The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)

The human body is one of the dirtiest things in the known universe (p.116)

Michael Crichton

I’ve no idea what Crichton was like as a man but I admire his phenomenal success as a writer of popular techno-thrillers. If you’re going to entertain, then you might as well do it as effectively as possible. Ever since I learned about it years ago, I’ve been impressed by what will probably be a unique feat that no-one will ever match, namely that in 1994 Crichton was, simultaneously, the writer of America’s number one movie, Jurassic Park, was the creator and producer of America’s number one TV show, ER, and had a book at number one in the bestseller list, Disclosure.

What an amazing achievement and indicator of the practical skills of a man who was not only an author and scriptwriter, but who produced and directed movies himself, as well as creating and exec producing hit TV series.

The Andromeda Strain

Right back at the start of his career, young Michael (born 1942), was 26 when he published this, the first novel to appear under his own name (a few had appeared under pseudonyms). It announces a major talent, not so much in the plot – space probe returns to earth carrying a deadly virus is the same as, say, The Quatermass Experiment – but in the thoroughness and the verisimilitude of the scientific and administrative framework he presents the story in.

The story begins by describing the arrival of a two-man recovery team (Lieutenant Shawn and Private Lewis Crane) to retrieve a space probe which has crash landed on the small town of Piedmont in Arizona (population 48). They’re in the middle of doing so when their radio message back to base is dramatically cut short. Alerts are transmitted up the chain of command until five scientists who have been kept on standby for just such an emergency are each visited at home in the middle of the night by dark-suited security officials, asked to accompany them immediately in unmarked cars to military airports and flown to the top secret biohazard unit in the Nevada desert which has been painstakingly constructed for just such an emergency, under the codename Project Wildfire.

The scientists are:

  • Dr. Jeremy Stone: Professor and chair of the bacteriology department at Stanford University, fictitiously the winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • Dr. Charles Burton, 54 (p.61) Professor of Pathology at the Baylor College of Medicine, ‘nervous, jumpy, petulant’, nicknamed the Stumbler (p.54)
  • Dr. Peter Leavitt ‘superb clinical bacteriologist’ (p.59) who suffers from epilepsy, ‘an irritating, grumbling, heavyset man’ (p.54)
  • Dr. Mark Hall, surgeon
  • Professor Christian Kirke, who never makes an appearance because he’s in hospital for appendicitis

The plot then follows the scientists’ race against time to identify the weird extra-terrestrial virus and try to find a cure. The breakneck plot builds up to a climax when there’s a breach in biosecurity at the Wildfire centre with the result so that the virus gets loose among our heroes, and there’s a race against time to prevent its spread… with a novel twist at the very end.

So much for the thrilling plot, but what really distinguishes the text, and makes Crichton’s debut stand out, is the enormous amount of scientific, technical and administrative content.

Organisations

For example, the book is packed with dense and authoritative-sounding explanations of the umpteen different branches of the US military, space agency and security services which were involved in the research, commissioning, financing and building of the biohazard centre, including:

  • Vandenberg Scoop Mission Control
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • the Wildfire facility is built by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics
  • the Army Medical Corps, Chemical and Biological Warfare Division
  • the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee
  • the Goddard Spaceflight Centre
  • the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee

Official documentation

Lots of pages of the text consist of ‘copies’ or apparent photostats of official documents, procedures, maps, computer projections and so on, for example a photocopy of the original letter written by concerned scientists to the President of the United States suggesting the creation of a quarantined biohazard centre. It was here, right back at the start of the project, that the scientists included the controversial suggestion of having a small thermonuclear device onsite, which could be detonated if the infection gets out of control (under Directive 7-12, codename Cautery).

In fact soon after Stone and Burton have investigated the town (wearing tip-top latest biohazard suits) and discover an old man still alive and a screaming baby and retrieve them into a helicopter and take them back to the Wildfire centre, Piedmont is itself destroyed by a small nuclear weapon (p.114).

Scientific references

Then, complementing the detailed descriptions of security organisations there is the science itself. It includes references to:

  • a fictional study by J.J. Merrick an English biophysicist on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life and the probability of it being single-cell life
  • a study by the Hudson Institute on the likely outcome of various scenarios around an alien infection outbreak and the impact of detonating a nuclear weapon to obliterate it (p.87)
  • a two-page study complete with statistical analysis, of the Odd Man Out Hypothesis
  • a study by Rudolph Karp who established there are life forms on meteors and asteroids (p.130)
  • the Vector Three report which identified three possible sources for extra-terrestrial bacteria
  • the Messenger Theory of John R. Samuels i.e. that an intelligent civilisation on another planet might choose to communicate not by sending radio or TV signals but sending out tough microforms of life which can recombine if they ever arrive somewhere inhabitable (p.228)
  • a 274-page report on Project Wildfire, highlights of which Dr Hall has to read;  through to detailed descriptions of American military research into chemical and biological weaponry, with lists of the major research universities involved and some of the papers produced on the subject:

Few Americans, Stone knew, were aware of the magnitude of the US research into chemical and biological warfare.

