Friday, February 06, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “The Andromeda Strain,” by Michael Crichton

(Editor’s note: This is the 41st installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from New Yorker Anthony Rainone, a longtime contributor to January Magazine and The Rap Sheet. You can read his new short story in the Spring 2009 issue of Spinetingler Magazine.)

Michael Crichton passed away from cancer in November 2008, and his death prompted me to look on my bookshelves to see which of his novels I owned. There were several, but my eyes were immediately drawn to The Andromeda Strain. I first enjoyed that book two decades ago, and I believe it was the first science thriller I had ever read. According to some, Crichton was the earliest science thriller writer, and I think that’s accurate. He was a brilliant man, a brilliant writer. He wrote Andromeda when he was in his 20s and still in medical school. The book is solid, despite its author’s then tender years and limited writing experience. There are few authors of any age who could produce a book of such magnitude. The Andromeda Strain deserves to never be forgotten, not only because it fathered a subgenre, but because it is a top-notch thriller likely to remain relevant in a world forever intrigued and influenced by scientific advancement.

Andromeda was published originally in 1969, the same year Crichton graduated from Harvard Medical School and picked up an Edgar Award for Best Novel for A Case of Need, which he’d penned under the pseudonym “Jeffrey Hudson.” Its story begins with an ominous nighttime setting in Piedmont, Arizona, a small town where a U.S. Army satellite has crash-landed, and where nearly all the inhabitants have subsequently died. That satellite was part of the so-called Scoop Project, which had a duality of purpose.
Its avowed aim was the collection of any organism that might exist in “near space,” the upper atmosphere of the earth. Technically speaking, it was an Army project, but it was funded through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a supposedly civilian organization. ... In theory, JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] was designing a satellite to enter the fringes of space and collect organisms and dust for study. This was considered a project of pure science--almost curiosity--and was thus accepted by all the scientists working on the study. ... In fact, the true aims were quite different. The true aims of Scoop were to find new life forms that might benefit the Fort Derrick program. In essence, it was a study to discover new biological weapons of war.
When Scoop VII--the latest launched satellite--suddenly enters an unstable orbit after only two days, it is forced down. The army’s attempts to retrieve that satellite only result in more deaths, and a summons is sent out for a specialized on-call squad of civilians. The Wildfire Alert team consists of Jeremy Stone, a bacteriologist; Peter Levitt, a clinical microbiologist and infectious disease expert; Charles Burton, a pathologist; and Mark Hall, a surgeon. These men are pulled from their respective homes and workplaces in dramatic fashion by armed military escort. They don’t initially understand the magnitude of the situation or what they will be asked to do--namely, to ensure the survival of the earth against a deadly alien organism.

There is a sophisticated blend of science and military prowess at play in Andromeda, which was written at a time when America flexed its power in both areas, including a manned space mission to the moon and the entrenched war in Vietnam. The central tenet of Andromeda--that is, the possibility of bringing alien microbes back to earth--was a recognized concern of NASA’s (and still is). This novel’s high technology, which includes identity scanners that read palm prints, probably seemed fantastic during the Nixon administration, though less so now. The sophisticated lab needed to examine the Scoop VII satellite was built far underground in Flatrock, Nevada. Each level is increasingly sterile, and the requirements become more stringent as the Wildfire Alert team members progress downward, finally reaching Level 5. Among those requirements: taking antibiotics and subjecting the scientists to an ultra flash of light that burns away the top layer of their skin. Equally compelling for 1960s readers was the frightening power of the U.S. military, first realized when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan during World War II. In order to control and eliminate the contamination of Piedmont, a directive is issued to detonate an atomic weapon in the town.

