“The Andromeda Strain” is a 1969 novel by Michael Crichton. The novel was a success and reviews were overwhelmingly positive after it was released. The book made the New York Times Bestseller list and was later adapted into a movie of the same name in 1971. It was also adapted into a miniseries in 2008. The novel launched Crichton into the public eye and created a name for him as a respected genre writer.
The story starts on a cold night in Arizona, where two Army scientists are tracking a satellite that fell to Earth and landed in a small town called Piedmont. When they reach the town, they discover that everyone in it has died mysteriously and the scientists themselves die shortly after radioing back to base. Hearing the radio transmission, Major Manchek goes declares a state of emergency and contacts a team called Project Wildfire, who are employed to investigate possible extraterrestrial viruses coming to earth. The team assembles and investigates Piedmont, finding the satellite, and also finding two survivors, an elderly man, and a newborn baby. Bringing all of it back to their special lab, the team begin investigating the alien bacteria and find that it kills by instantly clotting all of the blood in a person’s system.
Eventually, the virus escapes and the men must decide whether to let the facility detonate as a fail-safe measure or stop it. They decide to stop it, as they had recently discovered that the bacteria seemed to thrive in the irradiated air and this action saves the bacteria from escaping and causes it to evolve harmlessly into another form that only cannot cause destruction.
On a cold night way out in the Arizona desert, Lieutenant Roger Shawn observes the small town of Piedmont, Arizona through his binoculars from the top of a hill. Nearby in the back of a van, his partner, Private Lewis Crane is attempting to pin down the location of their target by triangulating it’s whereabouts. The two soldiers work together and have driven out into the desert to find a downed satellite. All they know about the satellite is that it has recently returned from orbit and landed somewhere nearby. They also know that the satellite was designed to study the upper atmosphere and contained a group of specialized capsules. Both men are surprised when the satellite’s location is found to be in the center of Piedmont and not out in the vast desert where they expected to find it. Shawn notices a group of vultures circling a building in the town and both men agree to go into town and check it out.
Meanwhile, back at their mission control center, “Project Scoop,” Lieutenant Edgar Comroe monitors the communications from Shawn and Crane without much interest. Shawn and Crane’s van, “Caper One” makes it’s way into Piedmont and Shawn reports back to say that there are bodies in the streets all over town. Suddenly interested, Comroe instructs them to maintain communication and keep heading toward the satellite; he then seals off the command room to prevent any intel from escaping. Shawn reports back that they are seeing a man wearing white robes walking through town and checking the bodies. The man in the white robe suddenly stops and begins walking toward the van. All Comroe hears of his men is a horrified scream and a crunching sound before the transmission is cut off.
Major Manchek is brought in and informed of the situation. Shortly, he listens to a tape of the last transmission from the van. Manchek decides that the van is still running despite the abrupt end and the transmission is still broadcasting. Ordering a flyover of Piedmont, he calls in a tech named Jagger to analyze the tape. The flyover takes pictures of the town, and the pictures confirm what Shawn and Crane discovered earlier, that everyone in the town is dead. Jagger says that most of the people died recently and that one person is still living in the town. Manchek puts in a call and declares a state of emergency in the base. Manchek also calls a classified government agency that he heard of years earlier that was designed to formulate responses for any extraterrestrial lifeforms found on Earth.
The agency is called Project Wildfire. Manchek is instructed by a voice on the line to leave a message and does so, expecting a callback. However, he does not receive one, and a list of special agents are contacted by a computer who are authorized to receive such information. The machine malfunctioned slightly, and some of the special agents are not informed until the next morning.
One of these agents is a Dr. Jeremy Stone, who is pulled away from a dinner party at his house by two army men. Dr. Stone is taken to the airport and given a file about Project Scoop. Dr. Stone thinks back to hearing a fellow scientist hypothesize that when humans encountered alien life for the first time, it would most likely be in the form of bacteria. Dr. Stone and several other scientists took this information to heart and warned the government about alien microbes potentially returning on board human satellites. This led to the creation of government agencies designed to study alien microbiology and a team to prepare the country for a possible biological catastrophe.