History of the science into the 1960s

Crichton spends time giving us some background on the development of science up till the 1960s: in particular how before, during and after the war, most expensive research focused on physics, in particular nuclear physics. But how, with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, biology had exploded as a field of interest.

He gives us digressions on the nature of biology itself – ‘the only science which cannot define its subject matter’ because there is no agreed definition of LIFE. On the types of animals used in bio experiments – rats, monkeys, pigs – (p.146) or the large range of growth media used in laboratories (p.163). And an explanation for laymen of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the billions of bacteria we host, which leads on to a detailed explanation of the drawbacks which would occur if a wonderdrug were discovered which killed off all bacteria and viruses. In fact Crichton goes to the trouble of inventing a wonderdrug, Kalocin, for the purpose of the book which does just that – kills off all bacteria, viruses, fungi etc which inhabit the human body with the result that… all the human patients died (p.266). We need the bacteria which infest our bodies.

Man lives in a sea of bacteria (p.167)

Hard technology

And then there is the technology, which includes (obviously) the rocket technology used to launch the ill-fated space probe; NASA’s network of monitoring stations around the earth; and the technology used within the Wildfire biohazard installation, including state of the art sterilisation processes, spectrometers, amino-acid analysers, the microtome, the X-ray crystallographer, the electron microscope (a BVJ model JJ-42), Fourier electron-density scans and so on. He gives an explanation of why an electron microscope is better than a light one, as explained by one of its inventors (p.255).

Computers

Then there are computer diagnostics and computers in general. Crichton patiently explains to the 1969 reader that computers are capable of doing many tasks much faster than people! I’m always struck to be reminded just how long computers have been around and enthusiasts have been promising that they will change the world.

Commission of enquiry

All of this heavily factual material is organised as if in a report written up after the crisis was over and as the result of an inquiry into how it was handled. Thus the narrative itself contains mention of where the team made crucial mistakes.

  • It is a peculiarity of the Wildfire team that, despite the individual brilliance of the team members, the group grossly misjudged their information at several points. (p.243)
  • This was a most unfortunate decision, for had they examined the [growth] media, they would have seen that their thinking had already gone astray, and that they were on the wrong track. (p.250)

Scientific results

And the text includes numerous scientific illustrations, for example computer readouts of autopsies, chemical analyses of blood, a scanner printout from a ‘photoelectric eye’ that examined the growth media, an early sketch of the hexagonal structure of the Andromeda Strain, electron-density mapping of a sample of the strain – all carefully credited to Project Wildfire, as in a scientific paper.

The text is followed by four pages of finely printed references, mixing up genuine studies of extra-terrestrial life and biology with papers by the fictional characters in the novel.

Bureaucratic tone set in the preface

This approach, the pose that the entire text is an after-the-fact report, starts in the author’s preface, usually a place where the author is candid with the reader, but in this case Crichton presents himself as an investigator into the events surrounding the breakout, and gives copious thanks to numerous military officials who are entirely fictitious and are clearly part of the fictional cast, as if they were real figures.

The effect is partly to give the text verisimilitude but also allows him to do the standard thriller strategy of anticipating mistakes and accidents and disasters to come without going into detail and so making you impatient to read the full story itself.

Same happens when he describes the experiments the scientists carry out in the Wildfire lab and highlights their mistakes with phrases like ‘Only later would it become clear that…’ or ‘That was his first mistake…’, ‘It would be forty eight hours until he realised his error…’ (p.173)

Taken together, it’s all these tactics which give the novel its authoritative air and which, in turn makes the biological crisis all the more scary, and then the security breach at the centre all the more nailbiting.

