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Congo by Michael Crichton

Congo (original 1980; edition 1992)

by Michael Crichton (Author)

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6,84183966 (3.27)88
Armed with the latest gifts of advanced technology, a California scientist (male), a ruthless corporation agent (female), and a mercenary hunter (male) face the dangers of the Congo jungle in search of the diamonds of the lost city of Zinj.
Authors:Michael Crichton (Author)
Info:Ballantine Books (1992), 336 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, American, science-fiction, twentieth-century

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Congo by Michael Crichton (1980)


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Michael Crichton


Arrow, Paperback [1993].

12mo. xiv+370 pp.

First published, 1980.
Arrow edition, 1993.


Prologue: The Place of Bones

Day 1: Houston
Day 2: San Francisco
Day 3: Tangier
Day 4: Nairobi
Day 5: Moruti
Day 6: Liko
Day 7: Mukenko
Day 8: Kanyamagufa
Day 9: Zinj
Day 10: Zinj
Day 11: Zinj
Day 12: Zinj
Day 13: Mukenko

Epilogue: The Place of Fire


This novel is Michael Crichton showing Rider Haggard how it is done. The poor mines of King Solomon are reduced to a minor element in a vast plot that stretches from cannibals and killer gorillas in the jungles of Congo to cutting-edge research in primatology (studying primates, that is) and communications all over the world, among quite a few other things. By implication in the near future, even World War III and the end of the nuclear age are involved. The whole thing is totally fantastic, swells to epic proportions, proceeds at breakneck speed from start to finish, and almost derails several times. It’s all just a little overwhelming. But Crichton somehow pulls it off. (Don’t ask me how, I’ve no idea!) More than that, he makes it utterly engrossing. Even I, multiple winner of The Slowest Reader Award, finished this book in mere two days.

Three human beings and one primate are almost lost in the maelstrom of action and intrigue. Karen Ross is the epitome of scientific curiosity married to insatiable ambition – a dangerous combination. I’d hate to have a date with her, but I’d love to have an appointment. Peter Elliot is a primatologist all but married to his female research project. This is Amy, one of the very few talking gorillas in the world, quite fluent in ASL (American Sign Language). Captain Munro is the joker in the pack. He is the great white hunter updated to gun smuggler and mercenary who would stoop to everything and stop at nothing to get the job done. Amy, childish and charming, is much the most likeable character, but none of the others is entirely forgettable.

Crichton’s research is typically wide-ranging and ingeniously used. He mixes history and fantasy with breathtaking virtuosity. The references in the end are real books and papers (and quite an interesting read some of them make!), but the footnotes and the introduction are mostly part of the fiction. The main text is riddled with simple facts, twisted facts and invented “facts”. For my part, a writer of fiction is fully justified in doing that so long as the final result is stimulating and coherent enough. Crichton achieves that objective. It is not his fault that some people are stupid enough to take novels for non-fiction.

The Virunga Mountains are quite real, of course, and so is most of the African geography described here. But the lost city of Zinj, built around the diamond mines of Solomon, is a complete myth. The whole history with the Arabic sources and the lost expeditions is Crichton’s own invention. One footnote mentions Rider Haggard who worked for the Governor of Natal in 1875 (true) and “presumably heard of Zinj from the neighbouring Zulus at the time” (rather a bold presumption). So far as we can tell, Rider Haggard invented the myth of Solomon’s mines by way of making the Biblical Ophir more attractive. The name of Zinj, like the city itself, appears to be Crichton’s idea.

Much of the background about primates and sign language is genuine, but, alas, nothing like the fluency and complexity of the communication between Peter and Amy has yet been achieved. Crichton tries hard to present it as laboured and inefficient, but still, even if you know nothing about the subject, it might well strike you (rightly) as way too sophisticated. Diamonds as a revolutionary industrial proposition is likewise Crichton’s rather wild extrapolation from history and physics. It is rather fanciful and almost certainly destined to remain science fiction forever. But it works well in this novel.

There are countless such examples. The Scottish nobleman Sir Anthony Forstmann who discovered the “Norwegian blue-crested grouse” in 1878 and “died of gambling debts and syphilis in 1880” is completely fictional. So is the French anthropologist Maurice Cavalle who published in 1955 a “controversial paper” titled “The Death of Nature”. Both are minor but charming and apposite parts from the background. We actually enjoy some quotes from Monsieur Cavalle’s paper and the tragic reflections of Lady Forstmann who was left for a – grouse.

