The pandemic from space: thoughts on reading “The Andromeda Strain”

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was the book that catapulted Michael Crichton on the best-seller lists, a science fiction novel for people who don’t read science fiction. As I’m including a discussion of the movie in Alien Visitors, I reread the novel for the first time, probably, since it came out.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the novel concerns a satellite gathering xenobacteria as possible bio-weapons. When it crashes to Earth in a small town of less than 70 people, the men who found it take it to the town doctor, who opens it. By the time the military two-man collection crew arrives, everyone’s dead. The two soldiers die too. Their alarmed CO triggers a Wildfire alert, a special protocol for dealing with extraterrestrial threats of this sort. A crew of four scientists assembles at the cutting-edge Wildfire lab to figure out what caused the deaths, and why two people — a baby and an aging wino — survived. And, of course, how to prevent whatever it is from spreading.

The novel, like much of Crichton’s later fiction, is insanely talky. He constantly info-dumps about the amazing technology, the computers, the biology of the Andromeda infestation, the methods of research. There’s almost no characterization to distinguish the four doctors (Stone, Leavitt, Hall and Dutton) other than Hall being single (significant to the plot). There are several little points where the book feels off: the assumption that Andromeda will grow if fed nuclear radiation seems to come out of nowhere; repeated assertions the team made small mistakes don’t apparently lead anywhere. Nevertheless, the book worked. It established Crichton on the A-list and he stayed there consistently for the rest of his long career (which led to movies including Jurassic Park and Westworld plus less successful films such as Rising Sun). I enjoyed it too, though I can’t remember my reactions in detail (if I’d loved it I’d probably have a much stronger memory of it).

Much as writers, editors and reviewers talk about “show don’t tell,” I’m not so sure readers give a crap. This book is very, very “tell” but obviously it didn’t hurt it. It probably helps that Crichton’s not telling about his characters love lives or careers but about interesting, extremely cool science and tech stuff. And in a situation where an extraterrestrial pandemic could break out at any second. It’s not a new thought but if you embed a lot of info-dumping into an intriguing story, it’s much easier to get away with, particularly if it’s interesting info-dumps (case in point, Airport). That it dealt with outer space didn’t hurt — the space race was one of the coolest things going on in the 1960s.

The movie still has a lot of telling but it moves smoother than the book. More important, it makes the scientists into individuals, enhanced by capable actors (director Robert Wise picked less well known actors, figuring it would help the realism). Stone (Arthur Hill) is the leader, a wealthy establishment guy. Judging from Dutton’s (David Wayne) home he’s much more middle-class and more liberal; his family are very upset he’s going to work for the “germ warfare people.” James Olson plays Hall as a smartass, a cynic and a bit of a womanizer. Kate Reid as Leavitt — in the book it’s a man — is tart-tongued and dour. In the book Leavitt avoids flashing red lights (they trigger his epilepsy) claiming they remind him of his ambulance work in WW II. In the movie Leavitt quips about working a brothel in the red light district.

On the whole, the movie is one of the rare ones that improves on the source novel.

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Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading

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