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Prey (novel)

First edition cover Author Michael CrichtonCountry United StatesLanguage EnglishGenre(s) Science fiction novel, techno-thriller novelPublisherHarper CollinsPublication date November 25, 2002 Media type Print (Hardback, Paperback) Pages 320 pp (first edition, hardback); 502 (Mass Market Paperback) ISBNISBN 0-00-715379-1(first edition, hardback)

Prey is a techno-thriller novel by Michael Crichton first published in hardback edition in November 2002 and as a paperback edition in November 2003 by Harper Collins. Like Jurassic Park, the novel serves as a cautionary tale about developments in science and technology; in this case, nanotechnology.

The book features relatively new advances in the computing/scientific community, such as artificial life, emergence (and by extension, complexity), genetic algorithms, and agent-based computing.


Plot summary

The novel is narrated by the protagonist Jack Forman, an unemployed software programmer who used to work with artificial intelligence. He was fired for attempting to expose an internal scandal in his company. As a result, no other company would employ him and he is forced to take the role of "house-husband" while his wife Julia works as a dedicated executive for Xymos, a nanorobotics company, putting strain on family life. Xymos claims to be on the verge of perfecting a revolutionary new medical imaging technology based on nanotechnology.

Jack's baby daughter Amanda develops a very strange rash that propagates and becomes very severe. He takes her to the hospital, but the doctors are unable to find the cause of the rash. She is then taken to an MRI and strangely, she is instantly cured. Sometime later, Jack is surprised to see that the memory chip of a mp3 player belonging to his son has been corroded. During this time, Jack begins to suspect his wife is having an affair, as her behavior becomes increasingly odd.

Jack's old company, which has become a contractor to Xymos, offers to rehire him to help deal with an alleged software problem. Meanwhile Jack's psychologist sister Ellen decides to make a visit to his home, in need of a break from her hectic work schedule. Ellen is in agreement with Jack as to the strange observations of Julia following her erratic behavior during their family dinner. Following the dinner, Julia hastily leaves the residence to go to work. She is involved in a car crash minutes after leaving home.

At the scene of the crash, Jack sees strange men in a van with the same engravings on their van as a hidden device beneath his daughter's crib. This, as well as his overall curiosity and determination to find out what is behind his wife's accident and behavior prompt him to take up his former employer's offer of work. Ellen stays at the residence to look after the children, while Jack leaves to pursue answers to his many questions.

Jack travels to the remote Xymos manufacturing facility in Nevada. Upon arrival, the Xymos team leader, Ricky, gives Jack a brief tour of the building, and explains that the company is under contract from the Department of Defense to create a swarm of nanorobots that act as a camera for reconnaissance and spying. The swarm is created by genetically modified E. coli bacteria, which creates gamma assemblers from raw materials that in turn churn out new nanobots. However, the swarm could not work in the wild because they were quickly blown by the light winds, a problem the engineering team could not solve. As a result, the Pentagon decided to cancel their contract. Ricky then reveals that building contractors failed to properly install filters in a certain vent in the building, and the assemblers, bacteria, and nanobots were blown into the desert, forming a swarm on their own. These swarms, given solar power and memory, appear to be self-sufficient, reproducing and evolving rapidly. Most alarmingly, the swarms exhibit rudimentary intelligence and what seems to be predatory behavior, attacking and killing small animals. Jack cannot explain this behavior as Ricky says the code did not include algorithms that allow genetic evolution.

At the fab plant, he is joined by members of his old software development team - Mae, Charley, David, Rosie and Bobby. The nanoswarm kills a rabbit outside the complex and Jack goes outside with Mae to inspect. She checks the rabbit and finds that it died of suffocation resulting from the nanobots blocking its bronchial tubes. Mae goes inside for equipment while Jack waits for her. Meanwhile, two swarms approach Jack. He outsmarts the swarm temporarily using his knowledge of their programming; however, they figure out his trick, proving that they are indeed learning. The swarms attack him but he manages to get through the airlock and inside the lab before falling unconscious.

He wakes up and Mae tells him that he went into anaphylactic shock. He explains the situation to the team and concludes that the swarm must have nested in the desert to reproduce. They decide to attempt to find this nest by tagging the swarm with radioactive isotopes and following them back to their nest at night. A strong wind picks up, forcing the swarms to remain dormant, and the team goes to a shack to find the isotopes they can use as tags. Eventually, the wind dies down and four swarms surround the shack. Jack uses his knowledge of the swarm's programming again and organizes the group to exit the shack in a formation similar to a flock of birds, effectively confusing the swarm. However, David undergoes a mental breakdown and breaks formation, running for the door to the complex. The swarm surrounds him, and Rosie runs after him in a hopeless attempt to save him. The swarm kills them both by spreading on the ground causing them to slip, immobilizing them, then suffocating them.

