THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN by Michael Crichton would probably not be selling as well as it is, if it were not for the nation's current narcissistic delight with its space program. Dealing as it does with a research satellite that returns to earth lethally contaminated, there has rarely been such a right book at such a right time. Only two months ago, I remember hearing someone's garbled version of the proposed Apollo recovery that had our trio of astronauts stepping onto the Hornet and then shaking hands with President Nixon before being packed off into a world of saran-wrapped sterility--all in all, a delightful thought, in which the nation and the moon germs could only stand to gain. Unfortunately, it didn't happen, Houston, unwilling to sacrifice such other-worldly germs, packed them and the astronauts off to the Lunar Receiving Station free of any presidential contamination.
Thankfully, fiction is more entertaining than life. The Andromeda Strain tells of how a group of super-scientists (at least one of whom is a toned-down version of J. D. Watson) set to work in a secret, five-story, underground bacterial research center in Nevada--part of "Project Wildfire." Their object is to identify and neutralize a lethal virus brought back from the upper atmosphere by a Scoop satellite that has crashed in the middle of the Arizona desert. Since the enterprising virus multiplies at a giddy rate, they must, of course, do in the thing by the time it gets to Phoenix. From the very first chapter (when one member of a surveillance team, looking down at a seemingly-dead desert town, says "We'd better go down and take a look"), Crichton's reader is sucked into the kind of Saturday afternoon fantasy that used to be the staple of movie house matinees during the fifties, and still shows up with welcome regularity on all those Million Dollars Movies. Nevertheless, the book is unbelievably suspenseful. Crichton is a master at keeping the reader one step ahead of his brilliant-but-sometimes-obtuse scientists. It is painful to watch their ignorance lag behind your own understanding; reading this book becomes one of the most cogent arguments for taking an Evelyn Wood course I've ever come across.
THE Andromeda Strain is more than just a biological tug-of-war, though. To judge by Crichton's example, the role that the clipper ship used to play in 19th century fiction now is handled by the space program (both novelistically and cinematically, for Kubrick's 2001 held much the same appeal). Where Melville and Dana used to fascinate their readers with descriptions of rigging and trade routes, Crichton delivers mini-lectures on space research, micro-biology, and biochemistry. Meanwhile, names like Wald and DeBakey weave in and out of the narrative. Most of this material is, of course, quite elementary; some will probably find it tediously so. But, for those of us who can only struggle unsuccessfully with the structure of hydrocarbons, it is also curiously gratifying. And, after all, transmitting factual information used to be what the novel was all about--before it discovered the psyche.
This novel's other basic appeal is much more telling. The Andromeda Strain is not really science-fiction in any strict sense. The "science" it treats is too commonplace--even if sophisticated--and it isn't really that speculative. Instead, this book represents a kind of "government-fiction"--the most recent development in the genre of the Washington Novel.
The Washington Novel began after the Civil War as nothing more than a satirical yarn told by the likes of John William DeForest and Mark Twain. Despite the fact that the Federal Government had already begun to slip out of the hands of people--something that would-be Ralph Nadars like Francis Adams knew only too well--Americans still chose to treat their national leaders as if they were only extensions of their second-rate counterparts back home. But, during this century, Washington has grown so complex that mayors now must have advisors to learn how to cope with it. Alan Drury's melodramas soon gave way to the Burdick-Fletcher-Knebel potboilers that always had Washington a button away from nuclear destruction--unbeknownst to us all. Dr. Strangelove was the logical extension. Well, The Andromeda Strain is its biological brother. By mixing fact with Crichton's only too probable fantasy, his novel locates itself in a never-never world of secret government installations. It is the revelation of purported government secrets that make the book so compelling. For example, if a contaminated satellite falls within the Soviet or Eastern Bloc territory the United States had decided not to inform the Russians of what had happened. "The basis of this decision was the prediction that a Russian plague would kill between two and five million people, while combined Soviet-American losses from a thermonuclear exchange involving both first-and second-strike capabilities would come to more than two hundred and fifty million persons." Although most of the scientists' attention is centered on the Arizona desert, Michael Crichton, often unwittingly so, makes you wonder where the real disease really lies.