Michael Crichton has spent a great deal of his career in effect rewriting Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. With dinosaurs, with satellites and probes, with biology, even with time travel, Crichton has focused his creative energy on telling and re-telling the story of the thing which is better left alone.
Crichton's trademark, for years, has been his use of hard science and hard medicine, his integration of graphs, figures, printouts, timelines, and references to real articles in scientific journals, into the text of his novels. It seems somewhat ironic, then, that even with a medical degree and experience in the field, Crichton's theses never seem to diverge far from Shelley's century-and-a-half distant warning to avoid tinkering with nature, lest very bad things happening; and that, though Crichton obviously spends a great deal of effort on his scientific research, his use of such complex ideas as chaos theory, quantum theory, and neural biology serve mostly to prop up Murphy's (or, more accurately, Finagle's) Law.
Systems will break down; anything that can go wrong, will.
The Terminal Man is a novel about the interplay between man and machine.
Harry Benson is a man who has spent most of his life trying to teach machines how to act like people, programming artificial intelligence. After a damaging experience with another type of machine (in the form of a car accident), Mr. Benson becomes what one might call defective: he is diagnosed with psychomotor epilepsy, a form of epilepsy involving changes in personality, altered consciousness, and often blackouts, rather than the more commonly associated convulsions. He has also developed a personality disorder involving his paranoia that machines are conspiring to take over the planet. During his seizures, he becomes quite violent, often attacking and attempting to kill people—especially those who repair or maintain machines (mechanics, etc.). And, since, Mr. Benson is resistant to medication, the proposed solution to his condition is the implanting of a small computer (the size of a postage stamp) into his neck, connected to forty electrodes implanted in his brain, and powered by a battery implanted in his shoulder. In effect, making him part machine.
I would not, normally, be one to suggest that Crichton has a gift for irony, but in this case I feel compelled.
The word "terminal" is one of those fairly general words that becomes jargon in a number of fields, referring to vastly differing, specific, ideas. Comedians love these (see George Carlin's airport terminal bit, for example). "Terminal," generally speaking, means "end point." In medicine, the term refers to conditions that are, or will eventually be, fatal. In computer terms, "terminal" is an access point to a computer. Once Harry Benson's operation is complete, he becomes a "terminal man" on both counts. The inevitable Crichton technological cynicism kicks in, Benson's brain goes into seizure more and more often (at first, the electrodes are able to negate these seizures, but as they grow closer together, they reach a sort of point-of-no-return), the situation spirals out of the control of doctors and police, the thriller part of "techno-thriller" (a genre supposedly invented by Crichton) takes over, and the very bad things that we all suspected would happen, happen.
There is a good deal of thought to this novel; such things as a comparison between the relationship of the two separate AIs in this novel to one-another and that between the psychotic Benson and "Dr. Ross," his doctor, toward the end of the story, might make fairly interesting essays in their own right. The presentation of this novel is innovative, including at one point a copy of a completed police "crime report" form, and ending with a fairly exhaustive bibliography of the research into psychomotor epilepsy of the time. The story and the theme, however, are not particularly original, and indeed Crichton has re-approached them in more interesting and startling ways later on in his career. This is a novel that serves more to show the potential of how a text can be used than the power of using a text to its potential.
The Terminal Man
by Michael Crichton
287 pages, Copyright © 1972 by Michael Crichton
Alfred A. Knopf