Congo by Michael Crichton (1980)

This book recounts the thirteen days of the last American expedition to the Congo, in June 1979 (p.xii)

Crichton’s habit of stuffing his techno-thriller novels with factual digressions, losing no opportunity to give the reader the full fruits of his up-to-the-minute research about the geography and climate and culture and peoples of the book’s setting and then stuff it with a cornucopia of gee-whizz gadgets, especially anything relating to computers, often completely overwhelms the plot.

Sometimes his books feel like a series of educational magazine articles only just held together by contrived storylines, which, as soon as you stop and think about them, you realise are utterly preposterous. And then there are the so-called ‘characters’, who are given names, ages and CVs but remain little more than cardboard cutouts.

According to Wikipedia, Crichton pitched the idea of writing a modern-day version of King Solomon’s Mines to 20th Century Fox who bought the film rights before the story had even been written, paying him a $1.5 million advance for the novel, screenplay and as a directing fee.

It sounded like a good idea but the result of this big, expensive promise was a serious case of writer’s block, as Crichton struggled to make a start and then to create any kind of coherent narrative. And boy, does it show. He ended up throwing about five separate plot ideas into the mix in the hope that they’d somehow add up to a ripping yarn, and overloading the text with every factual digression he could think of in order to give the text a sense of substance.

Congo is a messy, scrappy, dumb mess of a book, but some of the factual background is interesting; you don’t get to read novels about Africa that often; it was interesting to see what was considered up-to-the-minute technology in 1980 and compare it to the present day; and there was a kind of dumb dogged interest in the narrative itself: I was curious to see what preposterous, contrived and absurd incident he’d chuck in next to try and keep the whole thing afloat. Probably the encounter with the angry hippopotamuses wins the prize for silliest episode.

No doubt hippopotami do have the character and temperament he describes in a typical Readers Digest digression about them, no doubt they do attack by raking their razor sharp teeth sideways over their intended victim, no doubt this would rip and deflate an inflatable raft. But it’s still silly.

1. Earth Resources Technology Services and the race for IIb diamonds

Earth Resources Technology Services Inc (ERTS) is a Houston-based American corporation devoted to locating and extracting rare and precious minerals and resources for industrial use. It is (inevitably) run by a maverick genius R.B. Travis (backstory p.17). The hottest computer analyst in the corps is 6 foot-tall, cold, calculating Karen Ellen Ross.

The entire plot rotates around the desperate search to locate a rumoured source of ‘Type IIb boron-coated blue diamonds’ (pp.109, 115) in the dense rainforests of the Virunga region, in the remote eastern part of the vast Congo jungle. Extended factual digressions explain that this particular type of diamond is very valuable as semiconductors, ‘important to microelectronics applications’, and since, as Crichton explains at length, the future is going to be all about faster and faster computing speeds, possession of a source of diamonds which speed up computer technology will be vastly valuable. Especially the future of weaponry.

Computer speed now stands at the centre of the armament race…The new generation of optical computers will be dependent on the availability of Type IIb boron-coated diamonds. (p.342)

This is why the ERTS expedition into the Congo is not alone, but is shadowed every step of the way by a ‘consortium’ of industrial rivals, made up of a temporary partnership of German and Japanese industrial interests. These guys are hacking into ERTS’s radio communications back to Houston as well as vying for important resources for such an expedition, not least the services of the renowned White African mercenary Charles Munro (backstory pp.101 to 103) who, after bargaining with all the interested parties at his plush pad in Tangiers, opts to go with the ERTS expedition.

So the fact that the ERTS team is trying to get to the rumoured location of the diamonds before their rivals is supposed to give the narrative grip and thrill. For me, it didn’t at all. If this had been a Hammond Innes or Desmond Bagley novel, then this story in and of itself would have been enough, and people would have got killed, probably in gruesome circumstances and it would have felt desperate and tense. At no point did this book feel desperate and tense.

2. The ‘Consortium’

Anyway, it’s not as simple as that. Crichton adds in a few other plot strands which, in my opinion, had the effect of turning what could have been a decent thriller into a ridiculous cartoon. First, there is the important fact that the expedition led by Karen Ross and which recruits Charles Munro, is not the first one sent by ERTS. An earlier one had gone out and the novel actually starts with this first team, camped in the darkest rainforest as the old Africa hand they’ve hired to guide them, Jan Kruger, fires up a satellite video connection with ERTS Houston to report on progress.

