Michael Crichton’s 1969 The Andromeda Strain is a medical thriller about preventing a pandemic — FROM SPACE!
Dispatched to retrieve the SCOOP satellite from the isolated Nevada hinterland where it landed, government agents enter the small town of Piedmont. They report that the sidewalks are littered with dead bodies, then abruptly succumb themselves.
SCOOP was intended to retrieve lifeforms from the near-Earth space environment with an eye to weaponizing them. It seems that the mission has succeeded beyond its creators’ wildest dreams.
The second group of agents sent into the town are dressed in hazmat suits; this time they survive. They find the satellite in the office of the town doctor. He seems to have opened it, releasing something that killed him and most of the town’s inhabitants. Only two people, elderly alcoholic Peter Jackson and infant Jamie Ritter, have survived.
The US government had made a few contingency plans in case SCOOP went wrong1. As soon as the nature and scale of the mishap becomes apparent, a response team, dubbed Wildfire, is assembled in a facility deep beneath an unremarkable-looking agricultural research facility. Doctors Jeremy Stone, Charles Burton, Peter Leavitt, and Mark Hall are asked to figure out what killed Piedmont and what can be done to deal with it.
Fortuitously, Piedmont is far from the nearest major population centre. Plans are set in motion to sterilize the town with a small but efficient thermonuclear device, one that will surely destroy whatever it is that SCOOP brought back.
The scientists are top men in their fields. They are armed with the best equipment the late 1960s can offer. They have two survivors of the calamity, survivors who are clues to what happened and how.
It doesn’t take long for things to start going very, very wrong.
The US government is willing to nuke US towns to contain the contagion. Given that this book is set during the Vietnam War, when one US Army officer is reported to have said “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” it’s not at all implausible that the government would do this. I do wonder how the explosion would have been sold to the US public.
It soon becomes clear that the deaths are due to an infectious agent released when the doctor opened the satellite. The agent is dubbed the Andromeda Strain. The Strain changes radically over the course of the novel. The author waves a hand and says “mutation.” This does seem somewhat plausible; it’s well-known that lethal pathogens tend to become less lethal over time (it is counter-productive to kill hosts). However, the amateur epidemiologist in me (as in all of us these days) wonders how it is that the Strain as whole changes, rather than splintering into sub-strains, and that it does so over such a short time scale.
Otherwise, the book’s premise seems believable. Micro-organisms are far more common than complex organisms, therefore the odds are that the first contact between terrestrial life and extra-terrestrial life will involve single-celled organisms or their equivalent2. In this novel, these odds are enormously increased by the US military-industrial complex’s deliberate search for such lifeforms3.
Crichton seems to have been fond of featuring epileptic characters in his early books. The antagonist in The Terminal Man is a violent psychopath with psychomotor epilepsy (which, needless to say, cutting-edge medical technology fails to mitigate). One of the doctors on the Wildfire team in this novel turns out to have concealed his epilepsy, which causes him to experience a seizure at an inconvenient moment.
Crichton goes to great lengths to explain what the response team is and how it works. There’s a lot of info-dumping, which, IMHO, results in an oddly paced book. It’s clear that Something Is Up in Piedmont by the end of the second chapter. The scale of the disaster is clear by the end of the first quarter of the book. The Wildfire team doesn’t reach their laboratories five levels beneath the surface until half the book is over, at which point research can begin.
This being a Crichton book, only part of the plot concerns unravelling the mystery of the Andromeda Strain. A lot of what happens is due to human hubris and ill-preparedness, as well as to Murphy’s Law (mechanical mishaps, overreliance on technology, contingency plans that seemed reasonable turning out to be wildly counter-productive). All ends well, but not before a few hairsbreadth escapes from disaster.
Despite the odd pacing, it was a best-seller and is still in print, dead-tree and e.
1: Should an errant US satellite inadvertently deliver an extra-terrestrial pathogen to a Soviet city, the plan was to say nothing and hope the Russians didn’t connect the dots. The rationale: a virulent outbreak might kill a few million people, whereas a thermonuclear exchange would kill hundreds of millions of people.
2: Jeremy Stone, the leader of the Wildfire team, instrumental in creating the program in the first place, co-wrote some guidelines for it. The writers postulated three possible sources of extra-terrestrial life:
- Truly alien life (from another “planet or galaxy”). Ah, well. Crichton wasn’t an astronomer4).
- Life descended from Earth organisms that had made their way to space in the distant past.
- Life descended from Earth organisms that had made their way to space on improperly sterilized spacecraft in the recent past.
3: The Andromeda Strain universe is at best a couple of timelines over from the Quatermass universe.
4: Stone and his colleagues weren’t physicists either. The Andromeda Strain is described as converting energy to matter, which he claimed would make nuking it a very bad idea indeed. Except that it takes a lot of energy to make a little bit of matter. The energy released by the nuclear device that would have been used on Piedmont would have been converted into matter that weighed less than a penny.