The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

March 28, 2010
By Anonymous

If there truly is life elsewhere in the universe, what is it like? Is it similar to life on earth? Is it big or is it small? Is it harmless or is it dangerous? These are a few of the questions that Michael Crichton helps to uncover in his novel The Andromeda Strain, which is about a newly discovered form of bacteria that arrives on earth via an unmanned space capsule as part of a government program to find life in the earth’s upper atmosphere. By setting the stage with the death of forty-eight members of a small Arizona town, Crichton carefully and creatively puts in motion a predicament that grasps the reader by his or her shirt collar and refuses to let go until its startling resolution. In its entirety, The Andromeda Strain is a fascinating technological thriller with a plot that is fast-paced and puzzling, characters who are brilliant but not without obvious faults, and an overlying theme that is true yet never fully realized.

While the plot of The Andromeda Strain is sometimes slowed down by heavy amounts of scientific jargon, it is still thoroughly enjoyable because of the constant stream of new insights and discoveries that clear up unexplained occurrences. This method of fitting together the pieces of a puzzle serves as a great tool to keep the reader actively engaged in the storyline. A few of the major areas of concern involving the space bacteria are the source of infection, the size of particles, and the direct cause of fatality. These questions, in addition to others, are gradually solved through experimentation by the four members of the Wildfire Team, which is assembled to uncover the mystery surrounding the space bacteria. In a successful attempt to add suspense to the plot, Crichton leaves the biggest mystery unsolved right up until the end. How did two people, an elderly man and a baby, remain immune to the bacteria when everyone else died instantly or committed suicide? It is through the development of key plot questions and the constant reminder of the seriousness of the situation at hand that Crichton is able to keep his readers’ rapt attention for the duration of the novel.

A strong point of emphasis in The Andromeda Strain, which makes it a compelling read, is character development. Each of the four main characters is given due credit for his notable awards and achievements. They all appear to be quite brilliant and gifted in their individual fields of scientific study, yet Crichton shows readers that they all have their faults and failings. They are all more “human” than it would appear at first glance. Jeremy Stone, a Noble Prize winning professor of bacteriology, is described as being well-known for “the scandals of his private life––he was four times married, twice to the wives of colleagues…” (45-46). Mark Hall, a successful doctor and surgeon, is said to “turn blackly irritable” (60) when routines are not met, suggesting that he has a problem with anger management. Even Peter Leavitt, a professor of microbiology, suffers from epilepsy and cannot look at flashing lights without going into a seizure. These instances in which character imperfection is displayed are good because they help connect the reader to the novel on a much more deep and personal level.

After many moments of nail biting anticipation, disappointed head shaking, and grins of satisfaction, it should be clear to any reader of The Andromeda Strain that the central theme is the clash between success and failure in scientific discovery. Crichton even states that many of the occurrences “were a compound of foresight and foolishness, innocence and ignorance. Nearly everyone involved had moments of great brilliance, and moments of unaccountable stupidity” (xiii). An example of the theme at work is when Burton, a pathologist, tests the space bacteria on a rhesus monkey to see where clotting of the blood first occurs. He also tests the bacteria on several rats that have been given an anti-coagulant, which prevents blood clotting. In both cases Burton makes important discoveries, yet he fails to notice the negative effects of the bacteria on the brain. These moments are used successfully by Crichton, as he foreshadows the ripple effects that certain actions will create. Use of the success and failure theme adds new dimensions to the novel, thereby increasing the overall quality of the novel.

As a final reflection, The Andromeda Strain may not be either the easiest or most diverse book to read, but it has an easily understood plot with characters and theme that support it perfectly. It is clear that, if the reader is not even the slightest bit interested in science, he or she should stay far away from this technological thriller, for it is easy to get lost in the mounds of scientific verbiage. The Andromeda Strain is also not for the overly optimistic, as some events within the novel may be viewed as quite tragic. Overall, it is a worthwhile read not because of any entertainment value but because it offers a better understanding of many similar type situations and how operations are conducted in an ever more secretive and sheltered world.

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