About DBreitenbeck

David Breitenbeck is a professional freelance writer currently living in Southeast Michigan.

Thoughts on ‘The Andromeda Strain’

Just finished reading Michael Crichton’s 1970 novel The Andromeda Strain (I don’t know; felt in the mood for it for some reason). It’s quite a page turner, and I heartily recommend it to anyone with a taste for hard sci-fi.

The story has a US Military satellite bring an extraterrestrial microbe back to earth as part of an effort to collect, study, and possibly weaponize microorganisms from the upper atmosphere. It lands outside of a small Arizona town, and the locals get it before the Air Force can and one of them foolishly opens the capsule, releasing the bacteria, which swiftly kills everyone in town except for a crotchety old man and a two-month-old baby. The government recovers the capsule and moves it to a top-secret bunker designed specifically to study and combat alien microbes, while the hand-picked team of doctors and scientists (four in all) set to work trying to break just what the thing is and how it works.

The best thing about Andromeda Strain is the way it presents scientific research as a kind of complex detective story. After they’ve arrived and started work on the capsule, the team first has to discover whether the organism is even still present, then whether it is alien or terrestrial, what its composition is, and how it kills. This involves a lot of very careful tests and looking for very subtle clues to follow, some (perhaps most) of which turn out to be misleading. And, of course, part of the problem is that they all know full well that the organism might not follow the normal ‘rules’ of life as they understand it at all.

Much kudos to Mr. Crichton for making the tedious scientific struggle so interesting. He fills out the pages with realistic-looking documents, print outs, and diagrams which I have no idea whether they are accurate or not, but they certainly feel legitimate. I also liked the simplicity of some of the experiments, one of which was simply putting progressively larger screens in front of a rat to test how big the organism was.

The other most interesting element was the theme of technology. In this story, as, I believe, in many of the author’s other works, the characters are surrounded by the most advanced, sophisticated technology available, yet the recurring theme is this does not put them in control. Again and again, sophisticated and carefully planned out systems fail, either because of human error or because the situation turned out to be different from what they expected or just simply from random happenstance. The brilliant scientists make mistakes from hubris, embarrassment, or simply because they’re tired. At one point crucial information gets missed because the ultra-powerful computer had a bit of paper stuck in it that prevented the ringer from going off.

Crichton seems to have had a consistent theme in his work that all of man’s technological prowess and intelligence ultimately can never shield him from the vagaries of fate, nor make him the master of his world. This, of course, is a common theme in science fiction, though I find, from what little I’ve read of him, that Crichton seems to push it more than most. His driving thought seems to be less that man will destroy himself, or that there are things that man is not meant to know, but that at the end of the day you are never going to engineer your way to anything like paradise or even safety.

I don’t know what Crichton’s religious views were, thought I doubt they were favorable (“grouchy, independent materialist” is the tone I get from what I’ve read), but this attitude is certainly fitting from a Christian point of view. Eden’s gone and we’re not going to get it back through technology. Almost all technological advancement is a double-edged sword that leaves us, at best, in much the same position we were before, just with different variables. Bad things happen, and will continue to happen to the end of time, whatever defenses we put.

I’ll leave you, the reader, to draw any topical conclusions from that.

The ideas and plot of the book are its main point: I didn’t get much from the characters one way or another (the crotchety old man survivor was my favorite). I also will say that, without going into spoilers, I thought the ending was a bit of an anti-climax; even a cop-out. But your mileage may vary, and the rest of the book is interesting enough that it doesn’t really matter. I also like that we don’t get answers to some of the questions the book raises, such as why the satellite went off course in the first place, much less where the Andromeda Strain came from.

Recommended.

 

 

How to End a World and Save a Franchise

I’m not a Final Fantasy player myself (this is by happenstance, not by choice; the games passed me by as a kid and I haven’t had time to go back and explore them yet), but I would like to share an interesting story regarding the franchise; a story that took place in our own world.