But in the 5 or 6 minutes it takes both sides to establish contact (remember the book was written in 1979, 42 years ago, and all the technology is accordingly basic or old fashioned) the entire expedition is wiped out, every member massacred and the campsite wrecked. By the time the camera comes online there’s no-one there. Karen Ross is at the Houston end in charge and she gets the techs to rotate the camera on its tripod, thus surveying the wreckage, then a dark shadow moves across the screen and the camera is smashed, signal ends. What was it? What wiped out the expedition?

Very early on I figured it was either a lost tribe of humans or human-gorilla mutants, as anyone who’s watched a thousand rubbish American films or watched episodes of American adventure TV shows could entirely have predicted.

3. The lost city of Zinj

But meanwhile, I have to explain about the lost city of Zinj. Yes. That’s really what it’s called. Crichton gives us a number of digressions about the (patchy) history of Western exploration into the Congo jungle or up the Congo river (he is particularly fond of the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley for the simple reason that Stanley was the great pioneer and explored further and more definitively than all previous explorers).

Anyway, Crichton makes up a legendary lost city of Zinj (pp.58 to 60, 82), a clear hommage to the great late-Victorian adventure storytellers such as Rider Haggard (She) and Conan Doyle (The Lost World) and the novel reaches its climax when our heroes arrive after many adventures, at the lost city of Zinj and discover its connection both to a) a culture which use to mine the very type IIb diamonds they are looking for but which also holds the key to understanding

4. Amy the talking gorilla

Yes. A talking gorilla. Because after the first expedition is wiped out and while Karen Ross is persuading Travis that she is the person to lead the second expedition a) to find the diamonds b) to discover what happened to the first expedition, ERTS contacts one of the leading researchers in America into teaching apes American sign language. As you might expect this leads into several lengthy digressions about the entire history of trying to teach apes language, right up to the present (well, 1979 when the book was written) and researchers have managed to teach chimpanzees 200 or so ‘words’ in American Sign Language (vide Washoe, Koko) (pp.35 to 38 and 292).

The researcher is named Peter Elliott (backstory pp.35 to 41), 6 foot tall and bearded, and Peter has been leading Project Amy, i.e. seven years or so of teaching a tame gorilla named Amy to an advanced level of communication. The text settles into conveying their conversations as Peter signing or saying something and Amy’s replies are given in italics. In reality I understand communication between humans and gorillas is very limited, but in this tall story Peter and Amy can hold lengthy discussions.

Now why does ERTS and Karen Ross want a talking gorilla to go on an expedition to the lost city of Zinj in search of industrial diamonds (see how ludicrous the plot is when you spell it out in black and white?)? Because the brief shadow that flickered across the camera of the massacred first expedition looked like a gorilla. So why not take a talking gorilla along in the hope that it can act as ambassador to whoever or whatever massacred the first team.

But why would a comfortably placed American academic want to leave his cosy perch at the University of California at Berkeley to go on some cock and bull expedition into remote rainforest? Crichton must have spent a while mulling over what could possibly motivate Prof Peter Elliott to leave his crib and in the end comes up with a plausible reason.

He invents the notion that Elliott’s work just happens to have recently been picked upon by a high-minded organisation devoted to liberating primates from scientific experiments, the Primate Preservation Agency (p.43). They’ve written harsh articles, are picketing his university office and published Elliott’s address such that he is living in fear of a possible attack. Thus when he gets a call late one night from Karen Ross asking if he wants to pack up and go on a journey to gorilla country in eastern Congo, he leaps at the chance.

And Amy the gorilla is going along, too, of course. The practicalities of ‘explaining’ all this to Amy, and packing for her, and getting her onto a plane and so on, quickly become so ludicrous that…

There’s another element to Amy which is that, when Amy likes doing finger drawings of images she tells Peter she sees when she’s asleep. And these drawings are often of what might be taken for buildings with half-moon entrances. And guess what? Other illustrations of the conjectured lost city of Zinj show it as having half-moon-shaped entrances. Are the dreams actual memories of seeing such a place or ancestral (pp.41 to 42)? Or could this be an example of genetic memory (cue a Crichtonian digression about the history and provenance of genetic memory, ‘Genetic memory was first proposed by Marais in 1911…’ p.46).

