Who invented the techno-thriller? If your taste is military and hardware, then Tom Clancy. If other techno-areas, Michael Crichton gets the nod.
When we think techno-thriller, we tend to be looking forward—the newest ships and planes (in Clancy-land). Or medical or science technologies that are just over the horizon—as in cloning dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK, the perils of nanotechnology in PREY, biotech in THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, quantum physics as a route to time–travel in TIMELINE.
But we think of techno-thrillers as looking ahead to oncoming tech. What about techno of the past—“retro-tech”? In the course of plumbing the depths of my book-shelves, I discovered that Michael Crichton wrote (if I may coin the term) a “retro-techno-thriller,” way back in the 1970’s. Retro-techno, as it centered around that tech breakthroughs of the mid-1800’s –that new phenomenon, the steam-powered railroads that were extending across England. What was Michael Crichton’s “retro-techno-thriller”? THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY.
I’d read it a long while back–see the cover above scanned from copy I read back in 1979 and again this week. That was probably just before seeing the 1979 movie with Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland, written and directed by none other than the same Michael Crichton.
In any case, I picked it off the shelf to have another read and found it was like all new to me . . .and very good, even by the usual high standards of a Crichton. In my mind, good thrillers—or novels, for that matter–are not only interesting in covering places, people, events and so on, but are also worthwhile. What do I mean by worthwhile? Basically, that I learn something interesting and significant while following the story.
TRAIN drew me on—built as it is around short, punchy chapters. As for “worthwhile”, I feel I learned more about life in Victorian London than from plowing through a handful of non-fiction tomes of that era (perhaps because I’d have fallen asleep long before those dry, academic accounts ended!) Not so with TRAIN—the background, the history, the way of life and expectations across class lines are so well integrated that you learn about that era as you follow on the cascade of events that led up to the robbery itself. And done subtly, though–in several chapters, background of the era begins, then blends into the “now” of the action.