In 2010, Square Enix released Final Fantasy XIV, also known as Final Fantasy Online, the first MMORPG entry in the venerable franchise (UPDATE: I’m wrong; it was the second after Final Fantasy XI). It pretty much crashed and burned, with numerous bugs, a user-unfriendly interface, and other problems that rendered it all-but unplayable. The then president of Square Enix, Yoichi Wada, issued a formal apology to the fans (oh, if only more companies would do the same) and promised to fix the problem. A restructured creative team managed to patch some of the problems over the next two or three years, but in the end they found that the code was unsalvageable and the only solution was a total teardown and rebuild. Current players would receive the new game for free, and their characters and stats would be carried over, but the old game was shutting down for good.

But Square didn’t just quietly shutter the game and pretend nothing had happened. Instead, they took their lemon of a game and squeezed out one of the most spectacular glasses of lemonade in gaming history. They worked the end of the servers and the start of the new game into the game’s story itself; the end of the old game world and the start of the new.

In the months leading up to the closing of the servers, a great red Moon appeared in the skies of the gaming world, while monsters and enemies became steadily more numerous and aggressive. The Moon slowly descended over time, heralding the coming of an unstoppable evil. Then, when the server’s shut down at last, this is what the loyal players were treated to (starts about five minutes in):

 

Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you keep a fanbase after screwing up.

Incidentally, the new game was released a year later to “overwhelmingly positive” reviews and is still played to this day as one of the most popular MMOs in the world.

Thoughts on a Movie I Haven’t Seen

My extreme antipathy towards Rian Johnson left me with no interest in seeing Knives Out, much as I love good mystery stories. I still haven’t seen it, but I have learned the solution from someone who did, and, having confirmed it by a perusal of Wikipedia, I am about to say something about it. Though take it with a grain of salt.

Needless to say, SPOILERS, and spoilers of a mystery, which is worse. However, quite frankly the solution is so stupid that I don’t think it matters.

 

 

 

So, the solution, described by wikipedia, is this:

Unknown to Blanc, after the party, [Christopher Plummer]s nurse, Marta Cabrera, accidentally administered him an overdose of morphine instead of his usual medication and could not find the antidote, leaving Harlan minutes to live. To protect Marta, Harlan gave her instructions to create a false alibi to avoid suspicion over his death; he then slit his own throat. Marta carried out Harlan’s instructions, but Harlan’s elderly mother saw her and mistook her for Ransom.

…After Ransom learned at the party that Harlan was leaving everything to Marta, he swapped the contents of Marta’s medication vials and stole the antidote so she would kill Harlan with an overdose of morphine, making her ineligible to claim the inheritance by the slayer rule. However, Marta actually administered the correct medicine without reading the labels, recognizing it by the weight and viscosity of the fluid, and is therefore innocent of Harlan’s death. After the death was reported as a suicide, Ransom anonymously hired Blanc to discover Marta’s guilt. Fran later saw Ransom stealing Marta’s medical case to hide the fact that the contents of the vials had been switched, and sent him the blackmail note.

So, the trained nurse couldn’t recognize the symptoms of a massive morphine overdose? Neither she nor the old man himself realized that he was wide-awake, perfectly lucid, and mentally alert enough to be able to concoct a complicated plot in the space of a few minutes, despite supposedly getting a lethal overdose of a sedative? In fact, the old man was so convinced that he had mere minutes to live that he cut his own throat some five minutes after getting what he thought was a massive overdose of tranquilizer, enough to kill him within mere minutes?

If he had gotten that level of an overdose, it would have hit him hard straight away and probably left him all-but incapacitated at once, if it didn’t actually put him straight to sleep. He certainly wouldn’t be coming up with elaborate false alibis or cutting his own throat minutes later. It’s a narcotic; you would feel it if you got that much all at once, you wouldn’t be fully functional until the timer runs out like in a video game.

I’ve heard the film compared with the works of Agatha Christie. Dame Christie would have tanned your hide for this. Her solutions were sometimes a little wonky, requiring luck and split-second timing, but they didn’t turn on people simply forgetting how drugs work to the extent that they kill themselves over it. In one of her stories, this would have been the unworkable fake solution disqualified by requiring totally unreasonable behavior on all sides. I can just picture Poirot: “Does a man who has just been given 20 ccs of morphine concoct an elaborate alibi for his nurse and then calmly cut his own throat? Would he even remain conscious long enough to learn that a mistake had been made? And does a trained nurse mistake a wide-awake man who is calmly conversing with her for a man who has just been lethally drugged with a narcotic? No, no! C’est impossible!” 

