The Andromeda Strain

I finished The Andromeda Strain last night, powering through all but the 50 pages of the book  I had already read.  It took a little bit for it to hook me but once it did, I had a hard time putting it down.  I thought I had read this book at some point in my youth but early on I realized that I had in fact never read this book, and that just made the experience that much better.  Before I get started on the review of AS itself, fair warning there will be spoilers ahead.

The Andromeda Strain, or AS as I will call it from now on, is a novel set in 1969 and covers a period of 5 days.  The book is written as half journalistic article and half military investigation report.  I really enjoyed the style that it was written in, it was an easy read and not that long of a book.  One of the things I noticed right off the bat is that Crichton included drawings, tidbits of information, and computer printouts (which looked very archaic compared to modern computing) of various aspects that dealt with the crisis.  He seems to include these little drawings and bits of information in several other novels that I have read, the one that immediately comes to mind is Jurassic Park, so I will be looking out for these as I make my way through the Michael Crichton Experience.

Day 1 of the AS crisis starts off with two military men roaming around the Arizona desert in search of a scientific capsule that has crash landed in the area.  They track it’s location to a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere called Piedmont, they head into the town noticing pretty quickly that something is wrong.  When they get into town they find that everyone is dead, well almost everyone, a crazy old man is roaming around town, but as soon as they call in what they are seeing they are also killed.  The next part was the one that I stalled on when I started reading the book.  It is about a military man who is in charge of the situation, Major Mancheck, and gives background on the project and the potential adverse consequences of something going wrong.  Basically the government is trying to study particles in the upper atmosphere of the Earth looking for potential alien particles that don’t follow the same rules as here on our planet or are from other planets and universes.  They don’t seem to expect to find anything, in all the previous probes there has been nothing of great note, they did find some new species of bacterium but it was similar to one we had on Earth already.  But they were not foolish and did have a backup plan in place, just in case they brought back something nasty.  Project Wildfire was the name for the contingency situation, if one of the probes brought back something deadly a secret government facility in the middle of the Nevada desert was to be activated with the top scientific minds in charge of finding out what happened and how to stop it.  The facility consists of 5 levels with each subsequent level being more clean and more sterile.  The process of the scientists being decontaminated and sterilized as they make there way down to study this unknown organism was really fascinating.  One of the things I liked most about this book was Crichton’s grasp of technology and how important it would become in our lives.  This was written and published in the late 1960’s and it seems almost like a modern scientific environment.  All of the scientists are very impressed with the automation and computers that are a part of the Project Wildfire facility.  Crichton has to mention computers probably 100 times throughout the novel and even though today computers are such a huge and important part of our lives back in the late 1960’s they were a fairly new and emerging technology.  The fact that this secret government facility was probably one of the few places on Earth with technology of this sort underlines just how incredible it was.  A lot of the figures presented in the book I found pretty funny.  At one point Crichton does a comparison about how expensive technology can be, a light microscope can be carried around in your hand and costs 100 dollars, while an electron microscope fills up an entire room and costs a million.  Seemingly large numbers back in the late 60’s but nothing compared to todays cost.  This fact also makes me think about the technology that the government must have today that we don’t know about and or is too cost prohibitive for normal people to utilize, I expect some crazy technologies to come out in my lifetime and look forward to discovering what they are.

Getting back on track, after the two military men died trying to retrieve the capsule the government decides to go in and find it and activate Project Wildfire.  Two of the scientists that work on Project Wildfire are sent in, in full biologically contained suits, again something that seems commonplace today but was pretty crazy to think about back then.  They are flown in to the town, finding it covered in buzzards of course, they gas the birds and then head down to try and find the capsule.  They find it pretty quickly and then decide to start examining some of the residents and investigating how they died.  A doctor was the one who opened up the capsule and released the unknown organism and they immediately notice some strange things, they perform a quick autopsy and realize there is no blood, it has all coagulated.  As they scope out the town they also start to notice that many people have committed suicide, while others seem to have wandered out there front door, grabbing at there chest dying on the spot.  At this point they have the capsule bagged and ready to go and are getting ready to leave when they hear crying.  They eventually find the source and discover a small child, about 2 months old still alive in his cribs in a house.  They rescue him, call in the helicopter and decide its time to GTFO, as they are leaving the crazy old man also shows up and they rescue him as well.  They then meet up with the rest of the scientists of Project Wildfire and begin the process of finding out what they have, how it works, and hopefully how to stop it.

Days 2-5 pretty much all take place in the Project Wildfire facility.  We meet all of the scientists and learn about the facility and more about the project, its background and purpose etc.  One interesting thing to note and one of the themes I found Crichton kept referring to throughout the book is the use of Nuclear weapons.  This was in the middle of the cold war and the use of a nuclear bomb was a very risky and dangerous decision to make.  A nuclear device was thought to be the solution to cleaning up this mess though and as the scientists make there way down to level 5 of the Wildfire Project to study the capsule and the two humans who have survived the encounter, they are under the impression that the town of Piedmont and surrounding area has been destroyed with a nuclear detonation.   The Wildfire facility itself is also sitting on a nuclear bomb, in case the contamination spreads and gets loose there is an automatic system in place that will blow the place sky high in 3 minutes from a contamination breach.  Ahhh the awesomeness of computers and their ability to automate death and destruction so that the mess caused by our curiosity can be cleaned up.  Thankfully there is a way to stop the detonation, I will revisit this nuclear discussion at the end of my post, for now let’s talk about the Wildfire facility again.

