I first became aware of Michael Crichton's story "The Andromeda Strain" through the 1971 film starring Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olsen and Kate Reid. Having seen the film, I wanted to read the book, and was not disappopinted with it! I've just read it again about thirty years later - it was still as engaging as I remembered.
The story revolves around the recovery of a crashed satellite from 'Project Scoop'. Scoop was designed to recover novel (bio warfare?) organisms from low-Earth orbit. When the Scoop VII satellite suffers a malfunction it has to be brought back prematurely. The military track it to a small, isolated town in Arizona called Piedmont. They find that everyone there is dead except for an old man and baby. The team they send in to recover the satellite are quickly killed as well - Scoop VII has brought a nasty organism back to Earth and the 'Wildfire Team' are activated.
Wildfire's job is to examine the satellite in a secure bio-lab facility, classify how the deadly organism functions, and then find a cure for it. The facility reminded me of an underground Titan missile base. Once the team have travelled down to Level V, being increasingly decontaminated as they descend, they are essentially cut off from the surface with only computers and machines linking them to the outside world. Wildfire is clinical, clean, cold and dispassionate. The opinions of the computer programs come faster than the humans could form them and are unchallenged. The message is clear: technology can fix anything if the smartest people are using it.
Wildfire has been fitted with the ultimate fail-safe of a nuclear bomb that will automatically vaporise the facility if the computers detect that the bio-containment seals have failed. Only one unmarried man is given the key that could deactivate that bomb: if the alarm sounds he will have three minutes to decide whether he should stop it.
"The Andromeda Strain" is definitely a product of its time, blending Cold War secrecy and militarism with all the technological capability that America's military-industrial complex could develop in the 1960s. Both the book and 1971 film feel claustrophobic and dispassionate; the survival of the team, the general population of the USA and even the world, will be determined by the unsmiling efforts of science. The scientists are compartmentalised both by their specialisms and their security ratings. They are progressively isolated as they descend through layers of decontamination, most of the Wildfire's infrastructure is automated and communication is electronic, impersonal.
Using a vast array of computer-driven tests, the team eventually discover the Andromeda organism. Andromeda seems to be able to directly convert energy into matter without the need for digestion or respiration. It has a crystal structure and grows without DNA, RNA or any amino acids. It has also evolved into a form that can destroy (digest?) plastic-rubber. Although not lethal in that form, it escapes from confinement and the nuclear fail-safe is activated. The team realise that if the bomb detonates the energy released will probably result in Andromeda taking over the Earth - the story ends with them trying to avert that crisis. which I am not going to spoil here!
I really enjoyed re-reading The Andromeda Strain. It is a bit slow and by today's standards the technology is over-explained... we're all used to the ideas of computers and electron microscopes now. Some of the technology like the use of tele-printers has dated the book, but this took nothing away from the story.
Whilst I have enjoyed both the original book and 1971 film, unfortunately I must add that I did not like the 2008 mini-series - it felt much too slow and ponderous, which is saying something for this story!
I thought I had missed getting a first edition copy of this but found one by chance in a local bookstore today - fantastic!
I like the filmed version of Alien 3 - it felt rather British, which appealed to me. I also enjoyed reading Gibson's script and now I'm looking forward to tucking into this comic-book version... hope it lives up to expectations!
Picking this up reminded me of the fun I had watching Alien and Aliens back-to-back at the cinema in 2014 - my blog post from that wonderful night out ('Halloween Horror') is below...
I saw two of my favourite sci-fi genre films back-to-back at Vue on 31st October 2014: Ridley Scott's "ALIEN" followed by James Cameron's "ALIENS"... WOW, what an
I first saw ALIEN on VHS video in about 1985, some six years after the original cinema release - of all the films I have seen, it made the most lasting and influential impression on me as a lover and writer of science fiction.
I remember being:
* captivated by the harshly industrial Nostromo/platform sets,
* awed by the balletic orbital manouvering in the landing sequence (beautifully enriched by Jerry Goldsmith's music),
* totally drawn into an alien world as the crew walked towards the derelict, and...
* increasingly terrified as the film accelerated with tense horror after that infamous 'chest-burster' scene.