5. Congo civil war

There have been a number of civil wars in the region known as the Congo including the massive Second Congo War (1998 to 2003). But back at the time Crichton was writing (1979) the war he refers to involved Ugandan troops fleeing across the border into Zaire when theior country was invaded by Tanzania (p.100). In Crichton’s hands this morphs into a campaign by some parts of the Zaire army to exterminate the Kigani tribe of cannibals. Our heroes go to lengths to avoid both these violent elements, the Zaire army and Kigani, at least until the very end of the book (see below).

Its relevance to the story is that at several key moments the Ross expedition finds itself enmeshed between warring parties, most importantly when they are flying in a small aircraft towards the site of the lost city of Zinj and come under attack from heat-seeking missiles. As you might imagine, the resourceful ERTS team have snappy modern technology to foil the missiles and survive. But it’s just one more element which triggers umpteen Crichtonian factual digressions, and which Crichton throws into the mix hoping something will stick.

Recap

An American company which specialises in sourcing rare and precious raw resources sends 24-year-old  computer whizzkid Karen Ross, along with ape linguist Peter Elliott, his talking gorilla Amy and African mercenary Charles Munro (plus half a dozen Kikuyu porters) into the remote eastern Congo to find the lost city of Zinj in order to find out what happened to the previous expedition and locate the source of the rumoured diamonds which are worth a fortune in industrial processes.

Fact obsessed

As well as the factual digressions on every page, Congo also features academic footnotes and no fewer than three pages of references at the end, including academic papers in learned journals to show just how much research Crichton has done. Some of the many magazine-style digressions concern:

  • Henry Morton Stanley (xii-xiii, 60, 83, 154, 169, )
  • animal rights (50-52)
  • the history of Congo (57-60)
  • the Pearl thesis of animal intelligence (pp.76-77)
  • competitive advantage in information technology (73)
  • the Great Rift Valley (pp.83-84)
  • albedo ie using different light reflection levels to distinguish ancient forest from secondary growth (85-87)
  • B-8 problems in computing (90)
  • holographic night goggles (99)
  • the future of superconducting computers (116-118)
  • computer message hacking (128)
  • electrophoresis and the difference between gorilla and human hair (129)
  • the character of Kikuyu tribesmen (they love to talk) (147, 155) and consider themselves all ‘brothers’ (190)
  • China’s spy operations, foreign aid to and influence in Zaire (147-149)
  • how to distract surface to air missiles with rolled up balls of in foil (156)
  • how automatic parachutes work (162)
  • the Kigani, a tribe of cannibals Crichton appears to have invented (170-172)
  • description of the Kigani’s belief in magic of Angawa
  • cannibalism in central Africa (172-173)
  • Zaire government genocide against the Kigani cannibals (175)
  • levels of electronic jamming and ‘interstitial coding’ (p.180)
  • the rate of global species extinction (189)
  • pygmies and their definitions of different types of ‘death’ (193-196)
  • the Congo river i.e. although it’s vast it’s not easily navigable (201)
  • the character of the hippopotamus (207-209) just before they attack our heroes
  • a history of the attempts to climb Mount Mukenko (which our heroes parachute onto and have to climb across) (218)
  • what to do when faced by a charging male silverback gorilla (don’t move and look at the ground) (230-231)
  • Degusto’s infra-red light technology for making out images hidden under dirt, sand, vegetable matter etc (250)
  • Maurice Cavalle’s 1955 paper ‘The Death of Nature’ (252)
  • the legend of the kakundakari, African equivalent of the yeti (262-263)
  • chimpanzee violent behaviour, especially kidnapping and eating human infants (266)
  • Freud’s theory that a dreamer, confronted with the reality their dream is based on, is often surprisingly apathetic (274)
  • British scientist R.V.S. Wright’s attempts to teach an orangutan to use tools (293)
  • DNA similarity between humans and chimps i.e. 99% identical (294)
  • S.L. Berensky’s 1975 paper about primate language suggesting the apes are smarter than humans (296)
  • the difference between different sign languages of different nations (297)
  • primates stop fighting if infants get in the way or are taken up by one or other of the combatants (312)
  • the origin and periodicity of solar flares, one of which interferes with our heroes communications back to Houston (314)
  • which part of the brain language comes from (Broca’s area) (335)
  • explanation of brontides, the loud explosions that accompany earthquakes (335)
  • most people caught in a volcanic eruption die from the poison gas (336)
  • General Franklin Martin’s Pentagon presentation which argued that Zaire had been vital to US military efforts since the war because of its mineral resources and also that super-fast computers would being to an end the age of nuclear weapons (340-343)
  • US military Project Vulcan to detonate timed resonance explosions in order to graduate the impact of eruptions of Mouna Loa in Hawaii (347-349)

But none of this blizzard of factual information can prevent Congo from being preposterous bollocks.

