Ballantine, 1993 reprint of 1969 original, 270 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-099-42765-0
I hadn’t read The Andromeda Strain in more than a decade and a half when a chance viewing of the classic 1971 film adaptation rekindled my interest in Michael Crichton’s breakout novel. At an admirably concise 270 pages, the novel wasn’t going to crimp my limited reading time, and my accumulated shelves of already-read books aren’t just for showing off, right?
You probably remember the premise, either from the novel’s best-selling reputation, the 1971 film or the 2008 miniseries: a satellite falls back on Earth, bringing back something that kills nearly everyone in a small Arizona town. Four scientists are asked to investigate: Locked in a secret underground laboratory, they race against time to solve the mystery of the so-called Andromeda Strain before the inevitable “containment measures” escalate. Briskly told at the cutting-edge of late-sixties technology, Crichton’s first best-seller is an unusual page-turner, enthralling readers through reams of well-written exposition, while codifying the conventions of the techno-thriller genre.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of re-reading a 1969 techno-thriller is how gracefully it has aged. There is no going around the fact that the book was written a long time ago: Any narrative that spends a few paragraph explaining how “time-sharing computers” work seems almost irremediably quaint in the age of ubiquitous smart-phones. (If you want to feel old, consider that 1969 is now 43 years distant as of this writing.) But despite the novel’s carefully-circumscribed focus on contemporary techno-scientific matters (if there are references to Vietnam or hippies in the book, a speed-read hasn’t revealed them), it’s animated by a decidedly contemporary intention to try to explain the world to the reader. As a techno-thriller, it revels in the telling (sometimes made-up) detail that bridges the gap between fiction and reality. For readers with finely-attuned genre-protocol antennas, it’s this willingness to engage the cutting-edge of the Known that, ironically, enough, makes the novel feel fresh. If you accept that the general perception of reality lags behind the time, you can also argue that most people never bother to adjust their perception of reality beyond the model they learned as teenagers (which was often based on pop-culture, and so a few years behind the times). Techno-thrillers and science-fiction are two genre that sometimes attempt to describe the scary implications of progress, and this attitude show no sign of growing old. Compare The Andromeda Strain to something like Neal Stepheenson’s Baroque Cycle (which applied the same didactic perspective to history) and it’s not hard to imagine that if a 2012 writer wanted to write a circa-1969 techno-thriller, he’d end up with something very similar to The Andromeda Strain. Older books that age gracefully become period pieces. In this light, having the author explain time-sharing computers takes on a new and not unpleasant flavour.
The other substantial asset of the novel is Crichton’s uncanny ability to Make Stuff Up. From 2012, it’s easier to tell fact from fiction: Kalocin (a drug that kills “every known virus, bacterium, fungus, and parasite”, with hideous consequences) doesn’t exist, obviously. But you’d swear otherwise from The Andromeda Strain’s narrative, as seamlessly as the device is inserted in-between convincing technical details, documentary framing devices (“this is a reconstruction based on interviews…”) and frequent blurring between reality and fiction. Crichton had a great ear for plausible-sounding nonsense, something that the careful explanation of the “Scoop” program (which is almost meaningless in the movie adaptation) makes amply clear. Elsewhere in the narrative, the Odd Man Hypothesis (which “proves” that you want a single unmarried man to have a finger on the trigger of a nuclear device, although even the characters acknowledge that it’s an elaborate rationalization for a more sinister purpose) is bunk, but you could almost swear that it was the subject of a Malcolm Gladwell essay not too long ago. This aptitude for believable lies may be worth recalling in studying Crichton’s entire bibliography, and most notably his romans provocateurs phase in-between Rising Sun and Next.
All of these elements accumulate into a nice tight thriller in which, ironically enough, the characters don’t actually do all that much. They poke and prod at the mystery, but ultimately can’t do much to fix the problem. The protagonist’s big act of heroism consists in avoiding death, which may be laudable, but tends to obscure the War-of-the-Worldsian irony of the novel’s plot. It’s either lazy plotting or a brilliant counter-weight to the novel’s detailed paean to the power of human ingenuity. Latter techno-thrillers wouldn’t be as willing to acknowledge humanity’s lack of agency over doomsday threats.
There’s little need to add that all of these factors, and a few more I don’t have the patience to list, make up for a 1969 book that is well worth a re-read even today. It still exerts an undeniable fascination, and its place in history as a seminal thriller is practically assured. You can find echoes of its impact today, but the original is still resonant.