plague novels: the andromeda strain

In Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, published in 1969, a microorganism of apparently extraterrestrial origin manifests as a cloud that saturates the air like nerve gas and seems to kill on contact.
The best part of the book, the only part I remember from an earlier reading, is the descent through the five circles of decontamination to an underground laboratory, with a nuclear detonation device at the level below that in case the precautions fail – a magnificent piece of worldbuilding.

The protocol includes showers in disinfectants, baths in antimicrobials, saunas, extreme-wavelength light, disposable garments incinerated after use – everything short of DDT and radiation is used to produce “clean” bodies in a “clean” environment. The procedures are described first in a planning document, part of an extensive set of realia distributed through the book: dossiers stamped Top Secret, transcripts, maps, computer printouts, and even a list of references to invented scientific literature.

The underground laboratory for investigating microbes from space operates on a wartime model: it was designed top down by a group of “wise men” and is staffed by a group of hero scientists who subordinate their bodies to the mission. Science also routinely consumes the bodies of animals and penitentiary “volunteers.” The four heroes are exemplars of the usual demographic suspects, competence pornstars whose acclaimed brains bring them the expected disproportionate rewards. The men lack distinct personalities: all we get is that one is the alpha, one can be a cowboy if needed, one is “sloppy,” and one is a bachelor surgeon. According to editor Robert Gottlieb, in a Paris Review interview, in early drafts there was even less difference: “The only thing that distinguished some of [the charaacters] from others was that some died and some didn’t … It occurred to me that instead of trying to help [Crichton] strengthen the human element, we could make a virtue of necessity by stripping it away entirely; by turning The Andromeda Strain from a documentary novel into a fictionalized documentary. Michael was all for it–I think he felt relieved.”

In mid-century military tradition (Catch-22), women are possessions and rewards; the alpha is already on his fourth wife. The bachelor surgeon, Mark Hall, is assigned the task of controlling the nuke, because the “odd man hypothesis,” supported by computer printout of test results, says a single man will make more “correct” decisions, according a computer simulation. If a broken seal triggers a nuclear countdown, Hall has just three minutes to get to one of the few key stations and stop it. (But what if he’s asleep when it starts?) Editor Gottlieb’s other contribution to the book was changing the odd man’s job from turning the nuke on to turning it off.

Although Hall is unpaired, his readiness for normative pairing is made clear that he responds to a sensuous female intercom voice – which belongs to an older spinster named Gladys. This is Crichton’s idea of a joke. A bit later Hall meets a “girl who was to be his assistant,” but she disappears after a scene or two of animal experiments conducted in space suits. Most support for these man-gods comes from computers, which can even replace doctors.

The minimal use of humans helps keep everything top secret: even in the sparsely populated area downwind of the first town wiped out by the microorganism, the public cannot be told because there is nothing they can do to check the spread and they may panic. The region is inspected with satellite cameras while the scientists race against the wind’s inevitable turn. Their experiments gradually prove that the cloud can disperse and corpses are not infectious. But the final solution is deus ex machina: the bug is found to have mutated into a harmless state taken as its final form – to the point where its ability to “convert matter to energy given only carbon, oxygen and sunlight” suggests a future energy source. Apparently the only thing wiser than a scientist is an alien.

CW: Grammatical sexism, which comes out in expository phrasings like “in fact, man lived in a sea of bacteria,” “a job that would take a man days to work out,” “both man and organism have adapted,” “public health was a young man’s game,” etc.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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