With only three people, their numbers are not great enough to confuse the swarm. They are forced to take shelter in the cars parked outside. The Swarm begins an attempt to enter the cars. Mae and Jack noticed that the swarms have evolved yet again, and now attempt to confuse the prey by reflecting images of them like mirrors. This was definitely not a part of the original programming. Eventually, the swarms find a way to enter the cars through the hood. The wind picks up in speed again, so Jack and Mae open the doors to escape. Charley manages to spray his swarm with the isotope and open his door before he falls unconscious. Mae and Jack escape back to the lab.

However, Jack goes back out again to save Charley. Using a motorbike found in David's car, Jack confuses the swarms by varying the speed. Both Charley and Jack return safely to the lab.

Jack and the rest of the surviving team try to relax after the devastating attack. At dinner, Charley wonders aloud whether or not the nanoparticles can get into a brain. Jack ponders about this. When suddenly, Jack looks up at the screen and sees someone. Outside the fab plant, stands "Ricky". The team soon realizes that it was not actually Ricky, but nanoswarms taking on a crude mirror of his shape. The swarms have now advanced enough to somewhat effectively mimic their prey.

Jack, Mae and Bobby set out to find the swarms at night. While searching for them, they discover one of the swarms moving the now deceased Rosie through the desert, even though it is now night. They follow the body to find the swarm nest in a cave. As some of the swarm comes after them, a helicopter approaches, and Mae, using a radio, signals the chopper to use the extreme winds it generates to immobilize the swarms. Mae and Jack then venture into the cave, destroying swarms that confront them using thermite caps. The reach a crude organic version of the main fabrication plant created by the swarms and destroy most of it using thermite. As the escape, they slowly destroy the remaining swarms, and finally the cave itself, using a combination of explosives and an ATV as a Molotov cocktail. They return to the plant, exhausted.

At this point, Jack's wife, Julia, who had been hospitalized after the suspicious car accident, flies out to the facility. When Jack, Mae and Bobby return to the facility, they are enthusiastically greeted by Julia and Ricky. Julia begins to break down with Jack, apologizing for her behavior for the past few weeks. He, however, is no longer interested in domestic issues. She attempts to kiss him, but they are interrupted by Ricky. He has found Charley dead in a locked room with a swarm flying around him and the phone wires cut. Jack cannot understand how the swarm got inside the rigorously protected, airtight building, why Charley would have cut the wires which would stop the facility's communications and cut them off from the world, nor why Julia and Ricky seems to be coming up with various out-of-character ways of how he died. Mae and Jack become suspicious.

Jack goes to sleep and has a terrible nightmare. He wakes up the next day and find Mae looking over a security video (which Ricky said was lost because the wires had been cut) and to Jack's horror, sees a video of Ricky and Julia kissing. They also see Charley fighting viciously with Ricky. Both of them end up in the communication room where Julia kisses Charley, injecting a stream of swarm into his mouth. Julia suddenly enters the room while Jack and Mae are watching and grows suspicious.

Eventually, Jack and Mae then realize that everyone in the facility except themselves have been infested by a parasitic version of the nanobots that are capable of controlling their hosts, including Ricky and Jack's wife, Julia. These nanobots evolved alongside the other swarms, and they evolved to a milder form that slowly devours their host, while allowing the hosts to travel and contaminate others.

Jack comes up with the idea to contaminate the sprinkler system with a phage that kills the nanobot-producing E. coli bacteria. Jack orders Mae to pour the phage into the system making the system manufacture the phage. Mae is doubtful however but does it anyway. Mae also takes a bottle of phage to give to the other team members while Jack secretly goes to the sprinklers, but the other members aren't fooled and Julia kisses Mae. However, having drunk the phage herself, she is not contaminated. Jack is caught, but fights his way through to the sprinkler system. In order to intercept, Ricky shuts off the security system, but this will explode parts of the production conduit containing the phage, with Jack holding an open flame to a sprinkler, they are doomed either way. In panic, they switch the security system on, covering themselves in the phage from the sprinkler system, thus killing not only themselves, but the strain itself. Jack and Mae escape the facility in a helicopter shortly before the facility explodes due to a methane gas leak combined with thermite Mae has placed in the building.

Jack puts together all the missing links. Amanda's rash was caused by gamma assemblers, which irritated her skin. The MRI's strong magnetic field pulled the assemblers right off. His son's MP3 player was also damaged by the assemblers. These assemblers were most likely brought home by Julia. Jack also discovers an e-mail on Julia's laptop that indicates that the release of the swarm in the wild wasn't accidental but was done intentionally. It was she who authorized the release of the swarms in the first place. They released it in hopes that it would evolve and solve their problem, failing to realize the potential consequences of their actions. The swarm then infiltrated Julia and Ricky, influencing (and later controlling) their actions.

