) are dispatched, along with U.S. Navy personnel, to a deep sea habitat at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to explore a crashed spacecraft. Levine becomes claustrophobic during the descent and is returned topside; all other scientists arrive safely at the 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. The team is astonished as they watch the robot focus on the opened panel to reveal labels written in English; the spacecraft is not alien, but an American spacecraft constructed in the future and sent through time, "arriving" at least 350 years before its creation. The robot is unable to press the button to open the door, however, and the team suits up to explore the spacecraft. During their visit, they discover a mysterious spherical artifact, clearly of extraterrestrial origin, which quickly becomes the focus of their attention. Harry becomes convinced that, because the ship's future builders were apparently unaware that it had already been found in their past, the members of the team are unlikely to survive to report their discovery. He remains behind while the rest of the team returns to the habitat and succeeds in opening and entering the sphere. At this point, a Pacific cyclone on the surface forces the supporting Naval ships to evacuate, trapping the scientists on the ocean floor without contact or support for five days. Harry is returned to DH-8, where he has a terrible headache and remembers little about how he opened the sphere or what events occurred inside.
The team is later contacted by an intelligent, seemingly friendly life form which calls itself Jerry. It first contacts them via a numeric code transmitted to the habitat's computer, which Harry eventually 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 Beth, Harry, and himself) 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. His childhood fear of squid, and especially the giant squid in the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, has been manifested into a horde of small squid with only six tentacles and, later, a giant squid that attacks the habitat.
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. Beth cannot admit that she has the power and instead concludes that Norman is a threat to her. She decides to defend herself by planting 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 docked at DH-7 (a cramped, nearby habitat for Naval personnel), but realizes that he could never leave the others to die. Now with the same power of thought as Harry and Beth, Norman returns to DH-8 and brings both to the 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's 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 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 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 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.
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 the novel progresses it becomes apparent that she is the most out of touch with her emotions, and so the most dangerous character given the nature of the Sphere. It is implied that she kept "the power" at the end of the novel.
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.
Arthur Levine — Arthur is the one member of the team not chosen by Norman in the ULF report, though Norman admits, in hindsight, that including a marine biologist (Arthur's profession) would be logical given that approximately 70% of the Earth is covered in water. Arthur suffers from claustrophobia on the submarine voyage to the habitat, and is returned topside.
Harold C. Barnes — Harold (Hal) is a former Navy officer in charge of the underwater scientific investigation. Given that he has a military background, his interests tend to conflict with the other main characters. His manner is usually brusque, impatient, and distrustful. He also withholds crucial information from his crew and follows his own agenda at their expense.
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 find a trail of blood and one of her shoes after the second giant squid attack.
Tina Chan — Tina is a Navy habitat crew member. She develops a friendship with Beth throughout the book, and is one of the last Navy personnel to be killed by the manifestations.
Rose Levy — Rose is a Naval officer and the cook in the habitat.
Jane Edmunds — Jane is the Navy's archivist. She is responsible for recording events and transferring the tapes to the submarine at DH-7, which will automatically blow its ballasts and return to the surface if not reset before it's 12-hour countdown reaches 0. This insures that the Navy will at least have a partial record 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 stencilled markings 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.