Of all the hyperbolic opinions mouthed in Michael Crichton's State Of Fear, the most ludicrous comes at the opening of Crichton's first afterword: "A novel such as State Of Fear, in which so many divergent views are expressed, may lead the reader to wonder where, exactly, the author stands on these issues." In reality, readers who get through State Of Fear's endless patronizing, one-sided polemics without grasping Crichton's point have presumably skipped every third chapter, and skimmed over everything else.

Actually, fans of Crichton's usual destined-for-the-screen thrillers (Jurassic Park, Timeline, etc.) might find that reading strategy reasonable. State Of Fear opens with a variety of choppy teasers that set up impending action in various parts of the world, but eventually it focuses on personality-free hero Peter Evans, an ignorant, diffident junior law associate who inexplicably becomes a key player in a vast global conspiracy. As the favorite lawyer of millionaire philanthropist George Morton, Evans is drawn into action-movie land when Morton moves to withdraw a $10 million contribution to the National Environmental Resource Fund, a.k.a. NERF—and then promptly disappears after a car accident. As comically evil NERF spokesman Nicholas Drake fights to secure the promised $10 million, other players drag the hapless Evans around the world, combating a NERF-related plot to stir up publicity via a series of horrific staged catastrophes meant to make global warming look like a serious threat.

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As an ordinary guy amid extraordinary events, Evans is an obvious audience avatar, but he's also a straw man of the worst kind—one that the author doesn't even bother to prop up. Evans considers himself a knowledgeable environmentalist, but when smarter and more competent characters repeatedly interrupt the action to present charts, graphs, studies, URLs, and reasoned arguments explaining why global warming is a myth and current conventional wisdom about the environment is misguided, Evans responds with sulking, denial, ad hominem attacks, and unsubstantiated rebuttals like "Come on, guys. Antarctica is melting." Eventually, inevitably, he sees the light, in a crisis-spawned turnaround that's as clumsily and transparently orchestrated as the "debates" that convince him. Whereupon an even more myopic straw man emerges to resist Crichton's heavily footnoted data with whining, smirking, and schoolyard name-calling, at least until Crichton viciously punishes his arrogance.

Crichton is admittedly dumbing down a complicated argument for a beach-blanket audience that likely wouldn't touch a non-fiction study of the issues. But even previously uncommitted readers should look askance at the simplistic conflict between the dashing, competent, well-informed heroes who don't buy into global warming, and the smug, shallow, incoherent imbeciles who do. And Crichton's energy is noticeably focused on that debate rather than the adventure that frames it, given State Of Fear's flat, minimal, lowest-common-denominator prose, weak story logic, and randomly misplaced subplots. Crichton's readers deserve better. His thesis deserves better. Even his vaguely drawn cardboard characters deserve better, in the form of a story that doesn't make them all look like putzes, no matter what side they're on.