Jack returns home and gives a dosage of phage to all his children and himself. He is uncertain of the future. Mae is in a meeting to try to make everyone understand the seriousness and the depth of the problem. Everyone that came into contact with the swarms are now dead, except for Mae, Jack, and all of Jack's children. The swarms seem to be also extinguished, however, some assemblers could have survived. Meanwhile, back at Jack's house, his children Eric, Nicole, and the baby Amanda are throwing up. Jack is starting to feel dizzy. He knows he had no choice other than to give himself, his children, and his sister the phage to kill off any possible swarms they may be harboring in their bodies.

Characters in "Prey"

Major Characters

  • Jack Forman – The protagonist. A programmer with a strong background in biology, he is an expert in the field of agent-based artificial intelligence software.
  • Julia Forman – Jack's wife, she is the vice president of Xymos and a driving force behind the development of the nanorobots.
  • Ricky Morse – The team leader for Xymos' nanotechnology research project.
  • Mae Chang - A field biologist on Jack's consulting team.
  • David Brooks - An engineer on the team.
  • Bobby Lembeck - A programming supervisor.
  • The "Swarm" - Any of the many predatory clouds of nano-machines serving as an antagonistic force in the novel. A notable aspect of the swarm is its capacity for fully Lamarckian evolution, as each cloud's members can effectly choose exactly which aspects are to be transmitted or modified down into the next generation through manipulation of the E. coli bacteria used to produce the new robots.
  • Vince Reynolds - the maintenance operator of the Xymos lab.
  • Amanda- Jack and Julia's baby daughter.
  • Nicole - Jack and Julia's preteen daughter.
  • Eric - Jack and Julia's son.

Minor Characters

  • Ellen - Jack's sister from out of town. She takes care of his kids while he is in Nevada and believes Julia is on stimulants.
  • Don Gross - Jack's former boss, who fired Jack.
  • Gary - Jack's lawyer.
  • Maria - Jack and Julia's cleaning lady.
  • Annie - Jack's headhunter.
  • Carol - Julia's assistant.
  • Mary - Ricky's wife.
  • Tim Berman - The man that took over Jack's job.

Major themes

Prey deals with the threat of intelligent nanorobots escaping from human control and becoming autonomous, self-replicating and dangerous. It loosely deals with the grey goo concept that has been widely explored in science fiction. Many aspects of the story, such as the cloud-like nature of the nanoparticles, their evolution, and even their hiding place all closely follow Stanisław Lem's 1964 novel, The Invincible. The central threat of nanoparticles taking human-form parallels the central threat of insects taking a human-form in Frank Herbert's 1966 novel, The Green Brain.

Another theme is how short-sighted decision-making at the corporate level can lead to disaster when the companies involved control dangerous new technology. Michael Crichton states that the book is about what will happen if suitable controls are not placed on biotechnology before it develops to such an extent that it can threaten the survival of life on Earth.


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Prey (novel) v • d • eNanotechnology in fictionand popular culture Topics Nanotechnology in fiction · Fullerenes in popular cultureNotable references Borg nanoprobes · Prey · Agent Cody BanksSee also Nanotechnology · Nanorobotics · Molecular nanotechnology v • d • eMichael CrichtonBibliography Novels The Andromeda Strain(1969) • The Terminal Man(1972) • The Great Train Robbery(1975) • Eaters of the Dead(1976) • Congo(1980) • Sphere(1987) • Jurassic Park(1990) • Rising Sun(1992) • Disclosure(1994) • The Lost World(1995) • Airframe(1996) • Timeline(1999) • Prey (2002) • State of Fear(2004) • Next(2006) Novels written
under pseudonyms Odds On(1966) • Scratch One(1967) • Easy Go(1968) • A Case of Need(1968) • The Venom Business(1969) • Zero Cool(1969) • Grave Descend (1970) • Drug of Choice (1970) • Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1970) • Binary(1972) Nonfiction Five Patients(1970) • Jasper Johns (1977) • Electronic Life(1983) • Travels (1988) Film adaptations The Andromeda Strain(1971) • Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972) • The Carey Treatment(A Case of Need) (1972) • The Terminal Man(1974) • Rising Sun(1993) • Jurassic Park(1993) • Disclosure(1994) • Congo(1995) • The Lost World: Jurassic Park(1997) • Sphere(1998) • The 13th Warrior(Eaters of the Dead) (1999) • Timeline(2003) • The Andromeda Strain(2008) Film writer and director Pursuit(1972) • Westworld(1973) • Coma(1978) • The First Great Train Robbery(1979) • Looker(1981) • Runaway(1984) • Physical Evidence (1989) • ER(1994) • Twister(1996) Categories: Novels by Michael Crichton | 2002 novels | Science fiction novels

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