Friday, August 29, 2014

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

Title: The Andromeda Strain
Author: Michael Crichton
Publisher:  Knopf (1969)

I assume we'll all be glued to our televisions this weekend for the opening games of college football but if you need something to read during halftime this title might be just the thing. It's short, on point and a little educational, too. That is, if you're interested in late 60s cutting edge technology. That statement has a hint of sarcasm but it's unintended. It is actually interesting to read this sci-techno thriller a few decades post-publication.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here. 

Click here for Michael's film review of The Andromeda Strain

When two Army personnel attempt to recover a research satellite that made an unplanned re-entry landing in Arizona, they encounter a town whose inhabitants have fallen prey to a fatal attack. Before much longer, they too have died. Their commander activates Wildfire and five civilian researchers begin a 5 day race to understand and contain an extraterrestrial pathogen. 

I've always thought of TAS as the first of Crichton's novels in which his signature style began to coalesce. It always felt like the first of the type of novels that garnered him the most fame: a group of very smart, qualified people come together using the latest technology to resolve a crisis. It's a style of novel I've always enjoyed (Jurassic Park anyone?) and while I don't think this is his best, it's still an enjoyable Crichton story.

After the Wildfire team has examined the stricken town and brought the satellite to their super secret lab facility, you learn a little about how each of them examines a scientific problem and you learn a lot about bacteria and the scientific tools available to researchers in 1969 (at least, if they had unlimited resources). There is a lot of technical detail in this novel and Crichton hadn't yet mastered how to incorporate it within the dramatic narrative. The book is introduced as a recounting of "recorded events" but it strays too often into the personal to keep to that structure. It's a flaw of the novel but if you like techno-thrillers this will probably still be a fun read despite the thriller aspect not really starting until the last few pages (however, if you don't like them, this is probably not the one to start with). 

My two* big complaints have to do with the loaded language Crichton so often used not coming to anything in the end and, well, the ending. The loaded language went nowhere and the end wasn't very satisfying. Obviously, I can't go into detail as it would be a major spoiler but let's just say that the ending - while not inconceivable - was unlikely and, what's more important, pretty meh. Actually, there is something I can share to illustrate my point. If you were to take all the information learned by the researchers (plus what the reader gets to know) and tried to use it to reach The End you probably couldn't do it. There certainly isn't any rule that a writer must provide the reader with a roadmap to the end but it's hard not to think: well, what'd you [author] bother with all that detail for if I couldn't use it for anything? So let's call this one a journey type of book. If you enjoy technological details and what-if situations then this title will satisfy. 

*I was mighty tempted to do a science nit pick review but decided to pass. Crichton novels do so much better than average on that type of thing that it just seems mean to pick out all the mistakes (and I've already done it to him once:).

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series


  1. I was wondering how Crichton’s viewpoint, along with the scientific facts so crucial to his tale, would hold up now 45 years later with someone who works in the ‘field’. I guess it works best if the reader does not share the same knowledge or experience the author attempts to relate.

    I know this novel engrossed me thoroughly as a sophomore in high school when I first read it. I did appreciate the obviously smart people were the main characters. Of course, they did come off as a tad arrogant, but that should be expected since they know they’re experts in what they do.

    Still, good to cheer on someone who couldn’t stomp or gun you down. And it was an intriguing premise that offered an adversary you couldn’t see with your bare eye. Nor did it have the evilest of intentions. Just something we went looking for…and were unprepared to handle.

    I also enjoyed the mystery aspect of it. An unexpected detective story, as it were. Needless to say, what would be used as a containment ‘device’ was also the elephant in the room. Exactly how was the gov’t going to explain this to the voters?!?

    Let’s just the opposing party would have a field day with this one. Fun review, Rachel.

  2. I actually think the science holds up fairly well. As in, what's right and what's wrong isn't dated in any way except it (necessarily) doesn't incorporate discoveries that have happened since. I think he even gets a few things right in how the field advanced. And even though I tend to nit pick it as I read, I figure the point is to add realism to the story not to be completely accurate, and that's ok. He spins a good yarn!

    Completely agree that Crichton gives heroes to root for that are not typical. It's fun to get behind smart people rather than just brawny people. (I was cracking up that they navigated that rope ladder so easily though, didn't seem likely. ha!)

    I also liked the mystery part of it and it was probably why the end annoyed me so much. It fit the mystery mold so well that it was annoying that the clues don't lead to the end.

    The super-secret lab and the bomb were a bit over the top, eh? I couldn't help but like it but my more reasonable side kept trying to ruin it. hehe

    One thing I must mention about these arrogant folk? They would have been way more than 'rusty' (as one of them put it) on actual lab techniques. I could completely see them doing lunch time round tables coming up with grand schemes but scientists at this level do not to lab work. Their minions do. ;-)

    This was a lot of fun to revisit. It's been years since I first read this book! Thanks!