The Andromeda Strain is a 1969 techno-thriller novel by Michael Crichton, his first novel under his own name and his sixth novel overall.
It is written as a report documenting the efforts of a team of scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extra-terrestrial microorganism in Arizona. The Andromeda Strain appeared in the New York Times Best Seller list, establishing Michael Crichton as a genre writer.
A team from an Air Force base is deployed to recover a military satellite that has returned to Earth, but contact is lost abruptly. Aerial surveillance reveals that everyone in Piedmont, Arizona, the town closest to where the satellite landed, is apparently dead. The duty officer of the base tasked with retrieving the satellite suspects it returned with an extra-terrestrial contaminant and recommends activating “Wildfire”, a protocol for a government-sponsored team of scientists intended to contain threats of this nature.
The Wildfire team, led by Dr. Jeremy Stone, believes the satellite – intentionally designed to capture upper-atmosphere microorganisms for bio-weapon exploitation – returned with a deadly microorganism that kills through nearly instantaneous blood clotting. Upon investigating Piedmont, the team discovers the townspeople either died in mid-stride or went “quietly nuts” and committed bizarre suicides. Two survivors – the sick, Sterno-addicted, geriatric Peter Jackson and the constantly bawling infant Jamie Ritter – are biological opposites who somehow survived the organism.
Jackson, Ritter, and the satellite are taken to the secret underground Wildfire laboratory, a secure facility equipped with every known capacity for protection against microorganisms escaping into the environment. Wildfire is hidden in a remote area near Flatrock, Nevada, sixty miles from Las Vegas, concealed in the sub-basements of a legitimate Department of Agriculture research station. Dr. Hall is the only scientist authorised to disarm the automatic self-destruct mechanism; he is an unmarried male and thus presumed to make the most dispassionate decisions during crisis.
Further investigation determines the deaths were caused by an extra-terrestrial microbe transported by a meteor that crashed into the satellite, knocking it from orbit. The microbe contains chemical elements required for terrestrial life (Hydrogen and carbon)and appears to have a crystalline structure, but lacks the DNA, RNA, proteins, and amino acids present in all forms of terrestrial life, and directly transforms energy to matter with no discernible byproducts. The microbe, code named “Andromeda”, mutates with each growth cycle, changing its biological properties.
The scientists learn that the current form of Andromeda grows only in a narrow pH range; in a too-acidic or too-alkaline growth medium, it will not multiply. Andromeda’s ideal pH range is 7.39-7.43, within the range found in normal human blood. Jackson and Ritter survived because both had abnormal blood pH (Jackson acidotic from consumption of Sterno and aspirin, Ritter alkalotic from hyperventilation). However, by the time the scientists realize this, Andromeda has mutated into a form that degrades the lab’s plastic seals and escapes containment. Trapped in a contaminated lab, Dr. Charles Burton demands that Stone inject him with a “universal antibiotic”; Stone refuses, arguing it would render Burton too vulnerable to infection by other harmful bacteria. Burton survives because the mutated Andromeda is no longer pathogenic.
The mutated Andromeda attacks the synthetic rubber door and hatch seals within the Wildfire facility, rapidly migrating toward the upper levels and the surface. The self-destruct nuclear weapon is automatically armed when it detects the containment breach, triggering its detonation countdown to prevent the spread of the infection. As the bomb arms, the scientists realise that given Andromeda’s ability to generate matter directly from energy, the organism would be able to consume the released energy and ultimately benefit from a nuclear explosion, forming a large indestructible biofilm within a day.
To halt the detonation, Hall must insert a special key he carries into an emergency substation, one of which should be accessible from any location in Wildfire. Unfortunately, he is trapped in a section that, due to an oversight, has no substation. He must navigate Wildfire’s obstacle course of automatic defences to reach a working substation on an upper level. He barely disarms the bomb before all the air is evacuated from the deepest level of the Wildfire complex, which contains the remainder of the team and their assistants. Andromeda is suspected to have eventually mutated into a benign form and migrated to the upper atmosphere, where the oxygen content is lower, better suiting its growth.
The novel’s epilogue reveals that a crewed spacecraft, Andros V, was incinerated during atmospheric re-entry, presumably because Andromeda had eaten its tungsten/plastic laminate heat shield and caused it to burn up.
- Doctor Jeremy Stone: Professor and chair of the bacteriology department at Stanford University; Stone is fictitiously the winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, whereas the actual winner was Georg von Békésy.
- Doctor Charles Burton: Professor of Pathology at the Baylor College of Medicine.
- Doctor Peter Leavitt: Clinical microbiologist; suffers from epilepsy.
- Doctor Mark Hall: Surgeon.
- Professor Christian Kirke: one of the intended five, an anthropologist from Yale, was hospitalised with appendicitis
Crichton was inspired to write the novel after reading The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton while studying in England. Crichton says he was “terrifically impressed” by the book—”a lot of Andromeda is traceable to Ipcress in terms of trying to create an imaginary world using recogniseable techniques and real people.” He wrote the novel over three years.
The “Odd-Man Hypothesis” is a fictional hypothesis that states that unmarried men are better able to execute the best, most dispassionate decisions in crises – in this case, to disarm the nuclear weapon intended to prevent the escape of organisms from the laboratory in the event the auto-destruct sequence is initiated. In the novel, the Odd-Man explanation is a page in a RAND Corporation report of the results of test series wherein different people were to make command decisions in nuclear and biological wars and chemical crises.
Hall is briefed on the Hypothesis after his arrival at Wildfire. In the book, his copy of the briefing materials has the Hypothesis pages removed; in the film, he is criticised for failure to read the material ahead of time.
Doctor Hall is assumed to have the highest “command decision effectiveness index” among the Wildfire team; this is the reason why he is given a control key to the self-destruct mechanism. Hall initially derides this idea, saying he has no intention of committing suicide before he is told that it is his job to disarm the weapon, rather than to arm it: Stone then admits that the Odd-Man Hypothesis, while accurate (in the confines of the book), was essentially a false document used to justify handing over a nuclear weapon to private individuals and out of government control.
Reviews for The Andromeda Strain were overwhelmingly positive, and the novel was an American bestseller, establishing Michael Crichton as a respected novelist and science-fiction writer.
In 1971, The Andromeda Strain was the basis for the film of the same name directed by Robert Wise, and featuring Arthur Hill as Stone, James Olson as Hall, Kate Reid as Leavitt (changed to a female character, Ruth Leavitt), and David Wayne as Dutton (Burton in the novel).
In 2008, The Andromeda Strain was the basis for an eponymous miniseries (Part 01 and Part 02) executive-produced by Ridley and Tony Scott and Frank Darabont, and featuring Benjamin Bratt as Stone. Other characters’ names and personalities were radically changed from the novel.
- Death metal band Nocturnus has a song called “Andromeda Strain” on their début album, The Key
- Progressive metal band Shadow Gallery has a song titled “The Andromeda Strain” about genetically engineered biological weapons on the album Room V.
- Klaus Schulze performed live concert “Andromeda Strain” in 1976 in the Rotterdam.
A sequel titled The Andromeda Evolution, written by Daniel H. Wilson, was released on 12 November 2019.
Without getting into too many spoilers, “Evolution” follows the aftermath of the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station (which was real) breaking apart over the general region of the Amazon. Wilson took the real-life 2018 space station breakup and fictionalized it somewhat, with pieces crashing into the jungle and causing problems.
Production & Filming Details
- Rating: 15.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.