The Andromeda Strain: read-along, discussion on Day 1 and Day 2

The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain,
by Michael Crichton,
1969
Science Fiction/Thriller
Goodreads

If you missed them, please see what pre-read questions Julie Anna had prepared for our buddy-read of The Andromeda Strain. You will see both our answers, feel free to add yours in a comment there.

Obviously, our Q&A contain spoilers, so first read the book sections before coming here 😉

And today, here are our answers to my questions on Day 1 and Day 2:

1. As early as the foreword, it struck me how contemporary the book sounds to me. Did you have that feeling? For what particular aspects? I will share how spooky it sounds to me, when you compare the why of the Scoop satellites, and the possible origin of the current Covid-19…

Julie Anna
Yes, I did! Aside from the dated nature of the computer functionality, I was beginning to question when this book really took place. The only thing that exposed the time period for me were the references to more dated computer functionality. However, there’s also a lack of mention for the cultural events going on at the time of publication, which I believe was intentional in order to emphasize the timelessness of this story and its conflict. Since we are getting specific with computer limitations here, I’m not sure what the final intent of the setting is yet, but it does feel like it could be now. The origins of the contagion here vs. covid-19 are interesting as well – from our experiences, we know that by the time this city is placed on lockdown, it will have spread…

Emma
I like your idea that not specifying when this took place allows readers of different periods to relate.
What really spooked me were the revelations on the ultimate mission of the Scoops: nations realized they didn’t have powerful enough biological weapons, so they decided to go to space and collect foreign bacteria, bring them back to Earth, and use them to make “more satisfactory” biological weapons. With the still blurry origin of the Covid-19 strain, and still the possibility that scientists were working on it in The Wuhan Institute of Virology, this detail sounded too close to life!

2. How do you make the difference between reality and fiction in this novel? For instance, I thought first it was a clever way to insert the author’s acknowledgments as part of the story, but then I realized, are these real acknowledgments, or are these also fictional? And then I started wondering what scientific element was real or not. It’s kind of funny that there is indeed a Piedmont in Arizona, and the Vanderberg Air Force Base does exist as well. Then I felt like double-checking everything!! How did you deal with that?

Julie Anna
There is definitely also that feeling that this book was based on real events, which is incredibly unsettling as well! I do have a tendency to put books down for a moment to research things I’m unaware of, but Crichton is doing an excellent job of making it unclear of what’s real and what’s not. For example, I had to look up J.J. Merrick as I was convinced that his character and his studies were based on true events – turns out, they are not. But the research he proposes was written in such a realistic way that it was easy to believe that these scientific developments really happened. I think part of that also has to do with the fact that the research is so widely applicable to our current situation that it’s especially unsettling.
In terms of the science, I’ve been taking the same route of looking up what I don’t know much about. But I also feel that his explanations behind events are scientifically sound – it just seems like some of the storytelling elements themselves are not always real.

Emma
Same here, I could spend a lot of time researching every scientific detail, to see what’s real or not, but I guess that’s really not the point of reading scifi! I love how you put it, “his explanations behind events are scientifically sound”, that’s an awesome balance he achieved to trick the reader into believing this is real.
I was really intrigued by the Acknowledgement part. I actually wonder if some names could be real, and a way for the author to honor them. For instance, Murray Charles is an American political scientist born in 1943. With the amount of political issues in the book, I wonder if Crichton has read Charles and want to honor him.
I see this also with Jeremy Stone. I don’t know any Jeremy Stone who won a Nobel Prize, but Jeremy Stone was a research mathematician at Stanford, and may Crichton wanted to acknowledge his contribution.
Looking around about the Acknowledgement, I found this fabulous essay: Apparent truth and false reality: Michael Crichton and the distancing of scientific discourse. Stéphanie Genty has great passages on this point. I will just quote this, but the whole essay is definitely worth reading:

The fiction works because of Crichton’s mastery of the codes of scientific discourse – or at least his representation of them – which must correspond to that of the popular mind. The various documents which make up the narrative texture appear authentic since they respect the formal rules of argumentation and style. The narrator’s interventions appear to explain the technical aspects of the intricacies of the plot. But the fiction also works because of the reader’s suspension of disbelief, which is maintained in large part by the fact that he/she knows that the author has a scientific background, that he has access to experts in the field and has done thorough research and so, presumably knows what he is talking about.

