The book starts off quite excitingly with two US Army men about to recover the small capsule that is one of several being regularly & secretly sent by NASA into brief low earth orbit, to look for upper-atmosphere organisms. The men quickly find the capsule, see everyone in the tiny town dead, and fall dead themselves. After this there are many pages of background on Project Wildfire, a Department of Defense project that has been established specifically to deal with the contingency of invasion by extraterrestrial organisms.
We are introduced to four scientists, fortunately only one of whom is given a detailed background. Then we get a whole lot of details about Project Wildfire, its funding, the structure and location of the top-secret building in which they’re working, the precautions they must take, the physical tests they must undergo to pass from one level to the next of this super-secured, super-sterile structure, etc. In between there are again several exciting pages, where two of the scientists actually go to the site where the capsule landed – Piedmont, Arizona – to recover the capsule. They find two human survivors: an infant and a an old man: whom they bring back to their lab harvest clues about the disease.
We watch the four men (the main characters are all men, and the book was written back when ‘humans’ were called ‘men’) running the scientific tests, and are able to infer the logic behind them. It all reads as pretty routine, and sometimes you wonder whether Crichton is trying to cover the dullness of most lab work. There are also conferences aplenty, and even though they’re happening b/w scientists in a high-tenstion situation, a conference is a conference: in an indoors, sterile environment far underground. Exhaustive labwork, conferences, and anal-retentive protocols, oh, my. Is anyone else going to die anytime soon? You lured me in with some cool horrifying deaths and now it’s just four men in white coats being scientists. Granted, futuristic scientists doing remote and glovebox surgery via sealed tunnels interfacing with the quarantine room, playing detective with the two unlikely survivors from Piedmont.
And then suddenly things get exciting when the scientists make discoveries. You can tell that this book was written in the 1960s, when computing was new, and fear about extraterrestrial contact was at its peak. With his medical background, Crichton is well suited to describing scientific processes in a way that’s legible without being watered down, and distilling scientific concepts down to their essence – though that doesn’t stop him from often providing much more detail and strictly necessary. Where does detailed world-building bleed into tedious showing off of one’s knowledge, however meticulously assembled & processed?
About a third of the way through the book, the plot thickens. I’d taken for granted – as, it turns out, had the underground team at Project Wildfire – that the bomb had already been dropped over Piedmont, Arizona sterilising the site and containing the spread of the infection. Now it turns out that the bomb was not dropped – the President has not done so, probably in order to prevent nuclear war with Russia, which was mentioned early in the book as the most likely eventuality of above-ground nuclear testing. A pilot from an unrelated mission, accidentally flying over the quarantined area of 100 miles’ radius around Piedmont, has run into trouble. Apparently the flesh on his body has melted, as has the strange new human-flesh-like plastic, which has been specially engineered for this type of Phantom aircraft, and which is not run into trouble elsewhere in the world. Clearly the virus is spreading from the site of the capsule landing, and its capabilities are growing more frightening. Also, a simple but undetected mechanical error has separated the base from all external communications – machine error compounded by human error. Exciting!
The last part of the book is quite rapid and eventful. The organism mutates into a form that no longer damages humans, but that instead eats away plastic & rubber. There is a breach, and the auto-destruct sequence is initiated. Hall is able to stop it just in time in a brief but exciting race against the clock. The Andromeda organisms all float away from the lower atmosphere and drifts back towards space, where it causes a returning manned flight to crash. The government holds all nights into space and disguises what has happened, concealing everything.
The descriptions of scientific processes and data visualisation techniques are very clear and appear to be far advanced of their time. Crichton’s done an excellent job on the science part of the science fiction. It’s hard to distinguish the fact from the fiction, including indescriptions of techniques, as well as quotes from scientists. I looked up images of the techniques he mentioned. Electron microscopes, which he describes in size as “a large console,” are still the same. X-ray crystallography machines, described as “the size of a large automobile,” now look a little smaller than when he wrote. The scientific explanations interpolated in the story are expositions – and expositions are notoriously hard to do well. Crichton mostly manages: the expositions are brief, to-the-point, written interestingly as well as simply, and are always immediately relevant to their context in the story.
A thriller with lots of twists and turns: the ongoing findings of the scientists dovetail with the ongoing events in the real lworld. Crichton manages to lead the reader to form his own correct conclusions about what’s happening, sort of like Socrates leading his interlocutor down a garden path of reasoning to the right answer, quite masterfully. The early middle part of the novel after the initial incident lags, with lots of backstory. But the last 40-50 pages are again very exciting, and the suspense is maintained right up until the last page.
Sometimes the action feels isolated: even though we know in theory that the whole world is at risk, the fact that most of the action is happening in this sealed-away secret underground lab can make the reader forget the stakes. A couple of epidemics, occurring before Andromeda mutated into a harmless new form, might have the overall structure while maintaining or expanding the stakes as felt by the reader.
The story doesn’t tie up all its threads. Leavitt is epileptic but nothing comes of it: his colleagues, and the reader, become aware of this problem only near the end. Another scientist realises that cutting off one of the organisms from the rest might help, but nothing comes of this either. Some slender hints of personal dynamics between the scientists is dropped in near the beginning, but Crichton drops these altogether. For the majority of the book, w/ the scientists in the lab, the only distinction between them is their areas of specialisation and therefore of the tests they perform and the conclusions they’re able to draw. All four men are exchangeable. Even the device of making one the key-holder to stop the auto-destruct sequence, and giving another one epilepsy, doesn’t really individualise the scientists from each other. This is definitely not a character-driven story, but it is an exciting read, and good science fiction in the educational and precautionary senses.
The major flaw of The Andromeda Strain is that the problem – which threatens all life on earth, and which the scientists have been working to solve for the whole book – solves itself suddenly and quickly near the end. This renders everything that has gone before a purely academic exercise. The scientists identify, isolate, and begin to characterise the organism, and seem about to come up with the practical details of a preventative solution that can be disseminated to the whole population.
But exactly when this happens, the organism has mutated and departed for the upper atmosphere harmlessly. All the work we’ve been watching the scientists do becomes useless: the organism would’ve mutated and departed even without anything that we have read about in the last 200 pages happening. Similarly, the atomic bomb that was supposed to detonate, was not launched. We find out that had this been done, that would’ve helped the organism to propagate further. But since the organism had by this time already mutated into a harmless form and begun migrating upwards, the atomic bomb being detonated or not would’ve made no difference. So the storyline – To detonate or not to detonate? – also becomes irrelevant. So we can summarise The Andromeda Strain as follows: “An alien organism earth and kills 50-odd people in a horrifying and instantaneous manner. A global pandemic is promised, with high-stakes science. A few days later the organism mutates into a harmless form and exits the earth’s atmosphere. The United States Department of Defence and some scientists working for the government Project Wildfire do lots of cool tests, and we learn some science, but ultimately none of it matters to the outcome.”