Michael Crichton's techno-political thriller State of Fear (HarperCollins) turns on a controversial notion: that all the talk we've been hearing about global warming--polar ice caps melting, weather systems sent into calamitous confusion, beach weather lingering into January--might be at best misguided, at worst dead wrong. It's The De Vinci Code with real facts, violent storms, and a different kind of faith altogether.

The book opens with the murder of an American graduate student studying ocean-wave dynamics. (State of Fear is the sort of novel that makes even nerd occupations seem daring.) A boatyard owner renting deep-sea submarines in Vancouver is also murdered, as is a man purchasing illicit rocket guide wires in London.

We soon learn that such skullduggery is being coordinated, or so it seems, by Nick Drake, a Ralph Nader clone--intense, single-minded, and (apologies to Nader's many fans) unhinged. He is the president of the National Environmental Resource Fund, or NERF, a radical environmental organization founded by lawyers, not scientists. The fund is clearly modeled on the real-life Natural Resources Defense Council, whose annual budget is about the same: $44 million. Drake plans to create a series of vast mediagenic natural disasters to further his ideological environmentalist agenda.


But his plan has run into some snags. NERF's biggest supporter, millionaire playboy George Morton, has become disillusioned with Drake; and an omnicompetent MIT scientist named John Kenner is close to unraveling Drake's plots. The ensuing action ranges from crumbling ice shelves in Antarctica and flash floods in the Arizona desert to a tsunami in the South Pacific.

State of Fear is, in a sense, the novelization of a speech Crichton delivered in September 2003 at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club. He argued there that environmentalism is essentially a religion, a belief system based on faith, not fact. To make this point, the novel weaves real scientific data and all-too-real political machinations into the twists and turns of its story.

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