So, while Crichton feigns authorial proximity to scientific reality and his narrator feigns proximity to the reader, he is actually pulling the wool over our eyes and spinning a yarn a tale which is “a long way off the truth”. The novelist’s use of fictitious fact may be compared to the publication of fabricated experimental results by unscrupulous scientists, or to the many humoristic parodies of scientific articles, both of which rely on a similar mastery of the codes of scientific discourse.

Her analysis makes me even more admire Crichton’s style and way of “pulling the wool over our eyes.” I think the whole “Alterations” section (at 38%) is also very instrumental in that respect.

3. What did you think of when we first met “the man in the white robe”?

Julie Anna
I had a feeling that things were going to get really interesting then! I wasn’t expecting for him to be introduced knowing how quickly (or at least assuming how quickly) this contagion kills. But having a possibility for more answers really piqued my interest.

Emma
I have to say, when he showed up that early (at 4%), I was a bit uncomfortable, because he looked like a religious figure to me, and I don’t really like mixing religion with scifi (with one major exception: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell).
But at 43%, so far this dimension has not been developed.

4. Swear words have evolved a lot! I was getting annoyed at how many times the author used “Judas” as a swear word. Why focus on this one? Is there a special reason you think?

Julie Anna
I’m not sure honestly! I don’t know if this was a term that was used often at the time it was written, or if it will have any sort of meaning later on. I also wonder if using this particular term as a swear in place of others would have made this book more marketable at the time that it was published. Regardless, it’s a bit strange – you’d think that there’d at least be some variety in their vocabulary.

Emma
This got me even more nervous about the man in white robe! Looks like it was a popular swear word in the 60s, as a “minced oath”, so yes, maybe for marketing reasons.
It’s funny, I remember DNFing a famous and popular book, because the author used so much the f* word in the first pages, and I often criticize authors in my reviews when they constantly use this one, underlining their lack of creativity, and here same thing, couldn’t he have used various other terms, instead of always that one, lol!

5. Did his definition of a “crisis” resonate with you?

Julie Anna
It absolutely has, but especially in this past year it made me think a lot about our current crisis and how the world has been navigating it. I liked how the definition of crisis was expanded to many scenarios as well, yet the outcomes were the same. I also felt like the introduction of this definition really set the tone of this book in anticipation for what’s to come, and it’s definitely one of the more memorable quotes for me in this book so far.

Emma
I am quoting it here, “a crisis is a situation in which a previously tolerable set of circumstances is suddenly, by the addition of another factor, rendered wholly intolerable.”
I did stay for a while on it, reflecting on what that meant for our world this past year, and also if this could apply to some moments in my own life.
I like your perspective about its impact on the tone of the book.
Actually, a bit later on, he adds, ” A crisis is made by men, who enter into the crisis with their own prejudices, propensities, and predispositions.  A crisis is the sum of intuition and blind spots, a blend of facts noted and facts ignored.” This definitely resonates with me, especially with the “blind spots.” Often times, if we accepted to read the signs early enough, the crisis could be avoided.

6. I know you like serious technical details and data in scifi. How is it for you so far? Do you find these technical details modern enough, relevant today? What do you think about the balance: too many technical details not enough?

Julie Anna
Personally, I’m loving it! One of my favorite scenes so far was the phone number puzzle solved via translating numbers to binary digits. I wasn’t expecting a puzzle like that and I thought it was a fun addition. There’s also scenes about the history of the different sciences, proposed research, and computer models that we’ve seen so far, which add so much depth for me personally. I always miss having these details in space opera, and I do miss studying these subjects as intensively as I did in college. That being said, reading these details is a nice way of returning to those subjects. In terms of balance, while I personally enjoy it, I can see it not being the best fit for everyone. However, I do find it helpful that the book explains the logic behind the details so that the concepts are more easily understood.

Emma
I’m loving it as well!
Ah yes, the phone number puzzle. I even tried to understand it. I could follow the beginning, but then I got lost! Does it make sense, mathematically speaking?
I also liked the description of the Scavenger. With its “infrared multispex camera”, it really made me think of the Perseverance Rover that landed on Mars on February 18. I actually followed the event live through a Zoom event organized by my public library, in connection with Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and the NASA feed. It was really so well done, with scientific details explained for everyone.
And it was fun identifying scientific details that were scifi at the time, and are real now, for instance, “The technical quality here is quite good. Can’t read the license plates on the cars yet, but we’re working on it. Perhaps by next year.” I think many satellites have now that level of precision. There’s also the “finger and palm-print analyzer“, commonly used now, for security or even shopping! And the “electronic body analyzer”, that “would eventually replace the human physician as a diagnostic instrument”. Already in use, at least partially.””

