The Andromeda Strain: Essay Q&A

1. How does the film The Andromeda Strain compare to the novel?
The Andromeda Strain was made into a movie in 1971, directed and produced by Robert Wise. The film stays closer to the book than is usual for book-into-film treatments. One change introduced was that the Peter Leavitt character was changed to a woman, Ruth Leavitt. The filmmakers resisted the temptation to present Ruth as a sexy young character; instead, Ruth Leavitt is played (by Kate Reid) as a plain, somewhat overweight and truculent woman of middle age who is given to making tart, humorous remarks. Another change, for no apparent reason, was in the name of Burton, which became Charles Dutton in the movie. Other than that, the changes are fairly small. The scientists in the film express shock when they discover that the hidden purpose of the Scoop satellites is to search for bacteria that might be used as weapons of biological warfare. (This is mentioned once early in the novel but never developed.) The ending of the movie also differs from the book. Whereas in the book, Stone guesses that the now harmless Andromeda Strain will rise to the upper atmosphere of the earth, in the movie, the bacteria (which has also mutated into a benign form) drifts out over the Pacific Ocean where it falls into the sea and is destroyed by the salt water. This is a plot twist borrowed from the 1962 movie The Day of the Triffids, which was based on John Wyndham’s novel of the same name (although that ending did not appear in the book).
The austere, sterile atmosphere of the Wildfire secret laboratory is well captured in the set. The scientists work in isolation, interacting only with the mechanical voices of computers. As in the book, there is a great deal of scientific exposition and explanation of the scientific equipment being used. Some critics complained that there was little action in the film, but the same might be said of the book. Others noted that the substantial intellectual content of the film was a compliment to the intelligence of moviegoers and a welcome change from the kind of visual gimmicks and clichés often seen in science fiction films.
2. Describe and evaluate the critical reception of The Andromeda Strain.
The critic Roger Greenspun, in his review of the 1971 movie adaptation of the book, described The Andromeda Strain as a “dreadful novel.” Greenspun’s complaint was about the thin texture of the plot and the raw scientific material the author put into it: “Crichton put his novel together as if from a collection of note cards—a story outline beefed up with a lot of semi-scientific data.” Greenspun was not alone in his dissatisfaction with the best-seller. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, reviewing the book in the New York Times, complained of the “tedious little lectures” on scientific matters, and also commented that he felt cheated by the ending, claiming that Crichton resolved the plot “with a series of phony climaxes precipitated by extraneous plot developments—and one huge biological cop-out.” Other critics complained about the lack of character development in the novel. This latter complaint was often made about Crichton’s books, but the author remained true to his vision of the kind of book he wanted to write. When the books were made into movies, he would resist any suggestions to add depth to the characters. The focus of his attention was on the story and the scientific issues it rested upon. As far as The Andromeda Strain is concerned, those readers who enjoy science will appreciate the detailed descriptions of scientific instruments and processes that fill up the pages of the novel. Others may feel that such details, like the description of the electron microscope in chapter 22, read too much like excerpts from a textbook and hold up the progress of the story.
Crichton is not alone amongst writers of best-selling books to attract the censure of literary critics. The fact that the book sold so well and is still considered by some to be his best novel is perhaps a counterweight to the criticisms mentioned above. Crichton set out to write an exciting story rather than a literary masterpiece, and the evidence of the marketplace suggests that he succeeded.
3. What is the political and military context of The Andromeda Strain?
The novel was written during the first era of space exploration, which began in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik and continued until the American manned moon landing in 1969. The space race, as it was then known, formed part of the cold war, in which the United States and its Western allies sought to contain the expansionism of the communist Soviet Union. Although Crichton for the most part keeps the focus on scientific issues, the political and military background sometimes becomes apparent. Perhaps most startling is the revelation in chapter 5 that Project Scoop is part of a large U.S. government program for the development of biological weapons. The scientists appear to remain unaware of this; Stone, for example, is surprised at how readily Washington agrees to his proposals for the Wildfire Project. He does not know the true motive.
The realities of the cold war are apparent also in the plans that the government makes (revealed in chapter 8) for the retrieval of a Scoop satellite should one carrying an alien organism land outside the United States. If one landed in New Delhi, India, for example, a nuclear destruction of that city to prevent spread of the disease would likely lead to nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. If the satellite were to come down in a major city in the Soviet Union, there would certainly be war, which is why a decision was made not to inform the Russians about any potential for deadly disease. The U.S. planners decided it would be better that a few million Russians died of disease than hundreds of millions of Russians and Americans died in a nuclear war.
