Top positive review
4 people found this helpful
Science, Hubris, Drama...
on 7 September 2013
One of the things I like about Michael Crichton's novels is the presentation of quite difficult and challenging issues beneath what seems to be a simple storyline. In 'The Andromeda Strain', a group of elite scientists investigate the cause of a deadly bacteriological outbreak in a tiny town in north-eastern Arizona. The scientists confine themselves to a secret underground laboratory, an environment that provides an important backdrop to the story. There is a sense of fear and claustrophobia throughout, and the underlying theme is of how weak and futile human intelligence can be against the forces of Nature. We like to think of our technology as embodying perfection and exactitude, but no matter how intelligent and advanced human culture can be, we are nothing compared to the power of a tiny micro-organism, which if duplicated would wipe out our civilisation entirely. Our natural hubris lulls us into believing otherwise. Our technology is, after all, an extension of ourselves.
In tackling the fictitious Andromeda strain, the scientists and decision-makers adopt a thoroughly technological mind-set, even down to who will take the decision of whether to detonate the laboratory with an atomic weapon in the event of contamination. What is called 'The Odd Man Hypothesis' is based on the notion that an unmarried man is best-placed to make such a decision, as he is likely to be free of emotional entanglements. This type of narrow, logical approach seems to reduce a human being to a kind of cold machine and it's a style of reasoning that overlooks the complexity of the real world and the risk of 'false positives' and 'stupid' decisions. In practice, what the scientists find out is that there are just some things that we cannot understand.
The title of the book, and the codename given to the fictitious deadly strain, may be a reference to the Andromeda constellation or, alternatively, could be a reference to the Greek legend of Andromeda. The queen of Aethiopia, Cassiopeia, boasted that her daughter, Andromeda, was more beautiful than the daughters of the sea-god, Nereus. This offended Poseidon, often seen with Nereus, and so he sent a sea monster, Cetus, to attack the kingdom. To sate the monster, the king of Aethiopia, Cepheus, had his daughter chained to the rocks on the coast. She was then rescued by her future husband, Perseus. In 'The Andromeda Strain', there is a slight allusion to this 'princess and dragon' motif in the use of the Odd Man Hypothesis and the role of 'Dr. Hall.' The attack by the mythic Cetus could be seen as an allusion to an unwanted marriage from which Andromeda is saved by the hero Perseus, and likewise 'Dr. Hall' is unmarried and becomes an unlikely hero of the story.
'The Andromeda Strain' is written in a documentary style, making extensive use of the 'false document' literary technique. Various technical data, graphs and illustrations are interspersed with the text and there is a list of reference works at the end. I found the story gripping and I am now becoming something of a fan of Michael Crichton's work. He reminds me very much of the late Victorian sci-fi novelists, especially Jules Verne and Arthur Conan-Doyle, and I am in little doubt that he has been greatly influenced by them. 'The Andromeda Strain' is just the right length - not too short, not too long - and is well-written while also covering a great deal of technical information which will interest readers who are scientifically-literate. The characters are well-developed, and in particular I liked the ambiguity of 'Dr. Jeremy Stone'. At the end, I was left wondering what exactly his knowledge of events was and whether he might have been working to a different, larger, agenda. It's a pity a sequel wasn't written. It's also sad that Crichton passed away prematurely. The ending, which I won't spoil here, is hair-raising and one of the most dramatic I have read.