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.