Pros: Riveting; fascinating ‘after the fact’ structure; interesting characters
Cons: Not everyone will enjoy the hard-science approach
Rating: 5 out of 5
Visit Michael Crichton’s website.
The Wildfire unit is a group of scientists created for one purpose: to respond in the case that a satellite, space probe, or other vehicle brings a foreign and potentially dangerous organism back with it. Just a couple of short years after the team was formed, a satellite crashed in Arizona. Its mission had been to ‘scoop’ the upper atmosphere for bacteria, dust, etc. When the two men sent to find it discover that it’s been moved from its crash site to a small town, they discover something else: the town is filled with bodies, as though the 48 inhabitants simply fell where they stood.
The Wildfire group is called in, but the truth is, they aren’t wholly prepared for what’s before them. One of their five key scientists is in the hospital and can’t be brought in. There are delays in starting due to computer malfunctions. Their facility isn’t 100% finished, and perhaps most dangerous of all—they’re humans, with human failings, human assumptions, and human blind spots. They make mistakes, which is to be expected, but their mistakes are potentially fatal ones—for the entirety of the human race.
Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain is one of those ‘classics’ that I’ve long wanted to read. The thing that has most kept me from doing so is my experience with one of his much more recent novels, Prey. That book tended to over-explain everything, talking down to the reader, essentially. Lengthy dry exposition painfully pointing out every last detail robbed much of the book of any tension or good pacing it might have had. Andromeda, on the other hand, doesn’t assume the reader is stupid. Because it involves a lot of science it does include explanation, but there’s a difference. It explains the technical material, not every last little plot detail just in case you missed it.
I have a huge weakness for bio-thrillers. I think it’s because I know just enough to find the material fascinating, without knowing enough to recognize mistakes on most authors’ part. This makes the suspension of disbelief very easy! Unfortunately, it also means I can’t really comment on accuracy of the science, which of course would be an interesting topic, anyway, in a science-fiction bio-thriller written more than three decades ago.
Not everyone will want to read through pages of explanations about how various types of machines work, or diagrams included in the text. But then, you probably have an idea of whether or not you enjoy hard SF already. The important thing is that there is plenty of material interwoven with this to keep things interesting. In part, the characters are actually pretty interesting—in fact, I found they had more depth than in the aforementioned Prey. Crichton also uses an interesting structural technique to keep the tension high: he tells the tale as though looking back on and dissecting a crisis and the ways in which the people handling it screwed up. This allows his ‘narrator’ to occasionally insert comments hinting at screw-ups and mistakes. Done wrong, this could heavy-handedly rob the story of its tension. Instead, it gives even technical material a sense of vibrancy and urgency.
If you haven’t read this particular classic and it’s a genre you enjoy, grab a copy. It was re-printed not that long ago, and it should be easy to get your hands on!