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By Michael Crichton


364 pages, $26.95

With his new novel, Michael Crichton may breathe life into nanoparticles and bioengineering the way he did raptors, T-Rexes and cloning in "Jurassic Park."

There are science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert -- even movie-maker George Lucas -- who create their own universes way out there someplace where readers can travel weightless, unhindered by terrestrial reality.

Crichton is the master of poking a mirror around the technological corner and finding the universe of life on this planet as challenging and fearsome as killer computers and giant ridable worms.

Crichton, going back to "The Andromeda Strain," makes us consider how improbable the primacy of man actually is. He demonstrates human hubris with breathtaking clarity. Whether it's dinosaurs or apes ("Congo") or now molecules, Crichton scares us within the realm of the possible, the plausible, and that makes it scarier still.

Greed always plays a role in his antagonists' profile, but man's main foible for Crichton is his arrogance and short sightedness. The illusion of humankind's control over nature combines with the application of finite minds to nature's infinite complexity to create the novelistic tension that make his books such page turners.

"Prey" is another such book.

While one can quibble with the title -- "Swarm" would seem more apropos -- the content is packed with Crichton's usual detailed research, scientific sophistication and dastardly humans.

And the bacteria at the core of the book aren't so nice, either.

Few people thought of cloning in the terms Crichton did until "Jurassic Park." Fewer still have thought through all the potential ramifications of genetic and bioengineering that seem the next hot industry in America. Creating new bioengineered drugs, bioengineered food and bioengineered medical tools seems logical and beneficial. Benign, even.

But the assumption Crichton forces us to confront is: Do we know what we're doing? Is the commercial motivation to rush products to market enough of a hindrance to safe science that dangerous mutations or unpredictable behaviors will emerge from laboratories?

In the end, does man have a clue?

"Prey" is about a company that succeeds in building and reproducing cameras at a molecular level. The idea seems simple and safe: The smaller the cameras, the easier they can slip into the bloodstream or float through the sky and report back priceless data. The project detours into military applications as the atom-level cameras are programmed to unite and disperse, hunt and hide to increase their effectiveness.

With a molecular structure culled from bacteria, and programmed with prey and predator software originally designed to help develop artificial intelligence, the mix is filled with surprises and lessons.

If a movie is in the offing from this book, it won't be as dramatic as seeing and hearing enormous dinosaurs chasing Jeeps. But the likelihood that man will create genetically altered compounds or tools that could go awry seems far greater than his ability to create a T-Rex.

Thus could man become -- prey.

Stephen W. Bell is a managing editor of The News. E-mail: