Michael Crichton: The Andromeda Strain
Ballantine Books 1993 (1969)
Certainly the Wildfire team was under severe stress, but they were also prepared to make mistakes. They had even predicted that this would occur. What they did not anticipate was the magnitude, the staggering dimensions of their error. They did not expect that their ultimate error would be a compound of a dozen small clues that were missed, a handful of crucial facts that were dismissed.
— From Chapter 24, The Andromeda Strain
Michael Crichton’s 1969 techno-thriller is in some ways an update of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but instead of invading Martians being defeated by a earth-borne microbes (or “putrefactive and disease bacteria” as Wells has it, our “microscopic allies”) here it is the extraterrestrial microscopic organisms that threaten humankind. Brought back to earth by a Project Scoop satellite, they kill human beings by almost instantly clotting their blood. A top secret team codenamed Wildfire is tasked with retrieving, analysing, assessing and counteracting this virulent invader before it spreads to the general population. Holed up in an underground lab, they have a scant few days to come up with solutions; this being a thriller, things do not go smoothly.
Put thus baldly The Andromeda Strain appears to be a fairly humdrum novel, its premise familiar from scores of dystopic novel plotlines and SFF films and TV series. But, bearing in mind the date of its release — at the height of a flurry of manned space missions (though just three years from the last Apollo mission to the moon) and on the crest of a wave of optimism in the march of science and technology in the face of Cold War tensions — its then impact isn’t hard to imagine. The nightmare scenario of an invisible killer chimed in with fears of Russian aggression — remember, the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies had in 1968 invaded Czechoslovakia, a country at the heart of Europe. While the US became more mired in a disastrous Vietnam conflict, despite opposing a technologically poorer nation, on the other hand it had sent a mission around the moon; and computer sciences seemed to be announcing new advances on a daily basis.
In such an extraordinary time of upheaval Crichton’s novel comes as little surprise. For this work of speculative fiction he chose to write in what would now be called a creative nonfiction style, buttressing it with much that would not be unexpected in a scientific paper, such as diagrams, computer print-outs and an extensive academic bibliography. Though some of this material, typical of the so-called hard SF genre, has now dated, what to me seems extraordinary is that half a century later much of it is still recognisably current when compared to the less realistic SF offerings then available in popular culture, especially in the visual media (for example TV series such as Lost in Space, Star Trek and Doctor Who).
The Andromeda Strain is largely plot-driven. Few of the characters, though mostly distinctive, remain truly memorable: bacteriologist Jeremy Stone is team leader and near enough infallible; Mark Hall, a surgeon, is accorded almost the only chance to play action hero; because of equipment failure pathologist Charles Burton seems a real goner at one stage; and microbiologist Peter Leavitt’s unwillingness to face a personal truth nearly puts the whole enterprise — and the world’s human population — at risk. Otherwise their roles seem to be to, stage by stage, elucidate for us readers the team’s findings and tentative conclusions. That is, until the next crisis develops.
These crises take various forms. First there are the purely mechanical and — to a lesser extent — system failures, which the team have to respond to on an ad hoc basis. Then there are the human errors, not least the release of the deadly bug in the first place. Some of these human errors are procedural, from not following protocols to the letter, while others are due to human failings, pure and simple, the result of fatigue and stress compounded by the urgency of the situation. Unless I have missed something, there doesn’t appear to be a crisis engineered from sheer malice — a relief to this reader, wary of the habitual insertion of a villainous adversary in much of the more populist examples of this genre.
In short, because of the clues presented right from the start we are aware that a crisis of global magnitude is averted, so that the jeopardy premised by the novel is ultimately averted. What Crichton only alludes to without revisiting it later on (leaving it to ferment in the reader’s mind) are the habitual risks taken by governments in sending objects into space: the dangers of inadvertent contamination, the foolhardiness in deliberately searching for and possibly retrieving microscopic alien organisms (for what ulterior purpose?) and, most worrying, the potential disasters waiting from the steady and unceasing accumulation of space junk in orbit around the earth.
The catastrophic risks from these scenarios (particularly the last) have increased, not diminished, in the five decades since the author published his fictional account; in this respect The Andromeda Strain — while undoubtedly entertaining — in the final analysis takes on the role of a modern Cassandra. Let’s hope it’s not too late.
Here is a very youthful Michael Crichton (1942-2008) introducing a featurette on The Andromeda Strain, the film of the same name which was released in 1971. Hard to believe he was only in his mid-twenties when he began the novel.