Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Terminal Man

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by Michael Crichton

The Terminal Man was actually published before Jurassic Park, another book in my previous article, but I did not get to finish it until recently. Unlike the dinosaur-filled action-packed thriller that is Jurassic Park, medical science and computers played a major role in this novel.

Plotting the Terminal

Although he is not the protagonist of the story, the whole event revolved around Harry Benson, a patient suffering from a violent seizure known as Acute Disinhibitory Lesions, or ADL (not sure if it is a real syndrome). Harry's seizure came and go, and was so violent that a police guard was required to escort him into the hospital in case his epilepsy occurred. During the course of the seizure, Harry would have no control over his actions nor his behavior, and would act violently towards anyone in his immediate surrounding.

The story follows the event surrounding Harry's operation and elapsed 5 days, all separated into 5 stages:

1. Admission: The story began with Harry's delivery into the hospital, introducing his illness and the surgery which will be performed on his brain, known as Stage 3. It was here that the fact that he was psychotic was raised but dismissed by the surgical team.

2. Implantation: The surgery was performed flawlessly, with technical details drafted out in this chapter. Although the novel was written in 1971, I was quite surprised to see how much impact computer had to neurosurgery. Since Harry was the first human patient to receive Stage 3, the chapter was filled with anxiety and expectations of the surgical team.

3. Interfacing: Although the term sounded more like a computer jargon, the fact that Harry was linked to a miniature chip on his shoulder matched the term aptly. The computer chip monitored the patient's brain activity, and when a seizure pattern was detected, certain parts of the brain were shocked electrically to stimulate the brain so that the patient stopped acting violently. It was this post-op event that really closed the case for the surgery.

4. Breakdown: Unfortunately, the medical team underestimated Harry's intelligence. The unforeseen happened here when Harry escaped the hospital, and the fact that the psychologist of the team discovered that Harry found a way to create seizures in order to get more stimulation was no good news. This meant that the seizures will come more frequent and Harry will get violent more often as well. The celebration for Harry's successful surgery turned up too early and it seemed that disaster has just begun with the discovery of a murder perpetuated by him.

5. Termination: In the end, the patient had to be caught before he went on a murderous rampage, and that was no easy task. Harry was intelligent and trying to predict his moves were not easy, except for the fact that he was no friend to machines, which was what led the police team to get to him in the end. The terminal had to be terminated.

Within the Terminal Man

The core of The Terminal Man portrayed the relationship between man and machine. Computers are created to aid human in the development of technology and as computing power gets stronger by the decade, the question arising in everyone's mind is whether computers will take over human as the intelligence of our civilization. The story explores the psychotic fear of Harry against machines as he viewed machines as an intelligence that will ultimately take over human, and the implantation of a computer chip to help control his seizures is only adding to his fear.

Among the protagonists in the medical team, the psychologist Janet Ross is the only female. Although our current working environment has incorporated more female employees, I guess it was not so in the 1970's. Janet's feelings in a predominantly male working environment was highlighted in the story, the feeling of isolation and how she learnt to work around other male colleagues.

In the story, females in the medical industry are usually recommended to be nurses or pediatricians, and even other female colleagues regarded her so when they first met her. I guess Crichton meant to incorporate this element into the story to highlight the phenomena of sexism in most industries, where females are usually still looked down upon as unable to cope with important tasks.

The other element which the story incorporated is the element of responsibility, the sense of duty from a doctor towards his patients. It was this sense which led one of the protagonist to a near-death experience. This was something which the police could not understand, since the patient was known to be dangerous and the doctors still wanted to seek him out to adjust his computer chip in order to get him to be docile.

The final element introduced here is the power of underestimation, an error which we all commit all too often. Most people are underestimated based on their attitude and behavior, similar to how Harry was underestimated in The Terminal Man. Harry was regarded as a quiet man, acting violently only during seizures, but they all forgot how brilliant he was and that he had the capability to hatch an escape plan within minutes and lay out a plan to destroy the computer within his admitted hospital. In a similar context we usually thought of raucous and loud people as uncivilized, unknowing that they could be the next billionaire or your boss. Never judge a book by its cover.

Technologies and Science

Truth is, Crichton's novels are almost always very technical oriented and technology based. In The Terminal Man, he introduced to the layman concepts in psychology, surgical methods, computer and A.I., psychosurgery and the workings of a brain. All these are quite interesting to a voracious reader like me, but I can imagine that it could be a little too overwhelming for readers who seldom delve into the scientific field. Since there are many medicines, medical and psychological terms being mentioned in the novel, I guess it could be a good reading for those with rudimentary medical knowledge.

The novel often compare a human brain against the computing power of circuitry. In the novel, Harry regarded machines with hostility, claiming that machines were designed to be more competent and would overtake human intelligence one day. In fact, the novel even invented the Watershed Week, a week in July 1969 in which the total computing power in the world exceeded the total computing capability of the human race.

Of course, the difference between both is that the human brain is quite complex. I only knew through this novel that although the brain is a mass of nerves, it could not sense pain, which means that any operation on the brain will not be felt by the patient. It may look like a mass of simple matter, but the human brain is capable of memory storage, emotion, decision making and the likes, and those grey matters in the brain are just too plain to explain how all these are accomplished.

The other interesting fact about human behavior is the progression cycle. Most people will get discouraged from trying an action if they get negative reward every time the action is performed, like getting a slap every time a kid tries to get a cookie. This is negative progression cycle, but not everyone has that behavior. There are other people who will instead be encouraged by that, and will try more often the more he gets slapped, which is known as positive progression cycle. Of course, the latter is what we usually associate with famous successful people because of their unwillingness to back down from challenges and being encouraged by it.

Termination

After having read Jurassic Park, I felt that The Terminal Man is less thrilling, but still a good read. The ending is a little too sudden, and the story is plainer and without much twist, which may be an appeal to some reader although I personally prefer plots with more twist. Then again, this novel was written almost 2 decades before Jurassic Park, so these comments may not do the novel justice. One thing I do like about it is the lack of casualties among the protagonists, which I felt more relieved at the end, unlike his dinosaur themed thriller in which death is almost a constant.


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