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The Andromeda Strain

How do you stop something that's totally alien--and savagely lethal?

* The Andromeda Strain
* By Michael Crichton
* Ballantine Books
* $6.99/$8.99 Canada
* First Published: 1969
* Paperback, Jan. 1993
* ISBN 0-345-37848-2

Review by Mark Wilson

In The Andromeda Strain, scientific evidence has begun to suggest that it's not only possible but quite likely that new and strange organisms await us in space. The American military has, characteristically, co-opted this information--and the related technology--for its own ends, developing two secret, and originally unrelated, programs. One, Project Scoop, was set up to carefully harvest new and deadly pathogens from space for future use in the Cold War. The other, Project Wildfire, was charged with figuring out how to deal with alien organisms should they happen to make it to Earth. The two projects collide when a mysterious space capsule recovered by the puzzled inhabitants of tiny Piedmont, Ariz., (population: 48) turns out to be the latest Scoop satellite--newly returned from a disastrously successful mission. Only two of the locals, a crying baby and a crotchety old man, escape the wave of sudden and bizarre deaths that follows.

Our Pick: A

The events at Piedmont activate Project Wildfire, throwing together a team of four brilliant and idiosyncratic scientists. The team descends into a laboratory bunker that's been painstakingly designed to allow a rigorous, wide-ranging and cutting-edge study of lethal organisms in total isolation. Unfortunately, a simple but important imperfection in this splendid bunker mirrors the fallibility of the scientists working in it.

This is a story not of machines and computers, but of men who must deal with a heart-stopping crisis. Told in retrospect, as if the events described were a matter of record, The Andromeda Strain cagily discloses the scientists' mistakes as well as their breakthroughs. As the pressure builds and the clock ticks down, readers are left in anxious suspense over how these remarkable men at the end of their rope will prevent total catastrophe.

Mixing suspense and science fiction

Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain is a science fiction landmark. On its surface, it's the prototype of the techno-thriller, the forerunner not only of Richard Preston's The Hot Zone but also of Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz. It's also, at its core, one of the purest specimens of science fiction on bookshelves today. This book explores not imagined worlds in far-off galaxies, but where science leads humanity, and where humanity leads science.

Crichton crafts a story that's unhurried but immediate, carefully researched but with an everyday plausibility that strikes close to home. There's nothing extraneous: even where he seems to dally for a moment, he's surreptitiously building the story around readers brick by brick, shunting them deeper into the tale. His cleanness and clearness in exposing the raw humanity of his characters pays off in a climax that feels like a shot of adrenaline.

Crichton's effort to explain technologies that were new or theoretical in 1969 ought to make the narration feel quaint and dated. Instead, these explanations are written in such a way that the advanced capabilities of the Wildfire laboratory are placed in context, allowing readers to react to each innovation with contemporary eyes. This is the key to making a techno-thriller, which might have fallen flat over time (once things like computer time-sharing were old news), into an engrossing time capsule not only of technologies but of attitudes and expectations. (The complete absence of substantive female characters, while troubling, may be viewed in this context as well: The scientific establishment's boy's-club mentality was still a potent force in 1969.)

Compared with the turgid, commercial works of today, The Andromeda Strain stands out as a singular achievement both for science fiction and for Crichton himself.

For any fan of taut, suspenseful science fiction, The Andromeda Strain is a must-read. -- Mark


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