It takes all of the scientists pretty much a whole day to make it all the way down to level 5, they are decontaminated at every level, and the process of doing this was quite interesting to read about.  They all make it down to the bottom level where the capsule and the two survivors are in isolation and begin the arduous task of trying to figure out what they are dealing with.  As I said before a lot of the things Crichton describes in the book are commonplace today, and if not commonplace then at least most people are familiar with the concepts of what is happening.   But back in 1969 this would have been pretty crazy to visualize.  Everything is automated and run by computers, they have basically the most advanced and expensive scientific equipment available and it is all in a completely sterile environment.  This way they can study the organism and figure out what exactly it is.  They perform many tests and examinations, making many mistakes along the way, Crichton always pointed these out which I found to be a fascinating aspect to his storytelling.  They discover the organism is like nothing found on earth, it has no proteins or enzymes and doesn’t have a typical cell structure, it takes in energy and uses all of it, leaving no waste behind.  They figure out the organism is transmitted through the air usually being inhaled into the lungs and makes its way to the brain and bloodstream fairly quickly.  It can kill a human in as little as 3 seconds, very very dangerous under pretty much any circumstance.  As they are doing all of these experiments and finding out information they are pretty much cut off from the outside world.  They eventually find out that the Piedmont area was not destroyed with a nuclear device and order it to be destroyed immediately, they want to stop the spread of this organism at any cost.  Thankfully because of an error with a printer this does not happen, a short while later they learn that this would have pretty much been the biggest mistake they could possibly have made.  They discover that the organism thrives and multiplies in an environment similar to what would be caused by a nuclear blast, this would have been very very bad for the entire population of Earth and could have potentially killed everyone on the planet if they device had been detonated.  The President was the one with the ultimate authority to make this call and chose to instead cordon off the area and station the National Guard to keep people out, re-evaluating the situation in 24-48 hours.  They get the information to not release the nuclear device to the right people on time and save the day, sort of.  They still have the nuclear device ready to destroy there facility in the event of a contamination breach and then BINGO, a breach occurs.  They figure out right before the breach that the organism has mutated and now instead of attacking humans and killing them, pretty much the opposite of what most bacterium want to do because if the host dies the bacterium dies as well, the organism now destroys plastics and polycarbonates.  They discover this because of a pilot who crashed a plane after drifting into the area above Piedmont on accident.  He described seeing the plastics in the cockpit disintegrating right before he crashed, so when all the plastics start disintegrating around the labs and causing breaches all over the place, they put two and two together.  Oh and the 3 minute nuclear detonation countdown has started because of the contamination breaches.  They can stop it though, but the area that they are trapped in currently doesn’t have one of the boxes that one of the scientists must put a key in to stop it, design error of course, only 5 boxes were installed when 8 were needed, the other 3 were scheduled to be put in next month.  The scientist who can save the day busts his way to the central core where all the cables and stuff are stored and run up and down to the various levels and climbs his way up to level 4 to stop the detonation.  There of course is poison gas and sedative darts being shot at him, security systems put in place to stop escaping lab animals, which they had quite the abundance of for experiments, they killed a lot of monkeys and rats in the book.  The scientists does stop the detonation, saving the day, again because it would have been no bueno for the organism to be allowed to reproduce under the ideal conditions a nuclear blast would cause.  They find that the way the organism mutated it was no longer a threat to humans and that any remaining organisms made their way back up into the atmosphere, hopefully to never be bothered by pesky scientific capsules again.

The book ended quite abruptly and I thought there could have been some more on the afterword explaining a little bit more about what happened, but overall I think it was an excellent read.  Quick, interesting and informative.  The Nuclear issue was probably the one I found the most intriguing.  Crichton, in my opinion, was saying that we need to be careful with nuclear devices.  Yes it may seem like the best, easiest, and quickest way to deal with a potential unknown situation, but when you step back and examine everything it may not be the most prudent thing to do.  In the case of AS it would have made everything about a million times worse and made the organism spread and multiply in an out of control fashion.  My favorite part of the book was when one of the scientists was explaining the Wildfire project and it’s purpose.  He talked about intelligent life and how we on Earth try to define everything to our standards.  On Earth the most intelligent life has basically grown out of the concept that bigger is better.  Our brains have gotten bigger and we have gotten smarter and so we build bigger and better things.  But what if the opposite is true about the smartest alien organisms somewhere out there in a far away galaxy.  What if like we are doing with a lot of our technology over the past century we are making it smaller and smaller.  Smaller also has it’s advantages, less resources used, less energy required and consumed, what if the most intelligent alien has evolved to become no bigger than a flea because this is the most ideal situation for its environment.  Just something to think about, go pick up The Andromeda Strain and think about it a little yourself.

Up next I will be watching the 1971 Andromeda Strain Movie and then the 2008 mini-series, looking forward to it!