The Terminal Man

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The Terminal Man
First edition cover
AuthorMichael Crichton
Cover artistPaul Bacon[1]
CountryUnited States
GenreScience fiction
Publication date
April 12, 1972
Media typePrint (hardcover)
LC ClassPZ4.C9178 Te PS3553.R48
Preceded byThe Andromeda Strain 
Followed byThe Great Train Robbery 

The Terminal Man is a novel by American writer Michael Crichton, about the dangers of mind control. It was published in April 1972, and also serialized in Playboy in March, April, and May 1972. In 1974, it was made into a film of the same name.

Plot summary[edit]

The events in the novel take place between March 9 and March 13, 1971. Harold Franklin "Harry" Benson, a computer scientist (specializing in artificial intelligence) in his middle thirties, is described as suffering from psychomotor epilepsy[2] following a car crash he had endured in 1969. He often has seizures followed by blackouts, and then wakes up hours later with no knowledge of what he has done. During his seizures, he severely beats two people; the day before his admission, he had been arrested after attacking a third, a gas-station attendant. He is a prime candidate for an operation to implant electrodes in the amygdala region of his brain in order to control the seizures, which will be performed in the Neuro-Psychiatric Service of University Hospital. Two NPS surgeons, John Ellis and Robert Morris, are to perform the surgery, which is unprecedented for the time. In modern medicine, such a device would be called a neurostimulator; in the book, it is referred to as a 'brain pacemaker'.

The ramifications of the procedure are questioned by the NPS's staff psychiatrist, Janet Ross, and later by her former teacher, an emeritus professor named Manon, at the lecture about the surgery. Manon raises concerns that Benson is psychotic (pointing to Benson's belief that machines are in hostile competition against humans and that machines will ultimately take over the world) and notes that the crimes he commits during the blackouts will not be curtailed. Ellis admits that what they are doing is not a cure, simply a way to stimulate the brain when the computer senses a seizure coming on. It would prevent a seizure but not cure his personality disorder. Ellis rationalizes his approach by pointing out that he is not convinced that not operating on Benson will do him any favors; Benson's condition threatens his life and those of others, has already undermined his legal status three times, and is worsening. Despite the concerns voiced, the team decides to go ahead with the operation.

The operation implants forty electrodes in Benson's brain, controlled by a small computer that is powered by a plutonium power pack in his shoulder. Benson must wear a dogtag that says to call University Hospital if he is injured, as his atomic power pack may emit radiation. While he is recovering, a woman identifying herself by the name of Angela Black gives Morris a blonde wig for Benson, whose head was shaved prior to the operation.

Morris goes back to his normal work, where he interviews a man who volunteers to have electrodes put into his mind to stimulate pleasure. Morris refuses him, but realizes that people like Benson could potentially become addicts. He recalls a Norwegian man with schizophrenia, who was allowed to stimulate himself as much as he wanted, and did so much that it actually gave him brain damage.

Roger A. McPherson, head of the Neuro-Psychiatric Service, interviews Benson, who is still convinced that machines are conspiring to take over the world. McPherson realizes Manon and Ross were right and orders nurses to administer Thorazine to Benson.

After resting for a day, Benson goes through "interfacing." The forty electrodes in his brain are activated by computer technicians Gerhard and Richards, one by one, to see which ones would stop a seizure. Each produces different results. One of the electrodes stimulates a sexual pleasure. Ross asks Gerhard to monitor Benson every ten minutes.

Gerhard shows his findings to Ross, who realizes that the seizures are getting more frequent. She explains that Benson is learning to initiate seizures involuntarily because the result of these seizures is a shock of pleasure, which leads to him having more frequent seizures. Ross checks on Benson, and discovers that, due to the clerical error of the nurses not having been able to read McPherson's signature, Benson has not been receiving his Thorazine. She then finds out that Benson, using the black wig and disguising himself as an orderly, has evaded the police officer assigned to guard him and escaped from the hospital.

Ross goes to Benson's house, but instead finds two girls who say he has a gun and blueprints for the basement of University Hospital, where the computer mainframe is located. Ellis searches at a strip club where Benson, who is fascinated with all things sexual, spends a lot of time, but fails to find him. Morris goes to the firm where Benson is employed, and there meets Benson's boss who tells him that Benson disliked University Hospital because of its ultra-modern computer system, an upgraded IBM System/360 which the hospital had obtained during "Watershed Week," a week in July 1969 during which the total information-handling capacity of all the world's computers exceeded that of all the world's human brains.

Ross is contacted by Los Angeles Police Captain of Detectives John Anders, a homicide detective who had found Benson's dogtag at the murder scene of Angela Black. (She proves to have been a dancer with the real name of Doris Blankfurt.) After answering questions at the police station, Ross goes home. Benson arrives at her house, and has a seizure, which causes him to attack Ross. Just before losing consciousness herself, Ross manages to turn on her microwave oven. The microwave radiation disrupts the atomic pacemaker in Benson's shoulder, and he flees. After switching clothes to hide the bruises on her neck, Ross goes back to the hospital and goes to sleep.

When Blankfurt/Black is brought back to the hospital for autopsy, pathologists find a book of matches that have the name of an airport hotel. Morris goes to this airport hotel, where he remembers that Benson had first been arrested for assault and battery, and a bartender says he saw Benson an hour ago leaving with a mechanic identified as "Joe," who took him to the hangar. Morris goes to this hangar and finds Joe severely beaten. He is in turn attacked by Benson, who smashes the lower part of his face in with a steel pipe and then flees.

Ross, back at the hospital, is awakened by Gerhard. She has a call from Benson. When Anders traces the call, he realizes that Benson is inside the hospital. Gerhard's and Richards's computers begin to malfunction, as if somebody was disturbing the mainframe. Anders and Ross go down into the basement in search of Benson. Anders locates Benson and has a brief firefight, injuring and disarming Benson before becoming lost in the maze of corridors. Benson goes back to the computer room to finish shutting down the computer mainframe and finds Ross. After Ross picks up Benson's gun, Benson returns to the computer and goes to steal the gun from Ross. After an intense, tearful internal struggle, Ross finally shoots and kills Benson unintentionally.


At one stage it was known as The Sympathetic Man.[3]

Crichton stated at one point that out of his body of work, it was his least favorite.[4]

Film adaptation[edit]

The novel was made into a film in 1974.[5]


Like his previous bestseller The Andromeda Strain, reviews for The Terminal Man were widely positive.

Los Angeles Times called it "an entertaining and unsparing narrative, compressed and scientifically sound."[6]

The New Yorker called the novel "A fascinating, splendidly documented thriller."

Life said it was "An absolutely riveting novel."

John Barkham Reviews called it "A superb thriller..." and said "It will make you think-and shudder."[7]

The novel was criticised by the American Epilepsy Foundation who said it unfairly linked epilepsy with violence.[8]


  1. ^ Modern first editions - a set on Flickr
  2. ^ This was changed to Acute Disinhibitory Lesion (ADL) syndrome in subsequent reprints.
  3. ^ Hollywood Today: Mike Crichton, a Skyscraper in Any Form Norma Lee Browning. Chicago Tribune 30 Aug 1970: s2.
  4. ^ Interview at
  5. ^ The Terminal Man (1974) on IMDb
  6. ^ THE BOOK REPORT: Mind Control by Surgeon's Scalpel Kirsch, Robert. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 24 May 1972: f6.
  7. ^ First Ballantine Books Edition: January 1988
  8. ^ CROMIE ON BOOKS: Is Crichton bestseller unjust to epileptics? Cromie, Robert. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 06 Aug 1972: h5.