Updated: Feb 26
Today, we can all probably relate to the fear of a super-contagious, deadly disease spreading around the globe without control. This sentiment is what moves the plot of The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton’s debut novel.
With the hype of the space race and the Cold War in the background, The Andromeda Strain became an instant best-seller, cementing techno-thriller as a popular genre.
Let’s dive into what made this book so influential.
This is the Science of Fiction.
A military satellite falls in a small town in the middle of Arizona, U.S.A. It brings back with it a deadly, extraterrestrial bug that kills almost everyone there. This is the setup for The Andromeda Strain, released in May 1969. It is, in a sense, a first-contact-with-aliens story! And, to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that.
Crichton’s signature writing style blends reality and fiction in such an authentic way that it is easy to believe the facts he presented in the novel are true. Compelling arguments backed by fictional scientific reports have us invested in the story from beginning to end, questioning our own perception of what is real and what’s not. It was funny to scroll down the review comment section for this novel and read many complaints about Crichton not getting some details right. It is a testament to how well the author convinced us that only the alien part was fictional.
I wonder, however, how enjoyable would this book be for someone not familiar with the context in which The Andromeda Strain was released? Its themes and tension draw heavily from the Cold-War anxiety and the unknown waiting for us in outer space. Shall we go deeper in this direction?
Background: Cold War and the Space Race
“THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN by Michael Crichton would probably not be selling as well as it is, if it were not for the nation’s current narcissistic delight with its space program,” wrote Greg J. Kilday three months after the release of the novel.
With the advantage of hindsight, it is safe to say it is too simplistic to credit the success of Crichton’s debut novel to the hype of the space race. However, The Andromeda Strain is indeed a product of this cultural and political context. It came out merely two months before the first Moon landing, one of the most significant events in history.
You can imagine how appealing it was to speculate about man-made objects bringing back alien bugs that could exterminate the human race. NASA had a thorough protocol of sterilization and quarantine procedures, but, interestingly enough, they were designed to prevent contamination of the Moon’s surface. Yet, the book brings us fictionalized protocols for the event of alien parasites invading Earth in narration so well-built that it seems factual.
The plausibility of Crichton’s story lies in the fact that he played well into the political scenario of the time. Credible reports of a Cold-War scenario give the book a tone of secrecy woven into a well-crafted political conspiracy.
So much so that Kilday did not stop his criticism in the quote above. He wrote, “The Andromeda Strain is not really science-fiction in any strict sense. The ‘science’ it treats is too commonplace--even if sophisticated--and it isn’t really that speculative. Instead, this book represents a kind of ‘government-fiction’--the most recent development in the genre of the Washington Novel.”
Now, forget politics and aliens. The Andromeda Strain’s significance goes way beyond those storylines. In one of the finest examples of how science fiction influences real-life science, the popularity of the novel raised awareness of the danger of outbreaks of infectious diseases.
Not of alien nature, tho. The main concern was the potential biohazard of recombinant DNA, sparking debates over appropriate laboratories’ biocontainment strategies for the newly available molecular engineering techniques.
That’s right: a sci-fi book was influential to the imposition of safer protocols toward biological hazards!
The former president of the Genetics Society of America, Oliver Smithies, opened a U.S. Senate hearing on proposed regulations of recombinant DNA research saying, “I think we are here because of a very popular modern science fiction novel by Michael Crichton--The Andromeda Strain.” And it was not the first or last time the novel was invoked in discussions of such kind .
It is not a surprise, then, to see references to The Andromeda Strain when reading about the current pandemic. William D. Cohen wrote in an opinion article for the New York Times, “And what could be more bone-chilling than a seemingly out-of-control virus leaping from region to region around the globe, without a known vaccine to prevent it or slow it down, causing death and economic mayhem along the way? The coronavirus narrative has the texture and feel of ‘The Andromeda Strain’.”
Scientists of Fiction
One scene from the book that felt like it was written in current times involved a conversation between a scientist and a military man.
“By then, the disease could spread into a worldwide epidemic.”
“It’s because of rash statements like that the President doesn’t trust scientists.”
Statements like that are rash until shit happens.
This problem is real, tho, and should be considered carefully. How to bring awareness to people about the possibility of extreme situations without sounding unreasonably alarmist? Is it even possible? I don’t know. I don’t think someone has an answer. Crichton, a young medical school student at the time, did it by writing a novel. For the rest of us, my best advice would be to remain skeptical but open-minded.
History repeated itself with Jurassic Park, but that's a story for another post.
That’s it for today.
See you next post,
 Campos, L.A. Pandora's Pandemic. Science, vol. 371, issue 6534; pp. 1111-1112 (2021).
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.
You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.