Home » “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton – Otherworldly Crisis Containment

“The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton – Otherworldly Crisis Containment

“The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton (Header image)

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Short Summary

Michael Crichton will forever be remembered as one of the main pillars helping to bridge a union between literature and cinema, many of his iconic works having been turned into equally-recognized movies. The Andromeda Strain is one of them, a science-fiction novel following four elite biophysicists racing to uncover the cause behind the near-total decimation of a sleepy desert town and to contain a contagion threatening the world at large.

Michael Crichton Invites Molecular Aliens to Earth

In the wide realms of science-fiction extraterrestrial organisms have likely been described in more ways than anyone will ever know, and while our potential encounter with other living organisms might be awe-inspiring, it’s also infinitely frightening. Alien species don’t necessarily have to resemble us in any way or be recognizable… as a matter of fact, it is quite likely that our first encounter with them will be on a much smaller, molecular level, as is the case in Michael Crichton‘s 1969 bestseller, The Andromeda Strain.

If you’re looking for a summary of Andromeda Strain, this is where it starts. Before anything else, the novel gets us acquainted with the urgent situation at hand. A probe was sent to collect samples of extraterrestrial organisms from the upper parts of the Earth’s atmosphere, but it has failed to safely return after being knocked out of orbit. It crashed some twelve miles away from an insignificant little desert town.

Unfortunately, for the inhabitants of said town, nearly all of them die shortly after, leaving a curious pair of survivors: an elderly addict at the end of his rope, and a newborn infant. The United States Government quickly takes all the appropriate measures to prevent the news from spreading for the time being, putting in action Project Wildfire.

A top-secret emergency response protocol, it calls for the assembly of four of the country’s most talented and experienced biophysicists in a clandestine underground laboratory hidden beneath the desert. Additionally, it’s also equipped with a total self-destruction mechanism, should some form of lethal contagion occur.

Racing against the clock and working in a state of total news blackout, the four scientists must merge the power of their minds together in order to understand what happened to the residents of the desert town, why there were survivors, and how they can stop it from spreading. The enemy, however, is like nothing they’ve ever seen before, and it seems only a matter of time before a worldwide catastrophe becomes inevitable.

The rock, for its part, is not even aware of our existence because we are alive for only a brief instant of its lifespan. To it, we are like flashes in the dark.

― Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain

The Intellectual War of The Andromeda Strain

There is a general rule of thumb (yes, there are always exceptions, I’m aware of that) in the science-fiction genre which says that the more a novel wants to be exciting and offer its readers a thrilling experience, the more the author needs to lean away from the science and towards the fiction. In my opinion, The Andromeda Strain is one of those truly notable exceptions to the rule.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If you’re really just looking for a light reading experience only focused on traditional entertainment, then you likely won’t find many elements in this book to excite you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy getting down into the gritty details of medicinal science and biology then I think you’ll find this journey to be quite intriguing from start to finish.

As any summary of The Andromeda Strain will show, there are indeed many moments in the book where Michael Crichton slows the development of the main plot down in order to explain various tests, procedures and concepts, and more importantly, their significance in the story, whether small or big. As a result, the importance of our characters’ struggles and the magnitude of the challenges they are facing is never lost on the reader.

Michael Crichton‘s insistence on taking a deep foray into real-world science has another interesting effect: it moves the story closer and closer to our own reality. That is to say, it almost feels as if the book was written as an argument to show the real world can indeed face the type of situation described in the story, and I don’t need to tell you just how much more poignant it makes the whole thing, especially in modern times.

Of course, the intelligence displayed by the author is also exhibited by our protagonists along the way, and personally, I just found it massively appealing watching them move their grey cells to reach unconventional mental pathways leading them to unexpected solutions. I have to add, it’s quite refreshing to read a novel whose author places a good deal of faith in the reader’s intellectual capabilities.

Human intelligence was more trouble than it was worth. It was more destructive than creative, more confusing than revealing, more discouraging than satisfying, more spiteful than charitable.

― Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain

Documentary-Style Storytelling

Now that we’ve discussed the scientific aspect of the novel, I would like to turn my attention to perhaps the first detail one notices when reading The Andromeda Strain: it’s framed in the style of a documentary. Or, I suppose more accurately, in the style of an official documented report, complete with technical documentation, acknowledgements and a section quoting scientific sources.

The way I see it, this is the type of approach not every author can manage, and I think I’m being kind with such an assessment. This sort of narration presents unique challenges, chief among them being the maintenance of realism and believability while still preserving the thrills and excitement inherent to the nature of the story itself.

Michael Crichton ought to be studied for what he managed to pull off in this novel: despite feeling like I was reading something I’ve dug up from a classified archive, I nevertheless could hardly stop myself from trying to outrun the scientists on their search for the truth. It succeeded in making me feel like I was involved with the story and had some personal stakes in it.

Despite the relatively slow pace at which the plot unfolds (at least where the main branch of the plot is concerned), the overarching sense of there being a potentially-fatal race against time is omnipresent, often rearing its head and reminding us at the most inopportune times. Perhaps mental movement lacks the theatrical furor of physical progress, but when time is short, every step forward feels like it can’t come soon enough.

Finally, while Crichton‘s take on our potential first encounter with aliens isn’t exactly new or groundbreaking, it does feel like a sobering dose of reality, especially when one considers how well the possibility of it happening the real world is argued. In my opinion, it’s infinitely more frightening and insidious than your classic alien invasion, starships and all.

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The Final Verdict

To conclude my The Andromeda Strain book review, this work by Michael Crichton has rightfully earned its place as a bestseller of the 60s and a timeless science-fiction classic, taking a realistic foray into the concept of humanity meeting lethal alien microorganisms, and the attempt of a few brilliant minds to contain the situation.

If you consider yourself a fan of Michael Crichton‘s other works, or are in search of a heaver type of sci-fi novel dealing with an unconventional alien invasion, then I strongly recommend you give this old book the attention it deserves. After all, it has stood the test of time, still standing tall over fifty years after publication.

John Michael Crichton

(October 23rd, 1942 – November 4th, 2008)

John Michael Crichton was an American author and filmmaker whose books sold for over 200 million copies and been adapted into films on over a dozen occasions. The awards and accolades he received are too numerous to list in their entirety, but among them are the 1969 Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel for A Case of Need, not to mention he wrote some timeless classics such as The Great Train Robbery and Jurassic Park.

David Ben Efraim (Reviewer)

David Ben Efraim is a book reviewer living in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and co-owner of Bookwormex, as well as the Quick Book Reviews blog, along with Yakov Ben Efraim. With a love for literature reaching across all genres (except romance), he has embarked on the quest to share its wonders with the world by helping people find their way to books which truly speak to them, whether they be modern sensations or relics from a bygone era.

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