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Literature / The Andromeda Strain

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"There's a fire, sir."
Capt. Morton (film version)

The Andromeda Strain is a novel published by Michael Crichton in 1969 about a team of scientists who investigate a deadly organism of extraterrestrial origin that causes rapid, fatal blood clotting.

As the novel opens, the microorganism has killed an entire town save for two individuals, an old man and a crying infant. The team races to find the common link between the two survivors before the rapidly mutating organism can find a way out of containment and cause a deadly epidemic. Most of the action takes place in an underground research installation called "Wildfire", located in a remote part of Nevada. A lot of the book and the 1971 movie spend considerable time showing the process the research team has to go through to be decontaminated just to be able to work on the problem.

The novel has been adapted into movie form twice; the 1971 film starred Arthur Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid, and David Wayne and followed the book closely, while the 2008 miniseries is a re-imagining of the original story.


This novel contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Peter Jackson (the elderly Piedmont survivor), to the point of drinking stove alcohol because it helps him dull the pain from his bleeding ulcer (and because it's the only type of alcohol he can afford). Ironically, this is what saves his life from Andromeda.
  • Apocalypse How: More of a Class 0 since the town affected left two survivors, an old man and a baby. It's not entirely clear if other towns were plagued with the same condition.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Wildfire team manages to find a cure for Andromeda and it has evolved into a non-lethal phase, but the amount of Andromeda that was released on Piedmont is now flying high in the atmosphere and will eat anything that passes through it that has some plastic (like rockets and planes), and nobody knows how long that will be up there, and can only wait on hoping the cloud seeding the government is doing will sweep Andromeda from the atmosphere and into the Pacific, where its chemical makeup will kill it. In the meantime, though, another rocket mysteriously fails in the atmosphere...
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  • Body Horror: Andromeda dispatches its victims by near-instant clotting of blood — such that most of Piedmont was "cut down in mid-stride." The team get to see wonderful visages, such as a smiling family gathered around rotting food. The autopsy on the man who opened the probe carrying Andromeda also counts, as they chop him open — and only get clotted blood. It's hinted that a few survived long enough to "go quietly nuts". The identities of this latter group — among them, a diabetic, a teen who built model airplanes, a WW1 vet, and an old chain-smoking lady — provide an early hint to how Andromeda targets its victims. All would have been mildly acidotic, from uncontrolled diabetes, the paint thinner they worked with, old age, and COPD respectively, which allowed them to survive long enough to develop dementia. All cases commit suicide in an unnatural and/or painful way in Piedmont, such as one via self-immolation, and the diabetic literally filling a tub with water and holding his head inside until he drowned, and nearly all leave ranting, paranoid notes. Even the model-building teen who drank paint thinner is a clue; Paint thinner and glue both contain methylated spirits (methanol, methyl ethyl ketone and acetone), all of which cause massive metabolic acidosis — well enough to defeat Andromeda. He likely survived infection, only to die of his toxidrome shortly afterward. A final case which appears later — a diabetic cop that survived initial infection and then shot up a diner — which cements the acidosis theory.
  • Computer Voice: The computer in the Wildfire secret underground base plays pre-recorded messages spoken by a pleasant female voice. It is revealed that the voice, which one scientist describes as "luscious," is that of a woman in her 60's, turning it into in-universe Fetish Retardant.
    • This is in-universe Fanservice, as the book points out that the most sexy voice the military could find is used for voice reminder systems on the theory that men will pay more attention to it. It also turns into in-universe Fetish Retardant when the same voice also plainly announces the nuclear countdown. Stone and Hall find this extremely infuriating.
  • Covert Group with Mundane Front: The Wildfire biological research installation is buried underground, below a legitimate Department of Agriculture research facility that's studying corn crops. To the government, it's killing two birds with one stone.
  • Disability Immunity: the eponymous Strain kills an entire town save a baby and an old man. Turns out that the contagion is actually extremely sensitive to abnormal pH levels - outside the range of normal blood pH (7.35-7.45), the organism dies. The old man was an alcoholic who drank denatured alcohol from canned stove fuel, resulting in metabolic acidosis, and the baby had cried himself into respiratory alkalosis due to a combination of infantile colic, hunger and fear.