“Project Scoop” was part of this mission and the satellite is the first “Scoop” satellite to return to earth in one piece. Stone meets with another member of his team; a scientist called Burton and the two fly toward Piedmont. As they fly, the two scientists discuss the bacteria. Burton and Stone – in their bio-hazard suits – are brought to Piedmont and lowered down from a helicopter which then flies away.
As they walk through town, Burton and Stone take notice of the oddness of the scene. The fact that the bodies are all laying outside, despite the fact that it is winter and most people would have been indoors when they were struck down, the fact that there is no blood and the fact that all of the bodies have peaceful faces. They find Shawn and Crane’s bodies in their van, dead and decide to use the van’s tracking equipment to find the satellite.
They find the satellite in the home of the town’s doctor. The doctor himself is dead, and he appeared to have opened the satellite using a pair of pliers and a chisel. Burton investigates the doctor’s body and finds that when he cuts him open, a crumbly black and red dust falls out of his veins instead of blood. The doctor’s blood has all clotted in his body.
Burton and Stone continue to investigate the town and find that some of the residents seem to have committed suicide. As they are looking around, they hear the sound of a baby crying and rush to find it. Finding the child’s parents dead, Burton and Stone discover a newborn crying upstairs in it’s crib. Stone and Burton drive back to the main street with the baby in tow, intent to find out how it managed to survive the town-wide event.
The helicopter arrives to collect them but just as they are getting ready to ascend the ladder they notice the white-robed man coming toward them. The man tells them that his name is Peter Jackson and accuses them of bringing the plague to this town, assuming that they are aliens in their suits. He tells them that he feels sick and vomits blood in the street. The men decide to bring the white-robed man with them in the helicopter. As they are leaving, they place a call to Manchek for a 7-12 directive.
In the next chapter, a 7-12 directive is described as being a method of containing an alien bacteria through a small, localized nuclear explosion. Project Wildfire has a device capable of this type of explosion, but the President has the final say on whether or not it is used. The President hesitates to use it in this case and instead tells the National Guard to quarantine the town.
Another of the members of Wildfire, a Dr. Hall, heads toward the base in Nevada. Hall is met by a man called Leavitt who brings him into the underground facility.
Once inside, Stone explains to Hall how they would have to call for the nuclear explosion together, by using two identical keys. Stone also explains that as the only unmarried member of Wildfire, the final decision to detonate the bomb has purposefully been left up to Hall. The army has done studies that unmarried individuals respond better in times of crisis than married ones.
Stone and Burton, however, believe that Piedmont has already been destroyed. They tell Hall and Leavitt what they saw in the town and the scientists go to an airtight lab where they undergo many tests and sterilizations. They are all sent to different rooms to sleep, but all of them struggle to do so as they try to work out the problem of Piedmont in their heads.
The next day the men return to the lab to begin working. They come up with three different hypothesis as to what the bacteria could be although all revolve around it being alien with one being that it might have been earth bacteria that mutated in space. They look over the reports on the satellite and discover that it collided with something while it was still out in space. Hall begins examining the baby and Peter Jackson to try and determine why they survived. Hall examines Jackson first and determines that he is suffering from gastrointestinal bleeding which is causing him to vomit blood. He then examines the baby and finds it to be totally normal. Leavitt and Stone examine the capsule and discover that the bacteria is still alive and growing. They collect cultures from it and begin exposing them to different conditions to see what they will do.
Burton manages to discern that the bacteria is airborne through the usage of test rats and that it dies when it’s host dies. Hall wakes Jackson and asks him about his medical history. Jackson tells him that he was recently hospitalized for a stomach ulcer and that he has been taking aspirin.
Hall realizes that the aspirin probably only made his ulcer worse. He allows the man to go back to sleep. The scientists meet again and discuss their findings. Stone performs microsurgery on the bacteria and takes some fragments from it.
Meanwhile, at his home, Manchek is phoned about a training mission crash over in Utah. The plane had passed over Piedmont before crashing. Manchek wishes that Piedmont had undergone the nuclear explosion it was supposed to. He goes to the site of the crash and listens to the black box tapes from the pilot who said that everything made of rubber in the cockpit was dissolving before the crash. At the site, he finds a piece of human bone that has been completely stripped clean of flesh. One of the other men on his team informs him that there was not any rubber on the plane and that it had been built with a type of synthetic plastic that resembled human tissue.
