[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
When Michael Crichton wrote The Andromeda Strain, he was not just writing a mediocre novel about extra-terrestrial bacteria. He was founding a (sub) genre of SFF that found a massive mainstream audience.
The techno-thriller has all of the pacing and suspense that we might expect of a John Grisham novel, but it also contains the encyclopedic detail that readers expect to find in “hard science fiction.”
To be honest, I’ve always been skeptical of the “techno-thriller” as a genre. It feels like a marketing gimmick to get skeptics to read SFF. However, while I may be skeptical of “techno-thrillers” as a category of fiction, that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying its stories.
After all, there is something very compelling about the technical details that Crichton outlines in his novels. Sometimes it’s important to know how things work, and sometimes it’s fascinating to discover how things went wrong. And it’s always fun to read about scientists poking fun at each other’s disciplines.
In The Andromeda Strain, we make fun of biologists.
Crichton tells the story of a group of scientists (a character collection that he would return to) that attempt to study and contain lethal alien bacteria. When discussing characters in The Andromeda Strain, it is difficult to resist making a list of excuses about why the characters in The Andromeda Strain don’t need to have any personality beyond a conflict between scientific method and human error. Crichton’s best effort may be referring to these characters as “Wildfire” scientists, though they are neither wild nor fiery.
In true techno-thriller fashion, it is the alien bacteria that steal the show. The Andromeda strain is not only lethal but also horrifically deadly. How villainous!
The most memorable aspects of The Andromeda Strain have nothing to do with characters, horror, or even suspense. Instead, Crichton is at his best as he meticulously outlines the Wildfire lab, the precautions that scientists have taken to protect themselves from lethal bacteria, the safeguards against human error, the fail-safes that anticipate design flaws, the futuristic crew quarters, and even the scientific experiments.
He also outlines how all of this planning goes wrong.
It makes for surprisingly impressive reading. We often celebrate poets that write innovative sonnets because the sonnet is such a challenging and restrictive form. With The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton has taken the form of a textbook or (at best) journal entry and attempted to make it thrilling. So although we see more evolution of bacteria than of character in The Andromeda Strain, Crichton’s achievements should not be dismissed.
The lack of character development does make it difficult to access The Andromeda Strain. As a novel, it is a middling read, but as a template, The Andromeda Strain would launch one of the most successful careers in … the techno-thriller’s history.