I also liked the whole concept around life form: “an evolutionary progression from simple to complex life forms. This is true on earth. It is probably true throughout the universe.” The popular view of life in space is (or used to be) too often as large beings, but this novel (and Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, that I’m currently reading) focuses on life as small as bacteria. With the possible idea that actually, it can be super developed, even if it’s tiny (just like our earthly technologies have gotten more complex and smaller at the same time).
Crichton even mentions “biosynergics, the future possible combinations of man and machines implanted inside the body”, which is now a reality.

7. Did some scenes remind you of any scifi movie (beside The Andromeda Strain movie, that neither of us has watched)?

Julie Anna
I’m honestly not a big movie-watcher, so I’m not sure that I could point out any in particular! But do feel the anticipation (and ominous nature) of what’s to come, much like many films in general. I think there’s that one horror moment where you know you’re dealing with something much bigger than you that you have no knowledge of, and this is one of those moments.

Emma
I don’t often watch movies either, but my husband has been working on educating me in classics, and I have watched a few scifi classics. When I read “They proceeded another mile, bouncing along the dirt rut, and then came over a hill. Suddenly Hall saw a large, fenced circle perhaps a hundred yards in diameter”, a scene came to mind right away, when Roy and Jillian discover the site in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (but obviously, our novel cane before the movie):the site

Now come this way to read our Q&A for Day 3

HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK? ARE YOU READING IT WITH US?
PLEASE ADD YOUR ANSWERS TO THIS PART, HERE OR ON YOUR BLOG.

IT WAS PUBLISHED IN 1969. WOULD YOU CONSIDER IT A CLASSIC?

7 thoughts on “The Andromeda Strain: read-along, discussion on Day 1 and Day 2

  1. It’s pretty impressive that the book doesn’t feel dated, other than the computer issues. This book is early 70’s, right? That’s wild. The question of the virus’ origin is fascinating too- the Wuhan theory is chilling.

    It’s also fascinating when authors make something feel real and do a good job of making that plausible. I feel like that’s a common storytelling trick in older sci-fi so it’s neat to see it addressed here. The essay about Crichton’s scientific background and how that perhaps helps him to sell the idea that this is true events happening is good also.

    The satellite thig made me smile. Yes, I imagine a few things that they were still waiting have come to pass now, although so many things we’re probably still waiting on also! the idea of tiny life forms being incredibly advanced is a neat one to think about too as we reevaluate our assumptions about where and if life will be found elsewhere.

    Like

    • It was actually published in 1969!!
      As I’m reading further, I’m finding more of technological details that didn’t exist completely yet, and totally a thing now – check our next Q&A for the specifics.
      I remember when I watched the latest rover landing, they did highlight that if/when life is found in space, it is probably going to the size of a bacteria.
      Crichton has fascinating ideas on where these bacteria could be coming from – again, will tell you more next time!

      Like

  2. Great catch on the significance of some of the researcher’s names! I didn’t realize that in my first read, so I’ll definitely be looking out for that as I continue reading day 3 onward.
    And to explain the phone number puzzle – there are different number systems that we can use (and can translate between them). We generally use decimal, but computers use binary numbers. And in order to do that you have to iterate through and repeat the divisions he was making until your original number is zero. The result after each calculation will tell you whether the next digit is one or zero.
    You can also convert binary back to decimal by multiplying each 1 by 2 to the power of whichever position that one is in (the first would be zero, then one, two, etc). And then there’s a chart where you can reference a decimal if you’re trying to translate binary numbers to text. There’s been a couple of books I’ve read where there was binary code and I was able to translate it, which is a cool thing to look out for with sci-fi books! Although I use a converter for those because it takes way too long otherwise
    😂

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    • I know how about the different numbering system, and I remember exercises at school counting with the other possibilities beside decimal or even binary. It was fun. I understand the beginning, but after he loses me. I guess what I missed is what you explain in your last paragraph here, thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Andromeda Strain: read-along, last discussion, on Day 4 and Day 5 | Words And Peace

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