BOOKS: Congo

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1995:

Congo by Michael Crichton
Ballantine Books, N.Y., 1980, re-released with the film. 313 pages, paper, $6.99 U.S.; $7.99 Canadian.

It’s the late 1970s, and several rival groups of computer
businesses (portrayed as having the political ambitions, espionage
techniques, and arms of mini-nationhood) are feverishly competing
to be the first on site at the fabled Lost City of Zinj in the mysterious
depths of the African Congo River basin. Only at Zinj are
to be found the blue diamonds which will revolutionize computer
technology––and whoever finds the diamonds first finds the Bill
Gates-like riches of computerland.
However, the first expedition to Zinj was promptly
wiped out. Through hi-tech detective work and, finally, face-toface
combat, the diamond hunters discover that the gems of Zinj
are guarded by an anomalous race of grey gorilla.

The hero of Congo is Amy, an AMESLAN-signing
juvenile forest gorilla of one of two known varieties, who is part
of an anthropological project. Amy’s rapport with Peter Elliot,
her “trainer,” is such that she can understand his speech, and can
sign to him her own fairly sophisticated perceptions. She also
seems to be the only character possessing sensitivity, wit,
insight, and any true link to her surroundings. While the other
members of her expedition can “see” the jungle and what they’re
up against only through the filtering and enhancing agents of their
sophisticated computers––and the computers often break down
––Amy alone can feel the sense of the jungle, its nature, and its
The only thing that excites Peter Elliot is the glory of
discovering the new species of grey gorilla, and the fame it will
bring him. Karen Ross, hotshot leader of the computer expedition,
cares only about finding the diamonds and the fame that will
bring her. These two almost asexual people are examples of modern
attributes of laser-like focus and aggressive entrepeneurship
gone hideously awry.
It all makes for an exciting scenario. Will Ross and
Elliot finally discover their deeply buried humanity and get it on?
Will Amy find a nice jungle gorilla and get it on? Will communication
be established between the grey gorillas and the humans
with the aid of Amy as interpreter? Will the humans start to rely
on their own ingenuity and psychic interpretations of their surroundings,
realizing the computer can’t help them out of every
problem? Will the grey gorillas smash all their skulls for them,
or will they all be eaten by the angry, warring native tribes?
No. A deus ex machina in the form of volcanic Mount
Mukenko decides to erupt and bury the City of Zinj, its priceless
blue diamonds and its fabulous population of grey gorillas under a
few miles of ash and lava. End of story, the principles having
apparently learned little or nothing from their almost supernatural
adventures in the jungles of the Congo.
The ending initially seems like a ham-fisted way to
evade a difficult resolution, but may be a joke on Crichton’s part,
as he includes a lengthy quote from a source identified as “The
Death of Nature,” which concludes: “…for all practical purposes
one may say that nature has disappeared. Wild plants are preserved
in hothouses, wild animals in zoos and game parks: artificial
settings created by man as a souvenir of the once-prevalent
natural world. But an animal in a zoo or a game park does not
live its natural life, any more than a man in a city lives a natural
“Today we are surrounded by man and his creations.
Man is inescapable, everywhere on the globe, and nature is a fantasy,
a dream of the past, long gone.”
Which is as may be, until one considers that the violence
and sublime fury of a Mount Mukenko––nature at its most
assertive––takes so little notice of humankind and its dreamy little
dreams that it buries said dreams in the wink of a hot eye.
If Crichton has indeed hidden a little joke in Congo, it is
that humanity will never prevail against nature, about which we
know next to nothing, and that our pervasiveness over the planet
is more apparent than real. It is nature, so touchingly eulogized
above, which is the survivor. “Maybe there’s a higher truth than
merely staying alive,” one of the characters states at one point.
“There isn’t,” comes the blunt answer. “The purpose of
life is to stay alive. Whenever any animal’s behavior puts it out of
touch with the realities of its existence, it becomes extinct.”
And the human characters in Congo, with their surreal
reliance on computer representations of reality, are so far out of
touch that it’s not the death of nature that’s at hand, but the death
of some members of an arrogant little species.
––Pamela June Kemp

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