GEEK U: Crichton’s Classic Book, The Andromeda Strain Pioneers Medical Sci Fi

A few months ago one of the Geekiverse’s more teachery geeks, (we have 3 teachers in the Geekiverse writer’s room) came up with an idea called Geek Lit 101. Hat tip to Andrew Garvey for this great idea. For my part, Professor Grumpy wants to introduce younger geeks to some of the classic science fiction literature that occupied my youth, in the days before 700 cable channels and the black hole of time suck that is the internet. I grew up reading books and comics, and I’d like to share some of those classics. In my first installment, here’s a thing or two about Michael Crichton’s classic, The Andromeda Strain.

Crichton is an interesting guy. He was trained as a medical doctor. During his time in college, he wrote fiction to pay for his college. (Ha. There was a time when you could pay for college by writing fiction. Imagine that) I’ve been meandering through his memoir, Travels, and Crichton tells the story of how he figured out quite early in his med school days that he hated it, and was essentially talked out of leaving. So, he finished his training, got his degree and then quit. Imagine doing that today, with piles of student debt.

Crichton went on to write a multitude of incredible novels, including Disclosure, which was adapted to a film starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, Sphere, a great book which eventually became a mediocre film with Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson, and, of course, Jurassic Park and The Lost World, which has spawned a very successful movie franchise, (2 of the 4 films are in the Top 25 highest grossing films of all times).

Crichton’s career also featured directing films and tv, as well as creating the the long-running, hit TV drama ER.

I chose to discuss The Andromeda Strain for a handful of reasons. First and foremost, it is one of the pioneering novels in the near future, sci fi genre, which is a favorite of mine. The book was published originally in 1969, the same year Crichton graduated from Harvard Medical School,  and is undeniably the cornerstone of the modern space germ invasion/epidemic category of books and films. The Andromeda Strain was the first novel that Crichton published under his own name, and was also his first science novel, rich with research and technology of the day.

The second reason I chose to discuss it is that, after re-reading it this past couple of weeks, I realized that it has held up surprisingly well. Crichton uses computers throughout the book, for characters to communicate with each other and to analyze results. Truth be told, that is exactly what we would use computers for today, and the modern desktop computer wasn’t really invented until the late 1970’s, ten or so years after Crichton wrote The Andromeda Strain.

Photo Credit: Universal Studios. 1971 Movie.
Photo Credit: Universal Studios. 1971 Movie.

One of the main themes of The Andromeda Strain is the consequences of man’s use of technology. Is there a more relevant topic for the modern world? In this book, the plot starts rolling because the United States government develops a program that is designed to look for extraterrestrial germs and bring them back to to Earth so that we can study them and find a cure. Um….huh? What could possibly go wrong with that, right? What could go wrong is exactly what does go wrong, we introduce an alien pathogen to our world. There are several other points of technology failure throughout the book, all powerful illustrations of Crichton’s theme.

If you are looking for characters, this isn’t Crichton’s strongest book, however, it is important to keep in mind that the book was one of Crichton’s first, and it was a different world back then. Crichton absolutely plays to the 1969 stereotype of the scientist as middle aged white guy with the sense of humor of a piece of sandpaper. Forget scientist, the characters as a whole – cops, military men, government employees, all all into that stereo type. There are tiny sprinklings of humor here and there, but this is a book about science and human flaws.

Is it a thriller? Yes. The book is a countdown thriller, however, the urgency of the countdown really only happens in the last few pages. There is enough conflict throughout to keep you turning the pages. As Crichton continued to write, he became much better at creating thrillers that start thrilling on page one and continue thrilling until the very last turn of the page. This book, while a thriller, is also a showcase for the well researched science novel.

Crichton went on to make a career of writing books that would spur conversation about the ethical issues at hand, in all of the major fields of current study. Until his death, Crichton wrote books challenging conventional wisdom and the ethics behind the discovery and use of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, climate research, cloning, time travel, miniaturization technology, bio-research, and a host of others. He often challenges the actions and/or responses of both government and profit driven organizations as they relate to emerging technologies. And, Crichton has figured out how to do it in an exciting way. I often spent nights, long after I should have been asleep, tearing through a Michael Crichton novel.

Photo Credit A&E Network: The Andromeda Strain, 2008 Miniseries

Another reason I chose this book as part of my mission to share classic sci-fi with the younger people who are the Geekiverse audience is that this book is a perennial favorite on high school and college reading lists. As I said earlier, the science and technology hold up, as do his ethical questions regarding what we should do with the technology we develop (today or even 48 years ago). A good thriller that can get you to think is a double win.

The Andromeda Strain is a good read for geeks of all types. Trying to find some classics to read? This is a good one. Looking for a book that laid the foundation for modern sci-fi? This is a good one. Looking for a good one to re-read? This is a good one. Beach read or a perfect way to spend a snowy weekend in front of the fireplace. Of the classics I’ve read this year, it’s near the top.

Professor Grumpy’s GPA Grade (Geek Point Award) = 3.5/4.0 . Solid start in the first semester of Geek U.

Like that article? Check out these Book Reviews by Pete

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch a Page Turning Thrill Ride

Charlie Jane Anders All The Birds In the Sky is Science Fiction and Fantasy Delight

Pete Herr is the author of “10 Things We Should Teach You In High School and Usually Don’t”. He is the oldest geek in the Geekiverse by a factor of two. Follow Pete Herr on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram . If you don’t he gets Grumpy. You don’t want to see him Grumpy.


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