The Strain That Started It All
(A Book Review of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain)
Where others credit classic writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, I forever owe my first real taste of science fiction to Michael Crichton — long before I was even made aware that such a classification exists — and perhaps, as I think of it now, even more.
I still remember the day I borrowed Congo from the high school library during my junior year. What made me pick me the book is this vague idea that’s it’s something about monkeys from a film of the same title, if I’m not mistaken then. Monkeys it didn’t have, but gorillas — and talking gorillas at that! I was just so amused by the ingenuity that there’s this machine that could make animals talk by simple hand gestures. This, coupled with my interest in Biology from the previous school year, the mystery of a long, undiscovered civilization in the heart of the jungle of Congo, the nifty gadgets that Crichton featured and a priced precious stone so desired by the parties involved — not only by the value it could’ve fetched in the market but also by its unusual industrial capabilities — made me turn the pages all too quickly. The book was just filled with so much fond memories recalling it now I think it was one of the books I first bought from Booksale (my baptism of fire that used book shops exists) in their (now closed) Isetann branch for P35 (the money in question I nicked from my PUP college examination fee).
My second Crichton, though not strictly belonging to the sci-fi field, is an interesting page turner too. Borrowed from a senior high school classmate who brought it one day (I have no idea why), Rising Sun is a murder mystery. I remember breezing through this one urged by that simple instinct to know the killer without even pausing to think what all those Japanese mumbo-jumbo and culture references meant. Later, I would find out it’s sort of a fictionalized appraisal how Japanese do their business dealings in America. I don’t know if the book’s all about that, but I do know that this one begs for a reread. It’s been quite a long time.
Jurassic Park and Sphere were next reads from college highly influenced by their movie adaptations.
That case can be said of the former where the movie made the book which in turn made the author a household name in the genre. Dinosaurs have been much a part of the popular culture, but it’s to Crichton’s credit that he made them mainstream once more, no small thanks to director Stephen Spielberg’s animatronics (at a time when CGI special effects were still in its gestation period) that breathed life to this colossal reptilian monsters. What made me appreciate the book more than the movie are not the dinosaurs though. It’s the cutting edge technology that made me love this book and its author further. Crichton has such a way with words that topic you would’ve found boring, like biotechnology or cloning, sizzles with excitement under his deft narration. I mean, no writer I haven’t read then has the single ability to be so informative (I always feel a bit smarter when I’m reading one of his books) yet glues me to my seat with exhilaration at the same time. Other than an entertaining read, I see Jurassic Park as a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology: that though how much knowledge humans can attain, it cannot grasp nature in its control.
I believe his sixth novel, Sphere, is one of his overlooked and underrated work that needs attention more than it warrants. Forget about its crappy movie adaptation no matter how sexy you think seeing Sharon Stone having her middle finger in a boner. What at first is an all out sci-fi plot turns into something else and from where it goes I’m definitely shutting my lips tight — you have to find that one for yourself, Gentle Reader. Just for kicks, I love to reread this one, too!
It is for this blatant affection for Michael Crichton work’s and how he had put his own imprint in science fiction — giving birth to the techno-thriller subgenre — underscored by his theme examining the present day human affairs through scientific advances grounded in today’s technology, research and development that reads like speculative nightmares that could be tomorrow’s headline that, despite this post being apparently behind its intended schedule, I wish to do him honor by featuring him as the Author of the Month of October 2011 in this dark alley along with reading his debut novel The Andromeda Strain.
The Andromeda Strain starts with a top-secret U. S. military arm tasked to find new biological weapons by sending satellites near space to gather samples of bacteria strains. When one of these spacecrafts crashes in an Arizona town, grotesquely killing all but two of its residents, a highly classified emergency contingent team called Wildfire is set into motion. Composed of four pre-selected scientists abruptly summoned from their daily lives, they are locked into a secret research facility located deep within the Nevada desert racing against time to study and find the answer to stop the spread of this lethal microorganism before it causes too much destruction across the globe.
Published a good four decades ago, The Andromeda Strain is quite a revealing book first, because it displays an uncanny precise guesswork and second, it lays the foundation of the kind of writer Crichton will later become.
Seen as work printed in the 1960s, I’m just astounded by the tremendous imagination the author has considering he wrote it at such a young age. Sure thing, binary codes, voice activated mechanisms, computer imaging processes, airtight protective suits, biometrics, underground laboratories and biosafety measures are technologies so common today that we thought them beneath our notice. Imagine reading about that in the 60s? Add to this how had Crichton foreseen that, aside from the threat posed by the nuclear advancement and arms race of the Cold War, biotechnology will also be a cause of concern in the years to come. Pretty neat, eh? But more than those, I think the book strikes a very uncanny parallelism to the space race mindset of the 60s with the current day paranoia we have over incidents like biological terrorism (e.g. the Anthrax attack in the White House and some parts of the world) and the germination of mutating pandemic super-flu viruses (e.g. H1N1 and Bird Flu).
It’s also surprising to learn that some of the literary techniques Crichton used in The Andromeda Strain he will use in later books. As can be noticed from the novel’s plot, it takes science fiction writing to a new degree of stark realism leading people who read it during its initial publication to believe it really happened. Combine with that the structure of the novel patterned like a highly classified government evaluation document and the distanced, non-fiction manner in which it is narrated. It not lend an illusion of believability to the work but also a snoopiness to urge readers to read on and give its narrator elbow room to dissect the crisis, hand out nagging questions with as little answers as it can until the book final’s reveal, and to occasionally insert comments and hints at screw ups and mistakes for the suspense to permeate and leave the readers in the edge of their seats.
The novel is un-apologetically clinical. The reader can clearly see that Crichton mined his medical training and background in full as the book is replete with technical descriptions. However, the author knows how to goad his readers on and — as fans of Michael’s books knows best — he knows how to present scientific ideas by clearly drawing, citing examples and analogies for easy comprehension. Also, the focus with which the author dedicate the minute details of the medical conundrum of the scientists’ work balances quite nicely against the tension knowing the large-scale devastation they are battling against.
Being the author’s first work, corollary, it also has its share of slip ups. To begin with, the four scientists feels one dimensional to me — their mostly a cut out of their job or of the role they are going to play for much of the novel. Even in the face of impending doom there’s nothing to make me, or other readers for that matter, care for these characters. Eventually, why do I want them to survive this crisis? So you see, as much as the distanced narration worked on certain levels, it didn’t quite proved effective in this particular area and in some points it lessen the story’s tempo. [Spoiler Alert!] Ultimately, the resolution how the scientists found the answer to the Andromeda crisis has the quality of a dues ex machina to it. There’s this side of me that thinks it’s a total letdown while there’s the other part of me (when I thought much about it) that says it ends on the right note with questions to keep readers thinking some of the concepts explored in the book (also a theme shared by his some of his later works) that the real threat to humanity in not the outer space bug (nor even those damn dinosaurs): it’s the people. [Spoiler Ends!]
The Andromeda Strain undoubtedly is a plot-driven novel that dramatizes the process of science in solving problems and crisis. Despite dated technologies, it’s a work that aged so well displaying Michael Crichton’s remarkable insight, his grasp of the story and techno-savvy. I admit it has its flaws, but hey, it’s an early book and it led onto greater things (easily Crichton is a writer who learns from his mistakes and tries to develop his craft up a notch) so it can be forgiven. If you’re an avowed Crichton fan, no questions this is a required reading for you. If you want to try out his book later works can be good introductions to keep you wanting more.
Book #38 for 2011
Published by Dell Publishing Co., Inc.
(Mass Market Paperback, First Printing, June 1970)
Started: October 19, 2011
Finished: October 28, 2011