John C Adams Reviews 'Congo'

Congo by Michael Crichton

(Knopf, 1980)

One of our family ended up with a pre-loved double volume of Michael Crichton novels last Christmas as a gift, so I took a look at it in between overeating and binge watching TV. I'd seen plenty of movies based on Crichton novels, including the Jurassic Park franchise which I really love, but I'd somehow never got around to reading any of his novels. I pitched in with 'Congo', partly because it sounded mysterious and partly because I wanted to read a novel of Crichton's where I hadn't already seen the film. A few pages in, I remembered that this novel had in fact been adapted for screen (dir, Frank Marshall) in 1995, and that I had seen it in the cinema when it was released. This didn't stop me from wanting to read the novel because I really enjoyed the film.

Karen Ross is an executive with Earth Resources Technology Services Inc, working out of Houston. One of her field teams is searching for industrial-grade blue diamonds in the Congo, but the latest satellite video sent from their camp shows a vicious attack on her personnel. She scrambles to send out a rescue mission that is also designed to outpace their competitors and locate the diamonds. Forays into the jungle don't come cheap, and something of value must emerge from the expedition if ERTS is to recoup the extensive cost of the rescue.

Karen has access to all manner of corporate resources to facilitate her expedition, including scientific research into gorilla behaviour and language taking place in the Department of Anthropology at Berkeley, led by Dr Peter Elliott. Peter and his research subject, Amy, a gorilla on the verge of adulthood, travel with Karen and the team deep into the jungle to search for the lost city of Zinj. Amy's drawings show graphic designs identified as matching those associated with the mythical city. Computer technology, and the last known coordinates of the first team, narrow down the likely location of the city. Commercial subterfuge, luck and sheer physical bravery get Karen, Peter, Amy and the team ahead of their competitors, but danger in the form of a previously unknown but highly aggressive new breed of grey gorilla awaits them.

As novels go this was straight-up action thriller. It was well paced, kept itself focused on the story and provided a variety of characters to facilitate the development and final conclusion of the plot. I liked that about it. It got the job done with the minimum of fuss and extraneous content, and there was a perpetual sense of the story moving forward.

As I began reading, I worried a little that the tech aspect (which is central to the story) would have become ridiculously outdated, but in fact it was very resilient. This was because the tech described was a mixture of state of the art then combined with a near-visionary element that has served the book well in the intervening forty years. The corporate ruthlessness and deviousness that underpins the story hasn't changed at all, and probably never will, so in that way it felt very relevant.

The novel was ahead of its time in (albeit gently) thinking about how man treats the natural world as a resource to be plundered for profit, including the primates who are so close to our own genetic inheritance. Amy, the gorilla, was one of the most vivid characters in the novel, as were Peter and Karen. Munro, the mercenary who makes the dash into the jungle even possible, was also tense and vibrant as a character. He was one of the nature's cynical survivors, and along with Amy I liked Munro the best.

Character was lightly sketched, giving plenty of space to action and plot. There was quite a tendency to provide blocks of description of history, culture and geography, which gave the feel of having come directly from Crichton's research. In an odd way, I liked this. The writer had done alot of research before starting to write, and he knew his stuff. This was one of the novel's key strengths.

By the end, I was still hooked on a tense and original story. I was also determined to read more Crichton novels. Job done!

I'll be back on Friday with an article about fantasy fiction. In the meantime, the comments section is open.

Many thanks to Johnny Chen, Milada Vigerova and Thomas Millot for providing the images for this blog via Unsplash.

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