While the idea of a deadly virus spreading across the world and infecting humanity may be a commonplace idea in science fiction novels and movies these days, at the time Michael Crichton published his seminal novel The Andromeda Strain, the idea that an unknown microorganism could potentially cause mass casualties on a global scale was relatively new. And what better way to scare the bejeezus out of readers than to introduce a terrifying new threat to humanity. But what makes this book so unnerving and nail biting isn’t just the unique nature of the threat, it’s how realistic and plausible Crichton makes it seem. With his vast medical and technical knowledge (having attended Harvard Medical School), he is able to imbue the events in the novel, and the actions of his protagonists, with an authenticity and scientific accuracy that makes it seem less like a work of fiction and more like an actual report of actual events (which is exactly what he’s going for).
The book starts out with a forward that introduces the events that follow in the form of a classified report. The unseen narrator only hints at the severity and nature of what is in the report, but does stop to acknowledge both the heroic actions of the people involved and the fatal mistakes they make along the way. As the real story begins, we open on a scene of two military men scouting out a remote city in the Arizona desert (Piedmont) where they are looking for a crashed satellite. After radio communication with the men is lost abruptly, an aerial survey of the town seems to show that everyone is dead. Suspecting that the satellite might have returned to Earth with some sort of extraterrestrial organism, they activate the ‘Wildfire’ initiative, which was designed for the sole purpose of responding to this sort of potentially catastrophic event.
Wildfire, we learn, is a government sponsored team of scientists that is ready at a moment’s notice to convene in the event of a possible extraterrestrial biological infestation. The ‘crack’ team includes four world-renown scientists, each with his own specialty: a bacteriologist, a disease pathologist, an infection vectors specialist, and a surgeon – sort of a “Dream Team” if you will. As the mastermind behind the Wildfire initiative and the defacto leader of the group, we see as Dr. Jeremy Stone is interrupted from a party on the U.C. Berkeley campus and told of the potential threat. He is taken by armed guards to a super-secret facility in the Nevada desert where he, along with the other scientists in the group, are supposed to study the organism to help prevent its spread. And because they are studying a potentially lethal organism, the facility contains enough safety protocols to make sure that it never gets out – including a nuclear device in case of widespread contamination in the facility.
In order to retrieve a sample of the organism, two of the scientists go to Piedmont in protective suits. What they find while studying the deceased residents is, in a number of cases, the victims blood seemed to have coagulated instantly into an almost powder form. In a strange turn, though, not all of the residents seemed to have died that way. The remainder, we creepily discover, seem to have gone insane and committed suicide. To add to the already strange set of facts, the pair discover two survivors in Piedmont. In one case, a perfectly healthy crying baby that they discover in one of the abandoned houses, and in another, an old man with an ulcer who we learn was drinking Sterno to ease his pain. Throughout their investigation of the organism, the fact that these two seemingly different patients were able to survive while the rest of the town perished seems to hold the key to discovering how the organism works and how it can be counteracted.
While most of the action in the book takes places miles below the Earth in the Wildfire facility with the scientists frantically performing tests and discussing possible theories, Crichton still manages to make the events nerve-wracking and thoroughly fascinating. While I can’t begin to say I understood the advanced scientific concepts and procedures they performed, the mental gymnastics and rational problem-solving process that they go through in order to test and dismiss different hypotheses is incredible. Even in the moments where they supposedly miss a key finding or overlook a previous test, the potential consequences of failure loom large and foreboding. For those expecting the action and horror that this type of story has become known for, you might be a little disappointed. But if you appreciate a thriller that is as rich in detail and scientific accuracy as it is in thrills and chills, this is one you won’t want to miss.
Buy The Andromeda Strain