Diamonds are a Congo expedition’s best friend?
Michael Crichton is one of my all-time favorite authors (aside from the climate change denial). His books always focus on some fringe or up-and-coming technology, allowing fantasy or science fiction to seem almost possible, and Congo is no exception. The story leans into the early ages of supercomputing and the belief that World War 3 will be started with computers, while also providing brain-smashing monsters in the jungle. The last time I read this book was likely somewhere in middle or high school, but I decided to revisit it as I was looking for a stupid, fun adventure. Crichton provided that, a dollop of racist ideas about ‘the dark continent’ of Africa, and enough cannibals to make Dahmer feel uncomfortable.
Congo is a classic adventure book start to finish. Scientists from the United States are plucked out of their laboratories and dropped into the jungle with a seasoned, sarcastic guide, and a group of native porters who know better, but still go along with the scheme. Cannibal tribes, volcanoes, and unknown monsters in the jungle all feature prominently in the story and make it feel like the greatest hits of adventure tropes. In keeping with a standard that felt straight out of the 1920s, Crichton’s descriptions of other races and of Africa were deeply rooted in stereotypes and detracted from the story more than they helped. Later in his life, Crichton became a problematic figure, backing climate change denial, and some of his descriptions in this book make me think he could have been on a darker path.
Pushing that aside as much as possible, Crichton still manages to create some excellent, if not tropey character interactions that drive the narrative. In particular, the sign-language practicing ape, Amy, is a delight and perfect comic relief. Her interactions with the other characters help humanize what is otherwise an unforgiveable group. I found more often than not, I was rooting against everyone that wasn’t Amy.
Without getting into spoilers, the resolution in this book showcases a consistent problem from Crichton’s earlier work. Similar to Grave Descend (2/5 Stars), the third act of Congo goes by in a lightning flash. The final conflict barely gets a beat before the story is suddenly cutting to epilogue. Part of this issue comes from the problem of constant conflict through the book which gives the impression of incessant terror always building toward something bigger. There is no denouement to speak of, and instead, Crichton has one last fight and cuts to black (sure, I did this when I wrote Whiteout, but I didn’t know better). The lack of resolution beyond a post credits ‘where are they now?’ epilogue annoyed me a bit.
Final verdict, this book is a page turner and absolutely the prototypical adventure book, but that comes with some problems of the genre. If Crichton was still alive, I feel like he would be getting some heat about his character descriptions. I enjoyed reading it as I did the first time, and it has helped me through what feels like an adventure novel drought. I’ll recommend this to Crichton fans, or people looking for an escape who can also look past the author’s dated descriptions.
Final Verdict – 3/5 Stars
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