Michael Crichton, bestselling author, was thinking about genes a lot. He looked around the Internet. He read a bunch of articles. Some of them disturbed him. Crichton decided to write a novel about genes. He filled it with bits of information. He created some plots drawing on hot-button topics. He wrote about the legal entanglements of DNA testing and genetic engineering. He wrote in short, easy-to-read sentences. He heard President Bush talk about human-animal hybrids. Crichton threw in some talking animals. They talked in short, easy-to-read sentences too. He called his novel Next.

But calling Next a novel is something of a stretch. A series of plots looking for a plan, Crichton's latest is as carefully researched as it is sloppily assembled. A prickly parrot with human genes gets in trouble for saying too much. A genetic researcher inadvertently tests a process to force maturity on a human subject, with unexpected results. An orangutan starts speaking Dutch. A university aggressively pursues its rights to genetic material from a recovering cancer patient. A researcher does the responsible thing and starts raising a talking chimpanzee/human hybrid as his own child. Three hundred pages into his 400-page book, Crichton still hasn't finished introducing (and subsequently forgetting) subplots and characters. It's as if he couldn't decide which book to write, so he simply wrote them all.

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He might have done well to stick with the parrot and the humanzee, and not just because there's something inherently compelling about animals who talk: They're the most carefully crafted and sympathetic characters in a book that surrounds them with cardboard dialogue-generators. By waiting until the novel's end to bring them together, he misses a golden opportunity, and he strands readers with bounty hunters, worried scientists, and other less-interesting types who serve as mouthpieces for his concerns with gene patents, biotechnology gone wild, and the legal system's inability to deal with the new realities of 21st-century science. (And in case anyone missed the point, Crichton ends with an author's note laying out his exact opinions on the subjects.) As usual, Crichton remains at the forefront of popular speculative fiction. Too bad that this time out, he doesn't know what he wants to do there.