Back at the base, Wildfire continues their work. Burton examines the scrapings he took from the organism. Stone begins examining it with an electronic microscope. He still mistakenly believes that Piedmont has been nuked and believes that they are making progress sufficiently fast and that the bacteria is only alive in the lab. A glitch in the computer system has kept the message about Piedmont’s status from reaching the lab.
Burton and Hall begin going over the procedure that would happen in the event of a contamination of the facility. The procedure would involve nuking the entire lab.
That night, Leavitt has a revelation within a dream and wakes to write it down. However, as he gets dressed, he suddenly has a blackout of ten whole minutes that pass without him remembering what happened. He thinks then about his disorder which he has not informed the other men of and hopes that he can keep himself together until his work is done. Unfortunately, he has forgotten what his dream was about. The researchers meet at midnight that night. Everyone is exhausted. Stone uses a two-way typewriter to send out a message asking for a code for the bacteria that they have discovered. They receive a code back that refers to the bacteria as “Andromeda Strain.”
They then discover the message informing them that Piedmont was not destroyed as they had thought. Stone phones up the head of the presidents Science Advisory Committee and begs him to talk to the President about Piedmont as soon as possible. He tells the man to inform them when the National Guardsmen posted around the town begin dying. Hall then sees a news item about the unexplained death of an Arizona police officer.
Back in the lab, Leavitt and Burton discover that the organism is made up of elements not that different from the ones that life on earth is made from. However, it does not have enzymes and more closely resembles plastic. They theorize that the organisms crystalline structure may be what allows it to live without enzymes. They wonder if the organism is it’s own self-contained life form or part of a larger one.
Jackson tells Hall about what happened in Piedmont. The townspeople watched the satellite crash to earth, and a few of them went out to collect it and bring it back. They took it to the town doctor, Dr. Benedict. Only a short time later, people began walking out of their houses and dropping dead in the street. Some of them went insane first. Jackson says that the police officer who died, a man named Willis, was there as well.
The downed plane is reconstructed, and Manchek is told that the material that dissolved seemed to have been torn apart by a microorganism. Hall and Burton speculate about the people in Piedmont going insane before dying. He wonders if the virus can attack the brain and, after dissecting the rats, discovers that it does if the blood does not immediately clot. However, this does not help them discover why Jackson and the baby survived.
The researchers also find that the organism can use carbon dioxide and radiation to grow. Realizing this, Stone calls the President’s adviser back and urges him to inform the President that 7-12 can not be carried out under any circumstances as it would be the ideal growth conditions for the bacteria.
Suddenly, an alarm sounds in the lab and Hall; Leavitt run back to the area. Leavitt goes into a seizure due to the flashing lights around him, and Hall stops long enough to ensure that he is alright and arranges for him to have medication.
Hall and Stone find that lab sealed off with Burton inside of it. The lab has been contaminated. Stone says that they are pumping oxygen into the room since they have discovered that the organism does not grow as well in oxygen. Burton, terrified, asks them to give him a new drug that has been invented that kills viruses and bacteria. However, people who come off the drug tend to die as their body can no longer cope with it’s new lack of immunity. Stone refuses, and Hall goes to his lab to come up with a solution. He comes up with a solution. Breathing faster, he thinks, would stop the virus from entering the lungs. He tells Burton to breathe faster and stops the oxygen pumps. Breathing faster should make Burton’s blood more acidic, which is what Hall believes saved Jackson from contracting the virus. An alert tells them that the gaskets that connect the labs are dissolving. Hall wonders if the organism has mutated into a form that can destroy rubber gaskets.
Suddenly, the room that Stone and Hall are in is contaminated as well and sealed off. The nuclear self-destructs fail safe has been activated. The bomb is set to detonate in three minutes, and only Hall can stop it. Hall still has access to the control room, but the facilities defense system fires poison darts at him as he enters. A dart hits him, but he continues and reaches the lock where he is to insert his key. He manages to do it just in time and the self-destruct it stopped.
Fifteen minutes later, Hall is in the infirmary communicating with Stone via a television monitor. Stone says that the organism has now reached Los Angeles but that it doesn’t seem to be affecting anything as it has evolved into a benign form. However, if the bomb had gone off at the lab, it would not have been so. Stone believes that the organism will move into the upper atmosphere and leave earth having caused no damage.