The expedition encounters a handful of problems such as flying through an anti-aircraft attack mounted by the Zaire army, parachuting into the jungle (everyone lands just fine), rafting down some river into the remote East (they are attacked by angry hippopotami), and trekking across the unstable crust of recently active volcanoes (the Virunga range of volcanoes, as described in an extended factual digression which names the main ones as being Mukenko, Mubuti, Kanagarawi, p.84), all in order to reach the lost bloody city of Zinj which, they eventually discover, is now an overgrown, empty ruin.

a) This is more extensive than they expected. They use high tech radar stuff to see through the layers of grime to the extensive reliefs which describe the ordinary life of the city centuries ago when it was inhabited. The carvings appear to show the inhabitants mined extensively and seem to have trained gorillas to act as security and police (!!) and this is the ridiculous reason for:

b) The final revelation that the previous expedition wasn’t wiped out by gorillas as science currently knows them, but by a new species of intelligent gorilla which the Zinjans bred and developed.

Luckily our heroes had put up an electrified fences round the perimeter of their camp and had brought along loads of fancy laser-guided machine guns which do a good job of killing some of the New Species of Gorilla when they launch their inevitable attack.

Other reasons this is a terrible book

1. Format

In The Andromeda Strain Crichton used the format of a report produced by an enquiry into what went wrong at a virus isolation unit. The pseudo-scientific/bureaucratic format worked well. Here he uses the tone of something more like a documentary. In particular he keeps writing that ‘many months later Peter Elliott realised his mistake’ or ‘speaking later, Karen Ross explained why she made this decision’.

Presumably the narrative is cast in this format to give it the feel of a later report or documentary. But it has the unintended side effect of confirming that the three main characters all survive. In other words, it destroys all suspense or sense of jeopardy. We know they all get out alive. OK, then, well, why bother reading to the end?

2. Out of date

Crichton busted a gut doing all that research and shoehorned it into his text throughout and yet… it’s all hilariously out of date. If you want to read about how fiddly it was to rig up a satellite camera link in 1979 or how big and fast people in 1979 thought computers would become in the 1980s then this is the book for you. There is, quite obviously, nothing about the internet, smart phones, social media or any of the other tech discoveries of the past 40 years. It’s sweet that Crichton thinks ERTS’ technology is ‘staggering’ because it can acquire 16 new satellite images of the earth per hour (p.20).

Acronyms and initialisms

I found it more enjoyable collecting a list of the acronyms than following the ridiculous plot which came more and more to resemble a movie-length episode of Scoobie Doo. My only excuse for reading such twaddle is I was on holiday and picked it up for £1 in a second hand shop.

ADP – Animal Defence Perimeter (p.238)

APE – Animal Pattern Explanation (p.307)

APNF – Animation Predicted Next Frame (p.27)

ASL – American Sign Language aka Ameslan (p.36)

BF – Bona fortuna = good luck (p.123)

C3I – Command, control, communications and intelligence units (p.74)

CFS – Congo Field Study (p.351)

CCR – Communications Control Room (p.12)

CCT – Computer Compatible Tape (p.21)

ECM – Electronic Countermeasures (p.179)

ERTS Earth Resources Technology Services

FZA – Forces Zairoises Armoises, Zaire army (p.157)

GPU – Geopolitical Update (p.98)

LAC – Local Atmospheric Conditions (p.351)

LATRAP – Laser-Tracking Projectile, which consists of multiple LGSDs attached to sequential RFSDs (p.280)

MERS – Mineral Exploration Rights, such as you negotiate with the host government (p.25)

NCNA – New China News Agency, cover for Chinese espionage (p.148)

PNF – Predicted Next Frame: technology for improving poor quality images (p.27)

