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Literature / The Andromeda Strain

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"There's a fire, sir."
Capt. Morton

The Andromeda Strain is a 1969 sci-fi thriller novel by Michael Crichton, 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.

A sequel, appropriately entitled The Andromeda Evolution, was published in 2019, written by Daniel H. Wilson with the assistance of Crichton's estate.

This novel contains examples of:

  • A Nuclear Error: Forms the climax of the novel.
    • The US politicians have to content with this trope prior to the climax, as well. One of the Wildfire protocols is Directive 7-12, which employs a nuclear strike on the center of an outbreak to (theoretically) vaporize and sterilize the area if there are no survivors and/or the contagion proves to be quite threatening. However, despite allowing Wildfire to possess an automatic nuclear self-destruct (and dragging their heels all the way), the President retains control of this directive, and is forced to balance the apparent sure-fire cure to an outbreak against the effects it would have in global politics; i.e., letting the Soviets know why they appeared to break a nuclear test ban in private at best, to triggering a global nuclear conflict if the outbreak occurred in the Soviet Union. In the latter case, it was even decided that even the worst outbreak would kill less people in the Soviet Union than a full nuclear exchange. In regards to Piedmont, the President elects to delay the nuking 72 hours and set up a 150-mile cordon around the town instead. This will come in handy later.
  • The Alcoholic: invokedPeter 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...
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: Zig-zagged. Andromeda is shown via spectroscopic analysis (vaporizing samples and looking at their light to determine what elements are present) to be composed solely of four of the most common elements found in Earth life—hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. However, it's capable of incredible feats of matter-energy conversion, decently fast replication rates, long-term survivability in a space environment, and capability to mutate its form. All without DNA, RNA, amino acids, or protein structures of any kind. Even its hexagonal crystalline structure appears to be all one substance, with no indications of separate areas for replication, food processing, etc.note 
  • 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. A few survived long enough to "go quietly nuts" and commit suicide instead of being killed directly by Andromeda. 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 what protects against Andromeda. All would have been mildly acidotic, from uncontrolled diabetes, the paint thinner and model glue 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 filled his mouth with model glue is a clue; Paint thinner and glue both contain methylated spirits (methanol, methyl ethyl ketone and acetone), all of which cause metabolic acidosis — enough to defeat Andromeda. The damage to their brains was probably severe enough that none of these people would have recovered completely even if they had been prevented from committing suicide. A final case which appears later — a diabetic cop that survived initial infection and then shot up a diner — cements the acidosis theory for Dr. Hall.
  • 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.
  • Crystalline Creature: The story centers on an alien crystalline microorganism that tends to restructure the proteins in people and animals, most notably converting fluid blood into a reddish powder in its victims' veins.
  • 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 immediate 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 arming the device is entirely automatic, with human intervention required to abort the countdown once it's been triggered. When Andromeda eats through the plastic gaskets in the containment areas the computers automatically arm the device. However by this point the scientists have discovered that a nuclear detonation would merely give Andromeda an extremely rich growth environment, which potentially 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 nuclear warhead weren't installed in several compartments of the fifth level due to bureaucratic delays, necessitating Hall crawling to an 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 10 kg, and not for much larger humans, thus making Hall's mad scramble possible, though he is hit enough times that after he disarms the bomb he collapses and needs to be resuscitated.
  • Gem Tissue: The story centers on an alien crystal that can survive in vacuum and even a nuclear blast. By incidentally triggering near-instantaneous coagulation of the entire volume of an animal's blood, it causes said clotted blood to take on a powdered, diamond dust-like appearance.
  • Gender Flip: Leavitt is male in the novel, female in the film.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Two are mentioned in the book but not crossed.
  • 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 in the film it 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.
  • Infodump: Pages of it, as befitting a Crichton novel. Included are maps, computer printouts, sketches, transcripts, etc. Surprisingly, the 1971 film preserved the vast majority.
  • Inscrutable Aliens: It's speculated by one scientist that Andromeda was created by an alien species as a data storage mechanism for announcing their presence to other species, 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 would 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 through their protective suits 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 he only finds out after the fact 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.
  • Medicinal Cuisine: Defied. When the only two survivors of an alien contagion that wiped out Piedmont, New Mexico, reveal the contagion's one weakness: it can only survive within a narrow pH window. An infant is resistant because going hungry made its body too alkaline, while an alcoholic old sot survived because his blood was too acidic. The Wildfire oncologists instruct the nurse to not feed the baby, to keep its blood pH above 7.5, and therefore immune to the contagion.
  • 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 that were 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.
  • Outside-Context Problem: A staple of Chricthon's works. In this case the designers of Wildfire didn't foresee any circumstances under which destroying the base with a nuclear bomb would make things worse.
  • 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.
  • Safely Secluded Science Center: The Wildfire Project housed in a bunker deep in the Southwest desert, where select scientists work to analyze the lethal contagion. The film adaptation has this complex entered via a hidden elevator disguised as a tool shed.
  • 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 discover that the heat and radiation from a nuclear blast would cause Andromeda to grow exponentially and even potentially mutate into deadlier forms. 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 disarm stations are even designed so that only Hall can use them, so another person less willing to sacrifice himself than Hall can't just take the key from him and stop the countdown. note 
  • Smorgasbord Test: The team places samples of Andromeda in petri dishes with other materials in order to discover what it can and can't live on. This is how they discover its narrow range of pH tolerance; anything too acidic or alkaline will kill it.
  • 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.
  • Undiscriminating Addict: One of the two survivors of the titular biological hazard is Peter Jackson, the town drunk of Piedmont, a man who is often so desperate to purchase booze to stave off the pain of his bleeding ulcer (and so poor) that he has taken to drinking stove alcohol. This is what saves him. His body chemistry is so out of whack from the constant drinking that Andromeda can't survive in his blood because it can only live within a very slim range of blood acidity.
  • 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 just an alien species of single-celled organisms that are following their biological code of survival.