Why didn’t the grandson just mix the two instead of swapping completely? Blend in an amount of morphine to the medication, and the same result ensues, only without the stupid element of the man coolly and deliberately cutting his own throat because both he and his nurse thinks he’s been given enough morphine to knock out an elephant, and still believe it after five minutes of intense, lucid concentration? Even if they find the mixture, it would be all-but impossible to pin the blame on any one person, and she would still come under suspicion either for incompetence or murder (but you could easily arrange for the mixture to be covered up somehow).

Actually – again, speaking without having seen the film – wouldn’t that make for a better story? She legitimately did kill him, and the detective has to prove it wasn’t her fault?

Or if you wanted this particular set up, just have the medication be something that wouldn’t affect his mind, like the ever-handy digitalin. See, that’s the worst part of this sort of thing; it would be so incredibly easy to avoid this problem with just a little bit of thought. You can have everything the same (though the suicide angle still seems wonky to me), only without the glaring gap in logic. But they didn’t care enough to even do that, apparently.

You know, with so many people praising the film, I thought perhaps that meant that Rian Johnson actually could write a decent story, just couldn’t do Star Wars. But, no; at least as far as the solution goes, this film shows the same level of blind stupidity as The Last Jedi: an inability to think things through or give people logical motivations or reactions. Characters just do what they are told because they’re told to do it because he doesn’t know how to get his desired effects otherwise.

If he doesn’t start to improve, his oeuvre is going to be a treasure trove of “don’t do this” examples for future writers if nothing else.

The World We Live In

It is, I find, fatally easy to forget what kind of world we live in, especially today. We’ve got all our gadgets, our (relatively) ordered society, and all the rest of it, so that it becomes only natural to fall into a kind of trance assuming that everything just kind of works and that’s all there is to it. We think of things like Religion as mere classifications of people: this group believes this, that group believes that. And we only rarely go any further. In any case, the main point is how those beliefs practically affect themselves and the world around them: not the truth or falsehood of those claims.

It’s hard to describe, because I myself can only catch glimpses of another perspective. Habits of thought are extremely difficult to fight, and we all default to much the same assumptions: modernism (we assume ourselves at a higher level than the past), materialism (again, we assume the practical, material effects of any given idea or practice are the main point), and liberalism (we are suspicious of any kind of human authority). This applies whether you call yourself Conservative or Liberal, and it is a rare person indeed who is legitimately emancipated from it (again, speaking as someone who can only step out of it with conscious effort).

But the truth is this: we live in a world where God took flesh and lived among us as a Man: a Man in history, living a certain amount of years before us, in a place we know, at a fairly well-documented time of history. Consider, as you go about your day, that this world of ours, now filled with cars and computers and concrete, is the very same one in which Christ lived and walked and taught. We live in a world where Miracles have indeed taken place (and, I see no reason to doubt, continue to do so).

Jesus is not a ‘lifestyle choice.’ He is not simply one choice among many, nor is His Church merely one among many. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; He is the Lord, and there is no other.

We live, in short, in the time of fulfillment. Our age is the one in which God has revealed Himself to Man, and our only options are either to accept Him or reject Him. We do not live in the time of questions or doubts or plurality of religion, when man is searching for God. We live in a time when God has come to man and established His Church upon Earth.

It’s hard to convey the full impact of this. Basically, the supernatural is at work openly in our world; it is baked into its very structure. It is no more of a question – actually considerably less of one – than that gravity is at work. We live in a world of miracles, fulfilled prophecies (and prophecies still to be fulfilled), and authorities, amid unseen supernatural beings. If you believe in Christ, I don’t see how you can disbelieve in this or consider the ‘supernatural elements’ of Religion somehow less important than the material ones.

In any case, it is healthy to try to recall, when we pray, that we are speaking to a real Person who hears us, and at any time to consider the fact that this is the world in which God lived among us as a Man.

It is a sobering thought.