Author Crichton also mined his medical-science background to create a setting and tone that seemed wholly credible. In fact, many readers of the time wondered if Andromeda was a work of non-fiction. Its main characters were probably drawn from the types of men Crichton encountered in everyday life around a hospital, or in medical school labs and corridors. Jeremy Stone is the project leader, and together with Peter Levitt he goes into Piedmont to retrieve the downed satellite. The two men are wearing vacuum-sealed suits that prevent airborne or surface germs from penetrating. It is a sobering excursion. They don’t know if their suits will prove ineffective and let them die like the town’s inhabitants, because they don’t yet know what type of alien organism they are dealing with. There are bodies everywhere, and perhaps more surprisingly, there are two survivors: a 69-year-old man and a two-month-old baby. All of the deceased inhabitants either perished from immediate and massive blood clotting, or insanity resulting in suicide.

Stone and Leavitt are the laboratory guys; they are given the task of examining the satellite, finding the alien organism, and figuring out how to kill it. Crichton uses his biology background to instruct readers in the complexities of science. He presents us with computer simulations, chemical equations, and medical procedures of ever more curious variety. The argument could be made that The Andromeda Strain, with its examination of microbes, cells and anatomy, also gave birth to another genre--forensics-driven thrillers (are you listening, CSI fans?). The downside of all this is that the practicality of scientific method and the cool demeanor of the scientists involved lessens this story’s tempo at times. However, the young author picks up the pace at important moments.

Given Crichton’s medical background, it is not surprising that Dr. Mark Hall is the most dynamic character in the Wildfire Alert group. Sure, Stone and Levitt have their moments in the sun (alhough the pathologist, Burton, is only adequate and finally gets himself into significant trouble). At one point in the novel, Stone regrets not having a chemist in the group, rather than Hall. But Hall plays the most heroic role at the end of this novel. He is also the only unmarried man on the team, and that makes him especially significant. Employing the Odd Man Out theory, the army has devised a fail-safe mechanism in case the entire Wildfire lab becomes contaminated. In that worst-case scenario, the lab is to be sealed off and an atomic device automatically activated with a short, three-minute countdown. The Odd Man Out--namely, Hall--is the only one entrusted with a key to deactivate that explosive device. In their wisdom, military intelligence experts deduced that a married man might have second thoughts and stop the explosion, whereas a single man would have less to lose. While the logic is slippery, it does lead to classic thriller chills when the lab is suddenly contaminated near the end of The Andromeda Strain, and Hall has to race against the clock to shut it down (after Stone and Levitt deduce that an atomic explosion would only strengthen the alien organism).

Hall’s assignment is to treat the two surviving residents of Piedmont: elderly Peter Jackson and the baby, Jamie Ritter. He can’t figure out how they survived, when no one else did. Jackson tells Hall that he suffers from an ulcer and self-medicates the pain by drinking Sterno and taking aspirin; yet Hall is unable to make a connection between this misguided action and the baby’s endurance. He finally realizes that the acid levels in the body might be the key. Sterno and aspirin both make the human body highly acidic. A baby has a rapid metabolism that also increases acidity levels. Meanwhile, using electron microscopes and X-ray crystallography, Stone and Levitt make their own discoveries about the alien organism, which astounds them with its physicality and behavior.

Crichton did a significant amount of research for The Andromeda Strain, and there are cool thriller elements throughout: a fighter jet that partially disintegrates in air, security dogs with their voice boxes removed, and then Hall’s race against the clock to stop an atomic explosion. The tenet that Crichton puts forth in Andromeda, namely that life exists in wholly unique and strange forms in other galaxies, may prove to be prophetic one day. In the end, there’s poetic justice of sorts in this book, if only viewed through a scientific lens. The human body, it seems, is stronger than we think.


Ali Karim said...

Anthony - Have you a hidden camera pointed at my bookshelf!!!!!!!!

This is one of my favourite technothrillers, and I have a UK first edition, this damned book made me study science!



Anonymous said...


I'm glad you liked it. I think it's a terrific novel. A ground-breaker, besides.


Cullen Gallagher said...

Crichton's background in both writing and medicine seems really unique, and it sounds like it comes through in his writing. I've still yet to read him, but this sounds like the place to start.