Friday, June 18, 2010

The Andromeda Strain

If you were to ask me my opinion on Michael Crichton's best science fiction work, that would have to be his first major novel, The Andromeda Strain. I watched the original 1971 film adaptation with my father in grade school. It was a decent telling of the story in a day when Hollywood was less afraid to portray scientific research as it truly is - days of tedium puctuated by occasional bouts of discovery. This made it difficult for me sit through at that age, and yet it seemed intriguing. I later read the novel as an adult and found, like most of Crichton's books, that it was much more interesting on paper than on film. His style is to do real research on a topic and then interweave these interesting side bars into the story, almost like short lectures.

The movie is now part of my collection and it is still a classic even without the commentary from the novel. This story stands out among others as one almost completely free of sensationalism and pseudo-science. If we were ever to encounter extra-terrestrial life, the most probable form it would take would be the simplist possible life form. On earth, the simplest life consists of all the little microscopic things that quite often make us get sick and sometimes die. How well could our immune systems, that have been trained to recognize terrestrial microbes, be prepared to deal with one from outer space? Perhaps a life form so different from our biology that it might take years to figure out how to fight it? This is exactly the situation posited by the story. If anything comes across as far-fetched it is that the government had actually thought through this scenario in such detail that an entire underground lab was already ready to go. But when you consider the book was written at the height of the American space program, when not much was known about space, we can be forgiving because NASA had lots of funding at that time and would throw all the best scientists into a problem or project with great resources at their disposal. This makes the underground facility at least plausible for the time period. One highlight of the book is the explanations of all the quite reasonable thinking that went into the design and planning of the research center. It's chock full of background story with details that at first seem counter-intuitive but turn out to make complete logical sense, even today. It's wonderful reading.

Probably the biggest weakness in the book is some clumsiness in the climax, which centers around the expected "outbreak" situation where the lab is contaminated and the entire thing is rigged to nuke itself into oblivion in such a scenario. The conclusion contains a nice anti-climactic twist, so I think the nukes were added in to give the story some added drama. On that count, the film actually handles it better, and maybe that's just because high drama and tension work better in real time. But it is so predictable that it doesn't seem to add much to the story.

Here is a link to the original trailer which provides a good window into the film:


  1. And, keep away from the remake which was just... dumb.

  2. All Crichton's books are much more interesting on paper except for "Timeline" which was just ludicrous in both media. Classic film.