All real science and technology described in this book are, of course, laughably dated today. You can always find nitpickers complaining about that. Same deal with the “sketchy”, “flat”, “one-dimensional” and so on characters. They are to be expected in a thriller, but try to explain this to the literati. The same smart set usually whines about the “corny”, “pedestrian”, “hackneyed” and so on style. (For the record, Crichton’s style and characters are quite adequate for his purposes.) There has never been shortage of people keen on missing the point – or simply too stupid to see the point. For the benefit of all others, especially those who have witnessed how modern science is made, here are two bits of timeless Crichtonian wisdom:

As a skilled grantsman, he had long ago grown comfortable with situations where other peoples’ money and his own motivations did not exactly coincide. This was the cynical side of academic life: how much pure research had been funded because it might cure cancer? A researcher promised anything to get his money.

He had seen it happen on expeditions before, particularly when scientists and technical people were involved. Scientists worked all day in laboratories where conditions could be rigorously regulated and monitored. Sooner or later, scientists came to believe that the outside world was just as controllable as their laboratories. Even though they knew better, the shock of discovering that the natural world followed its own rules and was indifferent to them represented a harsh psychic blow.

Among Michael Crichton’s better-known novels, Congo is to my mind one of the most underrated. It’s a ripping read. It’s not perfect, of course; nothing is, least of all thrillers on paper. If one must quibble, the high-tech detail, the background and the bleak future scenarios are occasionally just a little too much. Crichton was in love with those things and, as we all know, when you’re in love you do stupid things. No matter. The tension never drops and neither does the excitement. Page-turning entertainment doesn’t get much better than that. You could certainly do a lot worse with a thriller.

Quite apart from the pure pleasure, if the reader has retained his or her ability to be provoked to thought, the novel is more than a little thought-provoking on a number of subjects. These range from the ethics of science and business (pretty much the same thing today) to the tenuous difference between humans and other animals (language, even more than tools and society, is supposed to define us, but does it really?) to the frightful impact of man on nature (in ways way more subtle, far-reaching and frightening than pollution or destruction). If the book is indeed read by creatures who at least try to think, even casual bits of conversation would give them pause:

Elliot was unimpressed. These ideas of nature mirroring the affairs of man were very old – at least as old as Aesop, and about as scientific. “The natural world is indifferent to man,” he said.
“Oh, no question,” Munro said, “but there isn’t much natural world left.”

PS. You may skip the 1995 movie with a clear conscience. It is a pleasant diversion for two idle hours but no more related to the novel than your cat at home to the lions in the African savannah. ( )
  Waldstein | Apr 1, 2020 |
Only the vaguest of recollections about this. And most of them rather half-hearted. ( )
  reg_lt | Feb 7, 2020 |
2.5/5 ( )
  Kausik_Lakkaraju | Jan 20, 2020 |
This had strikingly Rider Haggard-esque elements. Diamonds! Ruined city! Lost civilization! Dangerous unknown species of ape! Volcano! Darkest Africa! Rider Haggard would have loved the plot device of the signing gorilla who joins the expedition -- of course, gorillas didn't communicate with humans in his day, but it would have added so much to African adventure stories of the Victorian era if they did. But if Rider Haggard had written the book, I think the people who died in the story might have had more personality, even the Africans. Crichton's victims had names but they were, in Star Trek terms, just red shirts. The surviving scientists and the mercenary guide had reasonable depth, but Amy the gorilla was the most fully realized character in the story. ( )
  muumi | Jun 20, 2019 |
"A group searching for diamonds in the Congo disappears, and the only thing that can be seen by their cameras is blurs resembling gorillas. Another party is sent to find diamonds, and discover what happened to the original party."
  dneirick | Jun 13, 2019 |
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The more experience and insight I obtain into human nature, the more convinced do I become that the greater portion of a man is purely animal. --Henry Morton Stanley, 1887
The large male [gorilla] held my attention. . . . He gave an impression of dignity and restrained power, of absolute certainty in his majestic appearance. I felt a desire to communicate with him. . . . Never before had I had this feeling on meeting an animal. As we watched each other across the valley, I wondered if he recognized the kinship that bound us. --George B. Schaller, 1964
For Bob Gottlieb
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Dawn came to the Congo rain forest. The pale sun burned away the morning chill and the clinging damp mist, revealing a gigantic silent world.
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Armed with the latest gifts of advanced technology, a California scientist (male), a ruthless corporation agent (female), and a mercenary hunter (male) face the dangers of the Congo jungle in search of the diamonds of the lost city of Zinj.

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A twentieth-century adventure that will plunge you into the heart of Africa with three intrepid adventurers, in a desperate bid to find the fabulous diamonds of the Lost City of Zinj. In it you will encounter the Kigani cannibals, flaming volcanoes, ferocious gorillas, and Amy. Cuddly, fluent in sign language, and fun to be with: in a tight situation she's the smartest gorilla you're ever likely to meet.
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