  • Dressing to Die: Almost everyone in the small town of Piedmont dies when the Andromeda Strain is released. However, some people go crazy and kill themselves instead of dying from the effects of the disease. One of these is William Arnold, who puts on his World War I U.S. Army uniform before shooting himself in the head.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: The Wildfire compound-composed of five levels, each level more sterilised than the last, with top-of-the-line (for its time) bio-warfare research and computer equipment and a nuclear self-destruct.
  • Failsafe Failure: Lots;
    • A warning bell that's supposed to alert the team when important information comes in on their telex machine is defeated when a scrap of paper peels from the roll and wedges itself between the bell and striker, preventing the bell from ringing. This cuts them off from lots of important information; little things like Andromeda eventually learning to eat anything remotely organic - such as the airtight plastic gaskets used in clean rooms. Cue really unwanted nuclear-sterilization protocol.
    • The government never considered a possibility that the nuclear-sterilization protocol going off could make things worse, so they purposefully left out any means to shut it off from inside the facility once it's been armed. Once the scientists discover that Andromeda not only eats radiation but uses it to evolve, they have to begin an extensive off-site procedure to shut it down. When Andromeda eats through the plastic gaskets in the containment areas, this threatens the entire world, and Hall is sent scurrying through a Death Course to shut it down.
    • The control stations allowing the override for the weren't installed in several compartments of the center due to bureaucratic delays, necessitating Hall crawling to the upper level through the central core to find a working shutdown station.
    • The core was equipped with automated guns firing curare-tipped darts to stop any potentially infected escaped lab animals, again with no emergency shutdown. Luckily, the dose was calculated for primates less than 20 kg, and not for much larger humans, thus making Hall's mad scramble possible.
  • Gem Tissue: The story centers on an alien crystal that can survive in vacuum and even a nuclear blast. Tragically, it also tends to restructure the proteins in people and animals, most notably converting fluid blood into a reddish powder in its victims' veins.
  • Gender Flip: Leavitt is male in the novel, female in the film. Interestingly, Hot Scientist is emphatically not invoked in the switch.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Two are mentioned in the book but not crossed. The most memorable, of course, is the nuclear warhead intended to destroy Wildfire if a disease is about to escape to the outside. In an earlier scene, when a rubber seal fails and Burton is exposed to the virus, he volunteers to take Kalocin, a top-secret antibiotic that destroys all unicellular life - bacteria, fungi, viruses, you name it. Stone absolutely refuses. A expository paragraph then explains that when tested on humans with terminal diseases, the drug wiped out all the symbiotic microorganisms living inside and on them and even caused remission in cancer patients (while causing some minor inconveniences like massive diarrhea); when the doses stopped, all manner of harmful microbes that humans had NOT co-evolved with moved into the now-empty biological niches and killed all the subjects in various grotesque ways within six hours.
  • Government Conspiracy: Project Scoop was developed to try to find elements on the upper atmosphere or low earth orbit that could be developed into newer biological weapons, with the Scoop VII satellite (which obtained Andromeda from space) having Gone Horribly Right. Interestingly, the characters make more of a fuss about it in the film than in the novel (which presents this fact as early as the second chapter, while on the film is reserved to a twist near the climax).
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Wildfire is effectively isolated from the outside world because a bit of paper got wedged in the telex alarm bell. Absolutely no-one noticed this until long after the events of the story, simply because the technicians didn't have the mindset to look at the bell that won't ring! The government is Not Happy™ to find out their $90,000,000 facility was knocked out by a sliver of paper.
    These were highly-trained electronics men, Senator, looking for an electronic fault. The trouble was purely mechanical of the simplest kind. But for them, it was like trying to see an elephant through a microscope.
  • Info Dump: Pages of it, as befitting a Crichton novel. Surprisingly, the 1971 film preserved the vast majority.
