by Michael Crichton
(extraordinary; top 10% of SciThri)
Year published: 1969
Category: science thriller; medical thriller; classic thriller
Tech rating (out of 5):
A top-secret U.S. satellite from a mission to sample material from near space crashes in a remote town in Arizona. Everyone in the area, with the odd exception of an old man and an infant, drop dead in their tracks. In anticipation that the satellite might return with a deadly microbe (for them to exploit as a biological weapon, a kind of biological Manhattan Project), the U.S. government has built a research facility deep underground somewhere in Nevada to isolate and study organism. Four pre-selected scientists are abruptly summoned from their ordinary lives to travel to Nevada, subject their bodies to an elaborate decontamination procedure, and lock themselves in the buried lab with the mysterious Andromeda strain until answers can be found.
Check out the original publication date on this book–1969. Can you say, visionary? Paradigm-shifting? With The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton created the modern science thriller and established himself as the master of the genre for decades to come.
The Andromeda Strain is unabashedly technical. Crichton introduces the story as a reporter/historian’s account of an incident that has already happened, complete with references and sources. The text is replete with computer printouts, blood test data, graphs, even an “electron density map of Andromeda structure”. The core of the plot is a scientific investigation of a medical problem, with all the natural ambiguities, twists and turns of real research. Microbial pathogenesis, bacterial growth requirements, metabolic acidosis, epilepsy, diabetic ketoacidosis, anticoagulation, curare—they’re all in here.
But don’t be put off by the jargon. You don’t actually need to know squat about any of these things to be swept up in the frightening story. The opening scene in Arizona is unforgettable and utterly gripping. The claustrophobia of the underground laboratory is palpable. Focus on the minute details of the scientists’ work balances nicely against the tension of knowing the large-scale devastation they are battling against. Scientific exegesis is well-mixed with dialogue and action, though fans of contemporary thrillers (such as Crichton’s own Jurassic Park) will notice how much writing styles have changed (present-day thrillers tend to be more dialogue-heavy). Tension builds as things start to go wrong underground, and a nuclear option is considered to stop the alien organism.
Although Crichton uses plenty of real science and medicine in this story, technically-minded readers will notice that some of the explanations for how the Andromeda strain kills, how it grows, and how it derives energy are a bit far-fetched (but wicked cool).
The resolution also has a deus ex machina quality to it, but hey, it works.
All in all, a phenomenal, terrifying novel that, apart from the dated computer technology, has aged really well and displays Crichton’s tremendous imagination, pacing, and techno-savvy.
Wins the Futurist Award for: connecting the space race mindset of the 1960’s with terrorism paranoia of the 2000’s.