Friday, August 27, 2021

"Rising Sun" by Michael Crichton--Fiction Review

Today we’re going to talk about Michael Crichton’s novel “Rising Sun,” which isn’t his most memorable novel, and there’s a reason for that. But then again, it was also made into a thoroughly dull movie, too—so there’s that.

Michael Crichton

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review*** 

What I love about this book:

As a writer, I like Michael Crichton, even though I suspect we wouldn’t be aligned politically speaking after reading this novel. He’s one of those writers that is surprisingly everywhere, in books, shows, movies—and everything he touched creatively has a certain amount of charm and style. This book has those touches as well. 

Crichton did not shrink from doing his research, which is commendable, and he always sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. Characters don’t just “talk” in Japanese, and we get in English what they said—some characters literally speak in Japanese. Helpfully there is always a bilingual character around explaining what was said to another character who doesn’t speak Japanese, keeping the audience clued in. 

Also, in the vein of research, Crichton can pull out some genuinely arcane factoids and pieces of trade law, treaties, Japanese lore/custom, and technical specifications of what was high technology at the time. So, a lot of thought, planning, and organization clearly went into crafting this novel’s world—which, yes, is contemporary America in the 90s. Still, he renders it with incredibly high fidelity.

What I don’t love about this book:

All that excellent background information and world-building I talked about in the “what I love” section gets paired with a murder mystery plot that is genuinely uninspired. I figured out who the murderer was thirty seconds after meeting that character.  

“Rising Sun” at best can be described as a wrong-headed view on the reality of the geopolitical struggles between the United States and Japan during the 1990s, two countries that were allies at the time and still are currently. At worst—it’s an anti-Japanese racist screed that barely has a murder mystery plot stretched over it as a canvas.

Characters with minimal prompting stop the flow of the narrative to launch into soliloquies about how the Japanese are taking over everything and will soon own the United States. Nobody is too terribly interested in the murder mystery, including the people investigating it, which is ostensibly the center of this book’s plot.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

LAPD Lieutenant, Peter Smith, who works as a newly appointed Japanese liaison officer in the LAPD, is at home at the novel’s beginning—studying the Japanese language. He gets a call about an incident at the Nakomoto Tower, owned by the Japanese company Nakomoto, which has a major presence in LA. There has been a murder of a young American model.  It took place in the building while a big gala is being thrown this evening by Nakomoto—very embarrassing. Smith’s superiors suggest he take Captain John Connor with him, who, while not liked in the department, has a lot of experience with the Japanese.
Smith meets up with Connor, and the two roll out to Nakomoto Tower. Connor talks about the Japanese in great detail and provides Smith with many insights on etiquette. When they arrive, and on their way up, Smith encounters a very drunk American senator attending the gala and his aid. 

When they get to the scene, there is already a detective with a forensics team at work. The detective, of course, is a classic racist who hates the Japanese. The Nakomoto staff, while polite, aren’t being entirely cooperative or respectful of the crime scene. One guy is even taking pictures. Overall, they don’t want the murder investigation interfering with the big gala they’re hosting downstairs.

Smith and Connor try to obtain the surveillance footage of the floor where the murder took place and find footage clearly showing the murder, but not the murderer. Low and behold, some tapes from different angles are missing. They do find out that the victim was acquainted with a Japanese man who lives in Los Angeles and is—well, he’s a pimp. He’s also connected to old money back in Japan, which is why he’s wealthy, but his real passion seems to be involving himself intimately with the affairs of young American women, including the victim, who are high society party girls.

Ultimately, the bit with the Japanese pimp is all a red herring, and he was being set up to take the fall by powerful men in the Nakomoto company. The missing surveillance footage miraculously is recovered, and it shows the pimp’s face right after the victim was strangled to death. Not shockingly in the slightest, it had been altered. Smith and Connor, along with the assistance of a young college student, discover the alterations.

The real killer was the drunk American senator from the beginning. He got a little too enthusiastic while having sadomasochistic sex with the model at Nakomoto tower that night and accidentally strangled her to death. That senator was staunchly hawkish toward Japanese business, expressing disapproval with what they’re doing in the United States. He was also looking to make a run at the presidency. So an executive at Nakomoto, seeing an opportunity to flip a hostile US senator and possible future president and get him in their pocket, decided to “clean up” his mess. When the truth comes out, thanks to Smith and Connor, both parties faced with their crimes opted for suicide rather than face up to it.