Plot summary

By the end you realise that without all the images and diagrams and facts and figures in report format, and without the digressions about biology and computers, the book would have been significantly shorter, and the simpleness of the story much more apparent. Here is a barebones plot summary:

  • a space probe infected with alien life form crash lands near small town in Arizona, Piedmont
  • almost everyone in town dies almost immediately with weird symptoms, namely their blood congeals to powder
  • except two survivors, an old man and a screaming baby
  • they’re brought to a brand new hi-tech biohazard facility named after the project Wildfire where – after a thorough history of the thinking behind the centre, how it was researched, signed off, designed and built – the four scientists central to the story run a series of tests whose results are discussed at length, and engage in high-level speculations about the origin and form of the entity
  • there are several apparently unrelated incidents, mainly the crash of an air force jet which was flying high through airspace over Piedmont; crash investigators confirm the pilot’s last message which claimed that all the plane’s rubber hosing and casing was turning to powder
  • meanwhile the scientists have established that the Andromeda Strain, as it’s been named, consists of perfectly hexagonal crystals which replicate with amazing speed, and feed off pure energy, leaving no waste products
  • one of the scientists, the doctor, finally puts all the pieces of the jigsaw together and realises that the baby and the old man didn’t die because their blood PHs were abnormal, the old man because he was a diabetic, the baby because its continual crying acidated its blood – the Andromeda Strain only replicates within a narrow PH band
  • at just this moment the alarm goes off inside the bio centre indicating a seal has been broken sealing off the containment area, triggering the alarm and the countdown
  • countdown? yes, because throughout the novel we’ve been told that the Wildfire station has at its heart a thermonuclear device which will automatically detonate if there is a security leak – now the alarm bells go off, the red lights start flashing, all the big metal security doors slam shut and a nice lady’s voice starts counting down; they have three minutes before the bomb detonates!!
  • the thing is, it’s only been in the last hour or so that the scientists have realised that the strain feeds off pure light or energy – in other words, a nuclear explosion, far from wiping the virus out, will cause it to replicate a trillion-fold and spread all over America!!!
  • now, there is a failsafe, the nuclear countdown can be halted: the biohazard centre is dotted with light switch-sized sockets into which a metal key must be inserted to countermand the nuclear countdown, BUT the security doors clanging shut have sealed Dr Stone and Dr Hall off from any of these units – oops
  • which leads to the most famous passage in the book, and the movie based on it, when Dr Hall has to make his way through air ducts into the central circular core of the installation and climb up it to the next level, despite the fact that, given the security breach a) the central core is flooding with poison gas and b) remote control darts fire poisoned arrows at anything moving i.e. him
  • these last few pages are grippingly described as Hall tries to climb the ladder up inside the central shaft, despite becoming woozier and woozier, poisoned by the gas and hit by the poisoned darts, till he crashes through the door into the level above and staggers, almost unconscious to the nearest security point, inserts the key and turns it, then blacks out!!

Payoff

The virus mutates into a harmless form. Wind carries air from the now-leaking bio-hazard lab over Los Angeles but nothing at all happens. Lead scientist Stone speculates that a) it has mutated to a non-fatal form, as indicated by the way it had started eating rubber and plastic instead of human blood, and b) disliking oxygen rich environments (which earlier tests had established), it is likely to migrate upwards out of the atmosphere.

And that is the explanation for the brief two-page epilogue in which we learn that a recent manned space flight (Andros V) crash-lands killing all the crew. In an interview with journalists, the head of the program reveals the crash had something do with the failure of plastic safety shields. The journalists don’t know it, but we the readers know that this is proof that the Andromeda Strain has indeed gravitated away from the unfriendly oxygen-rich atmosphere of earth up to the troposphere – and the book ends with the threat that it might, possibly, remain there for ever, preventing the passage through it of any machines which contain rubber or plastic…

The IPCRESS connection

It’s fascinating to learn from Wikipedia that Crichton was heavily indebted to Len Deighton’s debut novel The IPCRESS File which was published in 1962 and which Crichton read on a visit to Britain.

The Deighton novel is also written in the style of an official report and recreates the often dull bureaucratic paperwork surrounding spying; the title itself indicates that the entire thing should be read as an official report.

Same with Andromeda which, on the pre-text pages, carries instructions as for an official file, which state: ‘THIS FILE IS CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET and that the ‘receiver’ of the file must first show his identity card to the courier.

All great boyish fun. I wonder if Crichton ever told Deighton about his indebtedness to him. I wonder what Deighton made of it.

Crystals

It’s interesting that the Andromeda Strain of virus turns out to be a perfect crystal and that one of the scientists is known for printing papers speculating that life on earth began as crystals (p.226). Because this is a genuine theory and is well expressed in the 1985 book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985), which I read and reviewed not too long ago.

The movie

In 1971 The Andromeda Strain was made into a movie directed by Robert Wise and starring Arthur Hill as Stone, James Olson as Hall, Kate Reid as Leavitt (changed to a female character, Ruth Leavitt), and David Wayne as Dutton (Burton in the novel). A lot of its appeal is due to the fact it was low budget and not dominated by well-known Hollywood names, lending it an extra soupcon of credibility. I saw it as a kid and loved it.


Credit

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton was published Knopf in American in 1969. All references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

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