Author: Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton – author of such diverse tales as ‘Rising Sun’ and ‘Jurassic Park’ – switched contextual arenas once again with the publishing of ‘Disclosure’ in 1994. Gone are the worlds of amber-preserved mosquito-extracted dinosaur DNA and hospital emergency rooms, exchanged instead for your run of the mill fast-paced, trend-setting, cut-of-the-edge IT company. Some eighteen years later, the story remains relevant – despite the exponential growth of computer hardware and information technology. Perhaps it was sheer coincidence that the area of technology Crichton chose to set his story in virtually stopped (pun intended) around the time of publishing. Perhaps it was brilliant research on his part. It may even have been an innate suspicion that humans would be satisfied with the much cheaper technology of two-dimensional graphical or textual representations of three- and four- dimensional virtual worlds.
Virtual technology. Where it was at, way back in 1994 – VT and CD-ROMs. And baud modems. The last two clearly date the novel, but the interest – rather the primary focus (and essential plot device) – is Virtual Technology, and surprisingly the technology envisioned in the novel has not really progressed in the real world. This has been a fortunate turn of events, as the story reads more like an original Star Trek episode than a dated technological leviathan.
Tom Sanders, the loveable and only slightly flawed protagonist, is a mid level manager at the aptly named company Digital Communications Technology (DigiCom), unofficially but expectantly in line for a promotion when the unthinkable happens: an ex-lover who also happens to be the up-and-comer in the DigiCom’s corporate arena gets the promotion instead. Also, a stand-alone CD-ROM drive in production is coming off the line under specs without an obvious cause for the problem, and it’s his responsibility to fix it. Meredith, his ex-lover and now boss, under the guise of wanting to ensure a smooth transition, invites him to her office for a friendly drink at the end of the day, where she attempts to seduce him. He is, like all good husbands conflicted – and does not go through with the act, so is stunned to find the following day that she is suing him for sexual harassment He flips the case on her, hires an aggressive defense attorney and countersues for sexual harassment.
Shakespeare had his handkerchief which was fatal for Desdemona: Tom has his phone recording. Unbeknownst to him at the time, his phone was still connected to an answering machine, and the whole encounter between Tom and Meredith was recorded. When it surfaces – things seemingly are restored to order, but an anonymous warning prompts Tom to keep his eyes open. Which is of course lucky, because the best is yet to come.
Crichton’s characters are believable – even Meredith. The reader attraction to Tom comes from his ‘down-to-earth’ quality, his honesty, his laymanship. Not surprisingly, this particular quality inherent in Tom (namely, his non-technical savvy) functions as a device to translate the alienating high-tech world to the reader: a technique of which Crichton is a master.
Meredith is a more complicated subject. Criticised by feminist readers as a gross misrepresentation of women in general, and believing that the whole novel is anti-feminist: it must be conceded that…..
…. men indeed might read the novel and think “yay, the bitch got what she deserved,” but in the final scenes, Crichton successfully manages to raise (although cover with no depth whatsoever) some of the issues that women face – some eighteen years after publication continue to face – in the workforce, including the charge that women must deploy different tactics to compete on what is in the corporate world an uneven playing field. Given the long history and countless instances of nepotism and cronyism in many organisations (not just corporate) worldwide that happen on a daily basis, I think Crichton, through Meredith, raises a valid point. Certainly it would seem disturbing to us that a woman would alter her appearance to gain favour when we are confronted with the hypothetical, point blank (and Crichton does succinctly point out that men do the same, just in different areas): but the reality is women everywhere everyday do this with the simple act of applying makeup. One point I think even the feminist critiques must concede is that the corporate power structure, regardless of the sex of the offender and their offending history, has probably been portrayed pretty accurately in their eagerness to protect one of the fold. Crichton has argued in defense of claims of anti-feminism that the clear gender ‘role reversal’ was necessary to elucidate some of the more meaty plot-lines and subject matter happening around the seven or so pages of not so badly written stunted sex.
One of my old university lecturers once said that Shakespeare wrote as much for the intellectually elite as he did for the peanut gallery (by now, you should have figured I did at least one English Lit subject on Shakespeare). Given his status as a best-selling author, it is easy for the so-called ‘intellectually elite’ to dismiss Crichton’s writing as fodder (and if you’ve only seen the god-awful movie adaptation starring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas, no-one could blame you for that!), but I think the same comment can be made for most of what Crichton pens. The fault of the movie was to turn the story into sex, but the book was about actually about power. Sexual harassment was the weapon – Meredith wanted to, needed to get him out of the picture in order to scapegoat him for the manufacturing problems she was effectively responsible for. Power, deception, corporate games, gender roles in the workforce and to a lesser extent in the home, and the nature of the corporate hierarchy – all woven into an easy-to-read, suspenseful and engaging story, where some kind of natural justice is served (at least for the patriarchs, misogynists and people who just think Tom was a nice guy who deserved to be vindicated). It can be easy to overlook the nuances of the secondary subject matter; but they are there – and what’s more: after eighteen years, and a rather lucky choice of technology as part of the main narrative – they are still incredibly relevant. That is the mark of a good writer, no matter how many books they sell.