Sunday, 30 September 2012

Book Review: The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton (1969)

A micro-biology techno-thriller, The Andromeda Strain reaches for high-tech thrills but gets bogged down in scientific minutia and fails to sustain its opening momentum.

A secretive military space program designed to gather potential extraterrestrial biological warfare agents from space backfires when a satellite carrying a hitherto unknown lethal bug crash lands in the tiny community of Piedmont, Arizona. Other than an old man and a baby, all the inhabitants are killed. A covert high-tech government lab, code-named Wildfire and built with the sole purpose of researching and neutralizing new biological and chemical threats, is activated.

Scientists Stone, Hall, Leavitt and Burton are the four men tasked with analyzing the new lethal organism, named Andromeda. In a race against time, a range of tests are run to determine the composition and method of infection, and the two Piedmont survivors are probed and examined to determine why they resisted the bug and stayed alive when no one else in Piedmont did. Meanwhile, on the surface, other deaths and suicides are attributed to Andromeda, as the infection takes on strange new characteristics.

The first book that Crichton released under his own name, and written in faux documentary style complete with more than 3 pages of scientific "references", The Andromeda Strain suffers from several tiresome deficiencies. An inordinate amount of descriptive text is invested in describing the endless underground levels of the Wildfire facility, including the security and decontamination procedures between levels. All this is thrown to naught in the novel's frantic ending, in which breaching the levels is achieved in a matter of seconds.

Crichton also fails to provide his four scientists with sufficiently distinctive personalities, and they all generally remain faceless and interchangeable as they toil away in the underground labs. And the underground labs is where most of the action in the novel takes place, as an endless array of experiments are run to determine what Andromeda is and how to possibly stop it. Too little of the puzzle is revealed during the course of the book, Crichton breathlessly shooting all his arrows in the final 20 pages. The tension hardly builds, since the mystery of the first 10 pages remains the same stubborn puzzle 300 pages later, Crichton failing to play with layers of complexity.

The book is, however, comfortable with technology, Crichton convincingly describing the advanced edges of the science of microbiology, and the latest tools (circa 1969) that could be deployed to understand and neutralize the dangers posed by nature's tiniest creatures.

The Andromeda Strain tries for slick and smooth science, but is tripped up by too many bugs.

360 pages.
Published in paperback by Harper.

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