Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review 35: The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton passed away recently, so I thought he would be a good choice to read. I know there are people who have problems with Crichton - his later books revealed some distinct political leanings and display very clear biases, the most obvious of these being State of Fear, in which he attacks the environmentalist movement's support of global warming. His attacks are blatant, and even though the novel is said to be a good read, it's burdened by the obvious slant of the author.

It's tough to know what to do with authors who inject their own personal morality into their works. Some of them, like Heinlein, do it in such a way that it's not a distraction - it's Heinlein. Others, such as Orson Scott Card, are so vocal in their political opinions that they risk losing a large portion of their readership. In this situation, you have to make a decision: read the book for the story or read the book for the author's politics? Or don't?

I take the same route here that I do with actors, musicians and other artists who make their political and social views known. I disregard those views and just judge their work on its own merits. It's not that hard to do, really....

Anyway, I remember seeing this movie for the first time, and it scared the hell out of me. Not in the same way that my childhood slasher films scared me, of course. In those, there was always someone - Jason, Freddie, Michael - who was lurking behind curtains, waiting to turn you into steak tartar if you were foolish enough to have sex in the camp counsellor's cabin. But at least they were human (sort of), and they had motivations, however insane these motivations were.

In this book, we are not facing a psychopath with a chainsaw. It's something more terrible and more impossible to deal with.

The premise - The US space program, in an attempt to figure out exactly what is lurking in the upper atmosphere, has been sending up special satellites - the Scoop satellites - to sample the air up there and then return so that scientists can do what they do best. The theory was that if we were to encounter extraterrestrial life, the odds are that it would be some sort of simple organism rather than a four-foot grey humanoid.

People like Carl Sagan seemed to support this theory, and Crichton makes a very good case for it through his characters. Radio waves attenuate, even light pulses can't last forever - but build an organism that can survive indefinitely in space? That is an excellent way of telling the rest of the universe that you're out there. A microbe needs a lot less to keep it going than your average movie E.T., so it would be reasonable to assume that it would make an excellent message in a bottle in a vast and harsh cosmos.

Back to the book - most of these satellites went up and came down without incident, but one - Scoop VII - had some unexpected problems and crashed in the American southwest, just outside a small town called Piedmont. The good citizens of Piedmont, wanting to know what it was, brought it home to have a look.

Within eighteen hours, nearly everyone in Piedmont was dead. The lesson? Never go near something that comes screaming out of the sky. Yes, it might give you super-powers, but odds are that it'll kill you.

The government, always looking for the worst case scenario, had planned for this, and put Project Wildfire in action. Wildfire called for a team of scientists with varied backgrounds to be brought to an isolated lab in Nevada. Scoop would be brought there, and they would attempt to unravel the mystery of what killed the people of Piedmont.

The story sounds pretty simple, and Crichton makes a point of saying that, ideally, there should be no story to tell. Wildfire facilities are insanely well-guarded, and the design of the complex itself is nearly foolproof against something escaping - to the point that, if the facility becomes insecure, it will be vaporized in a nuclear explosion.

As usual, Crichton is meticulous in his science. The book has a bibliography in the back with 58 references to justify his use of x-ray crystallography, culture growth, electron microscopes, and other theories. The point is, he is saying that the incident in The Andromeda Strain could happen. Maybe. And it is possible that, despite our best planning and efforts, we might not be able to stop it.

This brings up the question: is this really science fiction? Well, yes, because A) it's fiction and B) the story is dependent on the science. But it's not science fiction in the way that we're familiar, since very little of it is actually fictional. Most of the technology is extant, and the tech that is a little more outlandish is certainly within our ability to create. The only thing that is really speculative is the Andromeda organism itself. And even given that, the story is not so much about the organism as it is about the race to figure out what the organism is - it's about the scientists, not the science.

Where the actual story comes in is with the introduction of Mistakes. A simple malfunction in a piece of communications equipment. A medical problem that is hidden until it is too late. Miscommunication and assumption abound, which is what makes this book interesting. Otherwise, it would just be a matter of the scientists trying to figure out what this wee beastie that hitched a ride on Scoop can do, and why. Perhaps it's not so much science fiction as it is scientific fiction. If that makes any sense....

Indeed, the silly humans are saved from worldwide extermination by virtue of the microorganism's own nature, oddly enough. This isn't The Stand - Crichton didn't set out to write an End of the World story. He wanted to talk about science and what might happen if an unknown pathogen should appear from the darkest regions of space.

As I said before, this is what makes it so terrifying. The villain of this story is a bacteria. We don't know where it comes from, how it works, or why. It has no ambition, no plan. It is not hostile, malicious, or vindictive. It can't be bargained with or tricked.

Perhaps that is why disease stories are so interesting. On the one hand, they point out how vulnerable we really are to something we have never encountered. On the other hand, they show how sometimes, just sometimes, we can avert disaster with the ingenuity that keeps popping up in humanity.

So - it's well-written and well-researched, not to mention a sci-fi classic. The movie's pretty good as well, and sticks relatively close to the book. Either are recommended.

"He [Stone] often argued that human intelligence was more trouble than it was worth. It was more destructive than creative, more confusing than revealing, more discouraging than satisfying, more spiteful than charitable."
- Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain

Michael Crichton on Wikipedia
The Andromeda Strain on Wikipedia
The Andromeda Strain on
NASA's Exobiology Branch


Jason said...

The deus ex that the book ended with essentially made the rest of the book unnecessary. A lot of Chriton's early, and supposedly better books had the same issue. They just ended in a way that had nothing to do with the efforts of teh characters. Off the cuff, I can think of _The Terminal Man_, _Sphere_, and _Jurassic Park_ all had these poor endings as well. The guy culd write a page turner, but unless the story is a study in nihilism, I'd like the plot to have *something* to do with the eventual resolution.

Chris said...

Good point - it did kind of end in an, "Oh. Oh, well, never mind" sort of fashion. Something with more closure would be nice....