  • Inscrutable Aliens: It's speculated that the virus was created by an alien species as a data storage mechanism, but we never find out anything about them, and it's only a hypothesis. The more likely explanation is that it's just an organism that thrives on any sort of energy, especially thermal energy.
  • It's the Only Way to Be Sure: The back-up plan to prevent a release of agent from the Wildfire facility was to destroy the site with a nuke. Heroically averted, as a nuclear detonation might only have fueled Andromeda's rampant growth.
    • It's also briefly mentioned that the helicopter pilot that drops the Wildfire team off at the site of first infection is under orders that if the team on the ground is overwhelmed by Andromeda, he is to proceed directly to the Wildfire facility, where both he and his aircraft will be incinerated as a sterilization measure. And he's being shadowed by a fighter jet that will shoot him down if he doesn't comply.
  • Magic Countdown: Averted in that Hall disarms the nuclear self-destruct with more than half a minute to spare. Subverted in that the lowest level of the facility is evacuated of atmosphere thirty seconds before detonation to increase the yield of the nuke — the researchers were only seconds from being asphyxiated.
  • Mockumentary: Crichton presents himself as a historian reconstructing "the five-day course of a major American scientific crisis" through examination of relevant declassified materials and interviews with the scientists involved; he frequently quotes from these interviews and from several Fictional Documents supposedly part of his research. He even cites fake papers written by his characters alongside real ones in his bibliography at the end of the book.
  • Panacea: Kalocin, a top secret wonder drug that can eradicate any known pathogen and is even capable of curing cancer. Subverted in that anyone administered it will die of some horrific opportunistic infection within hours of their final dose.
  • Science Hero: All of the members of the Wildfire team are experts in science and medicine and the story highlights the necessity to follow the scientific procedure in a calm fashion because rushing means overlooking important facts. Their discovery of individual clues, once put together, all lead to finding out how to prevent more deaths by Andromeda.
  • Self-Destruct Mechanism: The Wildfire facility has a nuclear device beneath it that is set to automatically go off in the event of a breach to prevent any nasty diseases from getting out. Unfortunately, the scientists calculate that the heat and radiation from a nuclear blast would cause the virus to mutate into a potentially much deadlier form. In addition, the book goes into detail about the necessary psychological profile of the one person who should be entrusted with the "off" key. The people in charge calculated that an unmarried male with no strong family connections would be best able to make the decision to allow the bomb to go off. And the device is even designed so only Hall can use it, so another person less willing to sacrifice himself than Hall can't just take the key from him and stop the countdown. (All of which just goes to show how many hoops the Wildfire scientists had to jump through to get the government to trust even a single civilian with control over a nuclear weapon.)
  • Spy Speak: The page quote, as well as the exchange by which the team gets into Wildfire:
    Leavitt: Just passing through. On the way to Rome.
    Guard: Have you got the time?
    Leavitt: My watch stopped yesterday.
    Guard: Durn shame.
    Leavitt: It's because of the heat.
  • White and Grey Morality: The conflict between the Wildfire team and the titular Andromeda Strain. The Wildfire team consists of Science Heroes trying to stop (or at least reduce) the dangers of the Andromeda Strain, and despite its dangerous capabilities, the Andromeda Strain is an alien species of single-celled organisms that are simply following their biological code of survival.
  • You Can Panic Now: One of Crichton's seminal works on the subject. The scientists are able to rationally tear Andromeda to pieces save when they panic and try to take shortcuts. Things go haywire every time someone makes a decision out of fear rather than logic. The story has been hailed as "the greatest debugging tutorial ever made."
    As in most crises, the events surrounding the Andromeda Strain were a compound of foresight and foolishness, innocence and ignorance. Nearly everyone involved had moments of great brilliance, and moments of unaccountable stupidity. It is therefore impossible to write about the events without offending some of the participants.
    However, I think it is important that the story be told. This country supports the largest scientific establishment in the history of mankind. New discoveries are constantly being made, and many of these discoveries have important political or social overtones. In the near future, we can expect more crises on the pattern of Andromeda. Thus I believe it is useful for the public to be made aware of the way in which scientific crises arise, and are dealt with.


Example of: