Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, February 24, 2012

1969: The Andromeda Strain (Crichton, Michael)

Armchair sci-fi, cakewalk for serious sci-fi readers (3/5)
From March 29, 2009

I don't tend to read popular fiction (any Crichton, most King, no urban romance, no wizards or goddamn vampires), but The Andromeda Strain is the chronological basis for any sort of biological, viral or bacterial plot gone haywire in today's modern science fiction. Since I focus my reading on sci-fi, I thought it only natural to eventually read the classic, according to some people. I tip my hat in respect, but it's not exactly engaging.

Rear cover synopsis:
"What if there was a virus to lethal, it could kill people as quickly as they took a breath? What if it spared some people from instant death... but drove them hopelessly insane instead? What if the swiftest acting, deadliest virus ever known to humankind could be spread, by no more than a gust of wind, from the remote desert site of its first massacre to he busiest cities in America... and the world? What, if anything, could stop it? There are no villains in this hot zone. Only the microscopic seems of Earth's extinction. It is stealthy, sudden, savage. And we are all susceptible to it..."

I've read Chrichton's Congo before I didn't like it for the reason--the science, while cutting edge at the time, was too far ahead of time to be applicable to the time period. Communication lasers and satellite uplinks in 1979 was just too out of place. Likewise, Andromeda Strain has science which is clearly out of applicable practice for 1969... and as a sci-fi reader, the science integration is an important part to the plot. The science doesn't match the time period so it all has the feeling of being temporally misplaced, disembodied. If Crichton wanted to include all this fancy technology, then he could have just placed the plot in the future... not so hard.

If this was an attempt to solidify himself as a hard sci-fi author back in 1969 then he did made some snafus along the way. Just in 1968 there was 2001: Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke as well as Larry Niven's great collection in Neutron Star--those are high standards! Crichton had a lot of competition in that era and he took a different approach; he didn't define his characters nor did he provide any sort of guess work by the reader. I found the book to be predictable and dry with very little challenge to project the plot's approach to the conclusion or foreshadow any rising circumstances. The 5-day unfolding plot about the extraterrestrial agent felt like a step-by-step instructional manual rather than a disaster diary (of which War Day [1984] takes the cake). The science is full of analogies, which miffs the reader who actually partially understands the science behind the technology. The book reads as if it is for the mass public, who have little grasp of science and are keen to read a popular novel. I'm not one of those people. I'll pass on the next Crichton novel recommended to me and I'll stick to my sci-fi which is obscure in the mass public. My fellow bloggers can appreciate that.

Perhaps it was groundbreaking for its day, but since then the idea has been infinitely refined in many ways, including technologically.

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