In the epilog, the reader is told the government makes up official explanations to explain what happened in Piedmont and that NASA has indefinitely suspended all manned spaceflights.
Dr. Jeremy Stone – a professor of bacteriology at Stanford University. Stone is a thirty-six-year-old man who has already had a successful career. He is a former Nobel Prize winner who is known for his brilliance and his impressive ability to memorize things. However, he is also known for being a very impatient man, and it is for this reason that Stone is less than popular among his colleagues. He has been married four times as well. Stone is the member of the Wildfire Project who is most responsible for it’s creation as it was he who had the political contacts to get it off the ground.
It was also Stone who first had the idea that alien microorganisms could contaminate earth’s satellites returning to orbit.
Dr. Mark Hall – a surgeon and member of the Wildfire team. He is included in the team partly because of his abilities and partly because of the fact that he is an unmarried man and thus fit, by the armies standards, to have the final decision on whether or not the lab facility should be detonated in the event of contamination. When Hall first joined the team, he was not convinced that this type of emergency could happen and did not bother to keep up with the news that was being sent to him about the project. In the end, Hall’s heroics save the world as he stops the facility from detonating and creating a perfect environment for the organism to grow exponentially.
Dr. Peter Leavitt – a clinical microbiologist and a member of the Wildfire team. Leavitt is head of the bacteriology department at the same hospital where Hall also works. Leavitt has a specialized knowledge of bacterial diseases and has done research all over the world. He is described as being a heavyset, pessimistic man but a brave, imaginative one as well. Leavitt suffers from epilepsy in secret throughout most of the novel, as he does not wish to disclose his condition to his colleagues. He knows that he should inform them about this, but worries that it would end his career and his involvement in the project. At the end of the novel, Leavitt suffers a seizure in front of Hall.
Dr. Charles Burton – a pathologist from Houston, Texas and another member of the Wildfire team. Burton is referred to in the text as “impulsive” and “sloppy” and appears to be the polar opposite of the careful, methodical Dr. Stone. Burton is known for the team as “the stumbler” both for his propensity for stumbling over his own feet and his ability to make scientific discoveries almost by accident.
Major Arthur Manchek – the first person informed of the catastrophe in Piedmont. Manchek is an engineer at Vandenburg Air Force Base who is lethargically going over his nightly duties when Shawn and Crane are killed. He acts quickly, declaring a state of emergency and contacting Project Wildfire himself. Manchek also makes several discoveries about the organism that help move the story along and take it outside the lab.
Michael Crichton Biography
Michael Crichton was born on October 23rd, 1942 in Chicago, Illinois. He was a son of a journalist. From a young age, Crichton showed an interest in writing. He had a column about travel and published it in The New York Times when he was 14 years old. As he grew, he became amazingly tall and ended up hitting 6’9 inches by the time he reached adulthood.
Crichton attended Harvard College beginning in 1960 as an undergraduate in literature studies but later switched his focus and received a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology in 1964. Crichton then enrolled in Harvard Medical School and began publishing his stories.
His first novel, “Odds On” was published in 1966 under the pen name of John Lange and was quickly followed up by his second novel, “Scratch One” the next year.
In 1968, he published two novels, “Easy Go” and “A Case of Need” the latter of which earned him and Edgar Award the following year. In 1969, he published three more novels including, “The Andromeda Strain” which later became one of his most well known and popular novels and firmly established him as a genre writer as well as a best-selling author.
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Crichton published nine more novels before publishing perhaps his all-time most popular novel, “Jurassic Park” in 1990. Before the book was even finished, famed director Steven Spielberg had already heard of it and offered Crichton money for the rights to do a movie. Crichton agreed and wrote the screenplay himself and the film went on to become a cult classic and very successful.
Crichton published several more books throughout he 90’s including a follow-up to “Jurassic Park” that met with less success. He continued to publish novels into the early 2000’s and also published some non-fiction work as well.
During his lifetime, Crichton married five times. Four of the marriages ended in divorce with the last one continuing until his death. Crichton had two children, a daughter, Taylor and a son, John.
In 2008, Crichton was diagnosed with lymphoma and he died at the age of 66 on November 4th of that year. A prolific writer even after his passing, new novels from his estate continue to be published to this day.