PPA – Primate Protection Agency (p.43)

PSOPS – Prior Significant Orbital Passes by Satellite (p.97)

RC – Resonant Conventionals: timed explosives (p.345)

SESC – Space Environmental Services Centre in Boulder Colorado (p.315)

Triple E – Expedition Electronics Expert (p.74)

UECL – Unit Extraction Cost Limit (p.115)

WEIRD – Wilderness Environment Intruder Response Defences (p.242)

I work in the civil service and so I recognise the mindset which says that, if you spell something out in title case i.e. you capitalise the names of things it immediately makes them more important; and if you can make an acronym out of them, it makes them sound really grand and makes you sound very big and important when you casually allude to acronyms or initialisms which other people don’t understand.

Bearing this in mind helps to explain why America has some 35 distinct intelligence agencies, each with its own shiny logo and acronym and whip-smart, fast-talking executives, and they all failed to prevent 9/11. And why the US Army, possibly the world epicentre of grand-sounding acronyms, nonetheless made a complete bollocks of invading Iraq and liberating Afghanistan. (I mention this because America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan was all over the news as I read Congo so the comparison made itself.)

No amount of clever-sounding names and titles and acronyms and hi-tech gadgetry can redeem ignorance, stupidity and terrible decisions. Or, in this case, an embarrassing train wreck of a novel.

The end

Our heroes are attacked a couple of times in their camp. Elliott undertakes a ridiculous plan to record the grey gorillas’ strange whispering language, to use Houston’s computers to analyse and interpret it, and then to play it back to attacking gorillas in order to stall them. Despite all the improbabilities Elliott makes this work in a matter of hours and during the next gorilla attack it does, indeed, manage to slow and halt the attack of the puzzled silver gorillas, although a torrential tropical downpour interferes with the experiment.

What brings this farrago of nonsense to an end, in the best boys own adventure tradition, is a huge volcanic eruption which starts rocking the ground during what had promised to be the gorillas’ final assault, when they have killed a few more porters and have our heroes pinned to the ground about to crush their skulls.

The ground starts shaking, the gorillas flee, random lightning strikes electrocute a few more of the African porters, as our dazed heroes grab their most important possessions and flee the ruined camp, trekking through jungle while ash falls all around them, the earth trembles, the volcano spews ash and lava.

They arrive at the crashed container plane of the rival consortium which had been shot down a few days earlier by Zaire army forces (they’d heard the plane flying overhead and seen the surface to air missiles fired at it a few days earlier).

First our heroes have to fight off the Kigani cannibals who were in the middle of eating the dead consortium members and resent being turfed out of the plane’s treasure trove. But then Ross discovers huge tanks of propane in the plane which are designed to inflate a balloon which the consortium had brought along for precisely such an emergency!

And so the preposterous narrative ends with Ross, Elliott, Munro and the couple of porters who haven’t been killed by the silver gorillas or the bolts of lightning or the volcanic ash or the poison gas, inflating, climbing into and flying off over the jungle in a big balloon, a very Jules Vernes ending to a novel which sets out to be a homage to the great Victorian adventure writers but turns into a car crash of overcomplex but completely improbable narrative, drowning in endless Readers Digest factual digressions and hosted by characters which make a puddle look deep.

And the Lost City of Zinj? In the finest tradition of the old storytellers, is buried forever under half a mile of volcanic ash so nobody will ever be able to check the three explorers’ bold claims. It’s almost as juvenile as saying: ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream.’

The movie

The original deal had been for Crichton himself to direct the movie version and from 1981 to 1987 he maintained the hope of directing it with Sean Connery in the lead, but that version of the project never came to fruition.

Instead Congo was finally made into a movie in 1995, directed by Frank Marshall and starring Laura Linney as the permanently stressed-out woman scientist, Dylan Walsh as the sensitive primatologist, Ernie Hudson as the mercenary and hunter who leads the group and Tim Curry as the camp Romanian millionaire who finances the whole farrago.

I don’t mean to be rude but when two leads in what is meant to be a serious thriller played defining parts in Ghostbusters (Hudson) and The Rocky Horror Show (Curry) you know you’re talking about a turkey.

I’m not at all surprised to learn the movie version received a critical drubbing and was nominated for not one but several Golden Raspberry awards, given to real stinkers.


Michael Crichton reviews

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