BOOK REVIEW: THE ANDROMEDIA STRAIN
It's the start of cold & flu season. Have you been inoculated for the Andromeda Strain? Don't worry; if you haven't ever read The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton and/or have seen the movie by the same name and realize I'm joking, there is no such viral strain currently in existence. A killer strain of alien virus or bacteria like the fictional Andromeda Strain of Crichton's novel, though, one day arriving on Earth and devastating life on it is, however, scarily possible.
Crichton, the author of numerous other books - some of which have also been made into movies, like Coma and Jurassic Park - as well as being the creator of the television series ER - has researched this novel thoroughly, and it shows. He has a list of the sources he used at the back of the book. The Wildfire Project in the novel, which involved small satellites sent into orbit to collect any organisms that might be able to survive the harsh environment of space, really existed. It succeeded in returning satellites to Earth with organisms not native to our planet. The Andromeda Strain wasn't one of them, but the potential was there (and still is) for a similar strain to ravish human life.
The town of Piedmont, Arizona, is the unfortunate recipient of the capsule-like satellite, Scoop VII, and its deadly cargo. When the town's doctor messes with the capsule and releases some of the Andromeda Strain into the air, within seconds, practically everyone the strain comes into contact with dies. They generally clutch at their chests in surprise, and then die, due to all of their blood clotting.
Two elderly people seem to have gone insane, though, as a result of the contact with the strain, and both end up committing suicide - one by hanging herself, and one by shooting himself in the head. Two other people - an older man with an ulcer who doses himself with a bottle of aspirin at a time combined with drinking Sterno, and a baby who appears to be healthy and normal - somehow survive. Discovering how and why they do makes up a major part of the book's plot.
The main characters of the novel are a team of scientists from various fields who have been pre-selected to deal with the potential that one day a deadly organism might pose a threat to life on Earth. Jeremy Stone, who in 1961 won the Nobel Prize "for his work on bacterial mutant reversion," is one member of the team, as are the clinical microbiologist Leavitt, the pathologist, Burton, the anthropologist, Burke, and the surgeon, Mark Hall. Hall was primarily chosen as a member of the team because he was single, and studies the military did suggested that if their was a worst-case scenario and a choice would need to be made involving using a nuclear bomb to stop the spread of a deadly strain from space, a single person would be more likely to make the "right" choice of using the bomb option.
The two people who survive are transported to a five-level underground highly secure government facility in which each level can be sealed off from all of the others. Each level represents an ascending degree of biological contamination and if they ever have their seal breached, a three-minute countdown begins to the explosion of a nuclear bomb. The only way to stop the countdown would be to have the person pre-selected to be the "Odd Man" - in this case, Hall - insert a key in a lock and turn it. Sensors can distinguish between Hall or anyone else, and the key will only turn if Hall inserts it.
There are a series of unforeseen errors, both mechanical and human, that combine to make the problems the scientists face extremely difficult to overcome. They don't check the printout they get often enough, for example, and an alarm fails to go off, failing to alert them to the news that the nuclear bomb they'd requested to destroy Piedmont never was given authorization by the president. As a result, the Andromeda Strain mutates, and becomes airborne, eating the polymers of a Phantom jet flying over the area - a polymer similar to human skin - causing the Phantom to crash. Also, all of the skin of the pilot is consumed, leaving only bone.
The Andromeda Strain is an intense page-turner that will have you reading late into the night. I had previously read Coma and Jurassic Park, but had only seen the movie version of this novel. The book is also very entertaining, and I highly recommend it. It's a frightening account, because the government actually tried to collect organisms, as the book describes, which could be utilized as weapons against our enemies - talk about your WMDs!
REVIEWED BY DOUGLAS R. COBB
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