It is genuinely baffling how someone as intelligent, well-read, and informed as Michael Crichton was—could be so startlingly wrong as he is in this novel. This novel was published in January 1992, which is important because Japan suffered through a period of catastrophic economic stagnation known as “The Lost Decade,” which started at the end of 1991. So to wide-eyed wildly warn that they were imminently about to own all of America would be like—say the American legend of Paul Revere was about how he rode through the colonies warning that “the Brazilians are coming!”

The weird thing about this novel is the genuine admiration toward Japan and Japanese culture mixed in with the fear-mongering. Crichton makes sure to include racists in the classic model in the narrative and holds them up derisively, but it’s a smokescreen for his more subtle form of bigotry. In this novel’s universe, it’s a certainty that Japan is on the brink of dominating the USA in both economics and technology. He makes his case through some genuinely impressive sophistry, which I hinted at above makes him sound like he knows what he’s talking about. I was reading this novel nearly thirty years later, and he is so convincing that even I thought for a moment, “well, maybe.” Despite history showing the premise to be completely ridiculous.  

The tropes employed in this novel are boilerplate cop-story—the main character Peter Smith is a young, ambitious cop with marital issues. For this case, Smith’s partner is an older grizzled veteran cop, John Connor, who acts as a mentor and guide to Japanese culture. 

Also, and this is a side note, the names of these characters both distracted me for different reasons. First, as a sci-fi author himself, a la “Jurassic Park” and “Sphere,” Crichton going with John Connor is a little on the nose, mainly because it has no relevance to the plot. On the other hand, Peter Smith is a name so boring I forgot it the moment I put the book down and looked it up again for this review.

And as for the story—of course—it was going to be an American who was the murderer, just so he could set up the idea, “but the greater villains are the Japanese, and how they’re taking over our country!”

Parting thoughts:

Part of the reason I chose to review this nearly thirty-year-old novel that not many people remember is that it’s a great example of something we still face today. We live in the golden age of sophistry. Where Crichton went wrong in this book is he started with a premise that felt true to him—the Japanese are out-competing us in the United States—and then went out and found the facts that supported the conclusion he started with, aka cherry-picking facts.

He was a novelist, not an economist, and being fair to him, it was still too early for most economists to see that Japan was stagnating economically that early on in the lost decade—because economics is hard. Our real economic competitor was and still is China, but the Chinese were far less visible to him, so he focused on Japan. Also, let’s get this out of the way; just because the Chinese are economically competing with us doesn’t automatically make them bad people. Chrichton likened economics to war, which is a dangerous line of reasoning because, in my opinion, it can lead to actual war with shooting and the killing, so it goes.

In today’s world, the internet is ubiquitous in a way that wasn’t yet possible in the early 90s. This gives ordinary, uncritical people access to vast stores of facts and things that feel like facts depending on your perspective. It’s the second part of that sentence which bedevils us. Because the not-so-true information, mixed with a couple actual facts, combined with clever sophistry and a literal legion of believers, creates this vortex that convinces people that lizard men allied with ultra-powerful pedophiles are controlling the world!

I don’t know the answers to our miss information fever. I think it and climate change are the greatest ills of our age. Maybe it’s a generational problem that we collectively do not have the perspective to overcome because we’re still just too new to this interconnected world we all share. It’s depressing, but maybe the best we can do is minimize the damage, survive, and hope the next group grows beyond our limitations, which, yes, is a bit of a cop-out. Still, it’s also been society’s strategy for generations now. 

1 comment:

  1. "Chrichton likened economics to war, which is a dangerous line of reasoning because, in my opinion, it can lead to actual war with shooting and the killing, so it goes."

    Crichton actually addresses this issue and makes clear this is NOT what Japan would want! They do NOT wish to actually take over the US (because they know, even if that was possible militarily, there's a rats tail of further costs, hardship, civil unrests and other things coming with it that are just bad for business). They just want to "shape" the United States the way it suits them, but still leaving them with the buying power to be customers as well (which seems smart if we ignore that every country that does that (and I guess all do) does so for selfish reason).

    Friedman wrote a few books about/against Japan too btw. Even in 2010, he still predicts that Japan (and Turkey and Poland as allies) will challenge the US this century in WW3 (including a base on the moon^^). I frankly have no idea how this could ever happen, but i read that book and quite a few things he predicted already came true (like the many issues China has now and why it WON'T overtake the US in the long run). Quite a few people also predict that Japan COULD become a very dominant power again, which also seems reasonable because they'll be the first of all industrialized nations that went through a process of overaging, shrinking populations (and economy) and then repeats growth. The US on the other hand is at the very end of that with Australia, India and the Philippines (and most of Africa).

    Personally, I love this book:). And as far as I remember, the real killer is only American in the movie;).