Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton is a chilling novel which arrests the mind from the first chapter and holds it until the very end, somehow maintaining its grip on the reader even while flooding him in a torrent of medical terminology.  While the story is not as superb or as profound as Crichton’s later work, viz. Jurassic Park, Andromeda Strain is indeed a page-turner and well worth the short time required to read it.

Crichton presents the novel as a documentation of horrific, inexplicable events which happened over the course of five days.  The story begins in the fictional town of Piedmont, Arizona, where a small satellite named Scoop 7 has crashed.  As we learn later, the intent of the Scoop program was to collect living organisms from outside Earth’s atmosphere; the seventh attempt proves successful.  However, the organism brought back by the capsule, referred to as the Andromeda Strain, has deadly effects on humans: within seconds, almost the entire populace of Piedmont is lying dead in the street.  Any “survivors” are stricken with madness and commit suicide shortly after the first wave of victims.  The capsule and the virus are swiftly transported to a secret, sterilized laboratory far beneath the Earth’s surface, where a team of 4 scientists is tasked with finding how Andromeda kills, how she reproduces, and how she can be controlled.  The laboratory, though, might not be as secure as it seems…

The Andromeda Strain is one of those really intense thrillers which are best experienced in the dark, when your mind is more prone to fear and anxiety.  Crichton weaves a vivid and truly compelling story about an unseen killer whose attack can be neither anticipated nor averted.  Here are some of the more thrilling passages in the book:

The morning sun was still low in the sky; it was cold and cheerless, casting long shadows over the thinly snow-crusted ground.  From where they stood, they could look up and down the street at the gray, weathered wooden buildings; but what they noticed first was the silence.  Except for a gentle wind that whined softly through the empty houses, it was deathly silent.  Bodies lay everywhere, heaped and flung across the ground in attitudes of frozen surprise.
But there was no sound – no reassuring rumble of an automobile engine, no barking dog, no shouting children.

The wreckage of the Phantom was scattered over two square miles of desert.  Standing next to the charred remnants of the left wing, he could barely see the others, on the horizon, near the right wing.  Everywhere he looked, there were bits of twisted metal, blackened, paint peeling.
It was impossible to make anything of the remnants.  The fuselage, the cockpit, the canopy were all shattered into a million fragments, and the fires had disfigured everything.
As the sun faded, he found himself standing near the remains of the tail section, where the metal still radiated heat from the smoldering fire.  Half-buried in the sand he saw a bit of bone; he picked it up and realized with horror that it was human.  Long, and broken, and charred at one end, it had obviously come from an arm or a leg.  But it was oddly clean – there was no flesh remaining, only smooth bone.

I wish I could say that all of Andromeda Strain carried the intensity of these sections, but for some reason Crichton determines to kill the suspense of his own novel with lines like this:
 The team had a blind spot, which Stone later explained this way: “We were problem-oriented.  Everything we did and thought was directed toward finding a solution, a cure to Andromeda.”

Perhaps I should have written SPOILER before that, as it implies that the bacteriologist Jeremy Stone survives to relate his team’s errors.  Still, that measure would have accomplished little, because the author does a fantastic job spoiling the story himself.  Unfortunately, these revealing sentences are scattered throughout the book, alleviating much of the tension readers could have felt in the characters’ peril.  Due to these built-in spoilers, it’s difficult for us to share the fear most of the heroes experience, because we know that they’ll all turn out just fine.  I don’t recall Crichton using this narrative technique at all in Jurassic Park, which is all the more frightening because we’re unsure who will escape and who will become a meal.

As opposed to the works of Orson Scott Card, Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis, or even George Lucas, Crichton’s science-fiction usually places just as much emphasis on the scientific elements as on the fictional ones.  While I commend Crichton for his efforts to explain these complex subjects to the common man, the descriptions in Andromeda Strain tend to go a little overboard.  Crichton even seems to acknowledge this in the book’s introduction: “This is a rather technical narrative, centering on complex issues of science… I have avoided the temptation to simplify both the issues and the answers, and if the reader must occasionally struggle through an arid passage of technical detail, I apologize.”  These technical moments are, indeed, rather frequent, but they’re nothing which a little liberal skimming cannot overcome.

In addition to these flaws, I was also left hanging with several unanswered questions by the end of the novel.  Unresolved is the reason why one of those ill-fated bus drivers lurches forward and splits his face when Andromeda seizes him.  Unclear is the reason why a clean, polished human bone is found in the wreckage of the Phantom, although Crichton drops an ambiguous hint at its cause.  Such questions nagged me when I had finished the book.  Also disappointing is the way that Crichton promises one ending early on but delivers another, less satisfying conclusion in the final pages.  A significant detail in this story is the Odd Man Hypothesis, which states that single men are far more likely than married men to make correct decisions.  It is because of this hypothesis that a relatively inexperienced surgeon named Mark Hall is present on the Wildfire team; although he lacks the vast knowledge of the other scientists, his single status makes him a desirable asset.  In the event that the laboratory becomes contaminated, an atomic self-destruct device is primed and set to activate in three minutes.  Mark Hall, the Odd Man, is entrusted with the only key to stop this process, since it’s believed that he would make a better choice than one of his married associates.  The reader presumes initially that Hall will at some point be confronted with this potentially disastrous decision and have to choose the laboratory’s fate on his own.  Without revealing too much, I can say that no such thing happens, and the whole Odd Man subplot just feels like a tangent once you’ve finished the novel.  In fact, everything about Crichton’s conclusion disappointed me; the book has excellent buildup, but little dramatic payoff once the action reaches a climax.

Despite all these shortcomings, I still recommend Andromeda Strain.  Reading it most likely will not consume much of your time, as it’s a highly engrossing story, and the book is definitely worth a look for those who have read Crichton’s later stories and want to take a trip down history lane.  While it is not Crichton’s most superb technothriller, Andromeda Strain practically spawned a whole new genre of writing, and it merits attention for that reason.

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