Few films have managed to combine so many wonderful elements: innovative scriptwriting, world-class acting, a haunting score, game-changing realism in set design, and a genuinely unique vision of horror (Giger's monsters - apparently when Dan O'Bannon first showed Giger's paintings to Gordon Carroll, the producer recoiled saying 'This man is sick').
One quote I really like is the foreshadowing of Brett's death:
Parker: If they find what they're lookin' for out there, that mean we get full shares?
Ripley: Don't worry, Parker, yeah. You'll get whatever's coming to you.
Brett: Look, I'm not gonna do any more work, until we get this straightened out.
Ripley: Brett, you're guaranteed by law to get a share.
And wow, did he get a share!
When James Cameron's ALIENS came along in 1986 I was old enough to see it in the cinema. I remember enjoying the film as more of a sci-fi adventure yarn than a horror movie - after ALIEN that was a surprise.
The biggest shock was that The Alien was no longer invulnerable: as long as you had enough firepower you could survive contact with Ash's "perfect organism... [whose] ... structural perfection is matched only by its hostility". Cameron had obviously taken the franchise on a completely new direction.
Whereas Scott's ALIEN is full of memorable settings and relentless tensions, Cameron's ALIENS runs on a full tank of memorable dialogue and one-liners. Some of my favourite quotes from the second film include:
On the Sulaco, shortly after the marines have woken from hypersleep:
Hudson: Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?
Vasquez: No. Have you?
and also... with the marines preparing for the drop:
Ripley: I feel like kind of a fifth wheel around here, is there anything I can do?
Apone: I dunno, is there anything you can do?
and of course... in the APC after the marines barely escape from the Aliens' surprise attack:
Vasquez: Okay. We have several canisters of CM-20. I say we go back in there and nerve gas the whole fuckin' nest.
Hicks: It's worth the try, but we don't know if that's gonna affect them.
Hudson: Let's just bug out and call it even, man! What are we even talking about this for?
Ripley: I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.
Hudson: Fuckin' A!
The second movie was fun and memorable, and spawned some computer games I have enjoyed playing, but its lasting impact was very much less for me
(I actually prefer David Fincher's ALIEN 3 to ALIENS).
I'd always wondered what the Big Screen experience of ALIEN was like. I'd heard and read the legendary tales of people vomitting in the cinemas when it was released and I felt intimidated to try it for myself. I'm so glad I got brave enough to try it (with some friends for back-up) - it was AWESOME and the experience will stay with me forever!!
However, it's a miracle that I ever picked this wonderful book up. What were Harper thinking when they published it in this cover? That image speaks to no genre, certainly not sci fi (in my opinion).
Even today HarperCollins still seem to be misplacing this book. Amazon lists it against Medical Thrillers and Medical Fiction (where it ranks very highly), but casual SF browsers will never find it.
The taglines of "Sunday Times Bestseller" (yawn) and "A better writer than Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell" seemed overly egotistical and I expected to be disappointed - wrong! This is writing of the first order.
I nearly passed it by in the book shop. However, I was always intrigued by gravity when I was studying physics, and that was just enough to get me to read the blurb... which contained lots of things that I love in SF '... study living creatures in space... space travel... space station... infects the astronauts... NASA... contagion...' - what's not to like in that list?
Gerritsen masterfully tells an interwoven medical and space exploration story. The medical science is believable. The descriptions of space technology and procedures feel accurate. I was turning the pages fast in order to see what happened next. Despite many deaths, the story ends on a somewhat upbeat note that I appreciated.
The central premise of the book is that an ancient organism dug up from the Galapagos Rift becomes 'contaminated' with frog genes before being shipped to the ISS as a private experiment. On board the ISS it acquires mouse and human genes. The resulting organism then infects the crew of both the station and astronauts visiting in the space shuttle with a 'disease' that digests them from the inside out. The closing chapters contain a powerfully told cover up and betrayal, followed a State versus The People narrative. Will the astronauts survive and return to Earth? - you'll have to read the book to find out.
The only moment I squirmed over was the fictional destruction of Discovery and her crew. Accidents happen in space, which is a minor theme in this book, but I couldn't help but feel that this plot line came too soon after the loss of Challenger in 1986. Sometimes even thirteen years isn't long enough.
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