The point here is that Project Scoop remains under political rather than scientific control. This can be seen also in the fact that the U.S. president is the one with the authority to delay ordering the directive that would authorize the dropping of a nuclear bomb on Piedmont. No reason is given in the book for the president’s decision, and the scientists seem unaware of the larger political reality at the time. The 1971 movie version makes this more clear. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed in 1963 banned the testing of nuclear weapons aboveground. Had the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on Piedmont, it could have led to a tense international incident with the Soviets.
These examples make it clear that the scientists, experts though they may be in their fields, are only pawns in a much larger game. This is also the final point made in the novel, when a spokesman for NASA announces at a press conference that manned space flights are being suspended indefinitely. When pressed about this and other matters, the spokesman can only say “The decision is out of our hands.”
4. What are some of the errors made by the scientists during Day 4 of the crisis?
At the beginning of chapter 24, the author comments that the scientists “grossly misjudged their information at several points.” At this point the narrative becomes studded with ironies. Stone and Leavitt want to check the cultured organisms to ensure that the Andromeda Strain has not mutated, but unknown to them it already has, yet they have dismissed the evidence (the dissolving rubber in the crashed jet in Utah) as a fluke. The missed piece of evidence becomes crucial in chapter 26, when one of the seals is broken in the autopsy lab and Burton is trapped. The breaking of the seal is an effect of the newly mutated Andromeda Strain, but the scientists are oblivious to this. Stone thinks the breaking of the seal was simply a chance event, “Just an accident. So many seals, so much rubber. . . . They’d all break, given time” (p. 263). Not only is Stone wrong about this, they are doubly wrong about the situation Burton is in. First they feed pure oxygen into the lab where he is trapped, thinking this will help because Andromeda does not grow well in an oxygen environment. Burton calms down and his breathing becomes more regular. Then the scientists decide that this is all wrong. In fact, Burton should breathe faster, because this will increase the acid balance in his blood, which will make him immune to the alien bacteria. The irony of this solution is that it is too late; it is no longer necessary. There is something almost comic in the way the scientists finally stumble on the truth, which has been present before their eyes all this time. They notice that the rat in the cage in the same lab as Burton is breathing calmly. It is not affected at all by the bacteria. They finally realize that the bacteria must have mutated into a harmless form. Again, there is something rather amusing in the slow way that the brilliant Stone comes to realize this, merely echoing Hall’s words. There is irony in the fact that on two occasions, Stone, a scientist who methodically investigates cause and effect, with the assumption that there is always a reason why things happen as they do, dismisses two crucial events as being due solely to chance. This shows that scientists, even the best of them, are not always scientific in the way they approach matters.
5. What role does Hall play in the research?
Mark Hall is rather different from the other three researchers. Whereas Stone is a bacteriologist, Burton a pathologist and Leavitt a microbiologist, Hall is a surgeon, a medical doctor. He has no expertise in the rarified disciplines that the others specialize in. Unlike the others, he knows nothing about the Wildfire Project and is surprised by everything he finds in the underground lab. The others have to explain all the procedures to him. In fact, Hall is only part of the team because of the Odd Man Hypothesis; he is single, while the others are married. He was not Stone’s first choice for the position. Hall does not have the depth of knowledge that the others possess, nor their demonstrated interest in theorizing about how an alien bacteria might manifest. He is the odd man out in more than one respect. However, Hall’s inclusion in the team pays off handsomely. He does his job like a good detective. He examines the two survivors, and keeps them alive, all the time puzzling over the conundrum of why two people so different as the old man Jackson and the two-month-old baby have survived, a puzzle he finally solves. He also finds out about the medical condition of Willis, the highway patrolman who died, and during the final crisis goes to heroic lengths to stop the atomic detonation at the lab. Whereas Leavitt lets the team down by failing to report his epilepsy, and Stone has some strange lapses in his ability to think creatively, and Burton is unfortunate enough to get trapped in the autopsy lab when the seal breaks, Hall performs admirably. He not only figures out that Andromeda grows only within a narrow range, he is also the first to realize that the Andromeda Strain has mutated and to see the connection between the mutation and the plane crash in Utah.