The Andromeda Strain Summary

Michael Crichton

The Andromeda Strain

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The Andromeda Strain Summary

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Bestselling author Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park and ER fame) published The Andromeda Strain in 1969. The book was an instant bestseller and established Crichton as a major contemporary writer. Crichton held an MD from Harvard University, and used his medical training to inform the novel. The thriller follows a group of elite scientists as they fight to contain a deadly virus from outer space.

Themes include the malice of state governments, the hubris of the human intellect, and humankind’s precarious existence in the face of bacteria.

The thriller opens with a document claiming that what follows is top secret and that by reading it one can incur a penalty of 20,000 dollars and twenty years in prison. While most of the novel is made up of prose, the story told by a third-person omniscient narrator, Crichton uses a range of charts, graphs, and official reports to height the realism of the text. He also includes a bibliography ostensibly written by the characters themselves.

The Scoop, a U.S. space satellite, journeys into space to search for signs of bacteria and viruses to bring back to earth and study. Purportedly, this mission is to gain knowledge that will protect people from any future alien contagion. But really, the U.S. government hopes to harness this knowledge for chemical warfare, specifically for germ warfare that will destroy any enemy.

The project has several missteps resulting in failed rocket launches. Eventually, in February of 1967, Scoop VII is successfully launched. But shortly after, the satellite is hit by a mysterious particle and plummets back to earth. It lands in Piedmont,a small town in Arizona with a population of 48.

Two government agents are sent to recover the satellite. To their shock and horror, they find dead bodies littering the street. The two rescuer-soldiers rush back to their car, only to die soon after in their van. Aerial footage that shows body heat confirms that there are 50 bodies dead in Piedmont.

The U.S. government has actually prepared for such a possibility, and has kept a team of five scientists trained in bacteriology and pathology on call at all times, This team responds to what is called the “Wildfire Alert,” sent out by Major Arthur Manchek, who, on replaying transmissions from the deceased soldiers, realizes that they are dealing with an alien contagion.

The five scientists soon report to Wildfire,an enormous, underground laboratory/bunker in the Nevada desert,sixty miles away from Las Vegas. They are briefed on the situation.

Wearing heavy-duty protective gear, two members of the Wildfire team journey to Piedmont, Arizona. They find two survivors: a 69-year-old alcoholic named Peter Jackson, and a two-month infant named Jamie Ritter, who is often screaming. The government agents take these survivors to Wildfire.

For the next four days,the team tries to determine why Peter Jackson and the baby Jamie have survived while everyone else succumbed to the mysterious virus so rapidly. They puzzle over how two people so dissimilar in age and physical condition could survive.

The group is led by 36-year-old Dr. Jeremy Stone. A Nobel Prize recipient for his work on bacteria, Dr. Stone is a perspicacious yet irascible individual. The reader quickly learns that the Scoop project was his idea, and that he feels personal responsibility for resolving the possible mayhem. While caustic, Dr. Stone clearly cares about his entire team and routinely gets by on six hours of sleep.

As they gather more evidence, the team theorizes that the contagion kills humans by rapid blood clotting. They also think the satellite was hit by a meteor. This meteor was carrying what they dub the “Andromeda” microbe. This powerful bacterium can mimic human biology, but it lacks DNA and amino acids, which makes it difficult to manipulate. The strain of bacteria also mutates rapidly.

As the scientists race to understand the foreign bacteria, the narrator reveals more and more of the backstory of each prominent scientist on the team. Dr. Peter Leavitt is haunted by the knowledge that because of a seizure he had while working, a duplication resulted in the launch code for the satellite. There are also other errors that aren’t caught by the team that, if discovered earlier, would have stopped the bacteria much sooner. Dr. Charles Burton, for example, is a somewhat lazy doctor. Had he performed an autopsy on animals exposed to the bacteria, he would have discovered a weakness in the bacteria much sooner.

With enough data, the team realizes that baby Jaime and Peter Jackson survived because they had an abnormal pH level in their blood. Andromeda can only grow inside of humans if their pH level is normal. Unfortunately, by the time the scientists have cracked this mystery, Andromeda has mutated. It is no longer lethal to humans, but it has found ways to escape several containment vessels, including hatch seals.

Wildfire is equipped with nuclear weapons for self-destruction should any contagion get out of control. The scientists consider blowing the facility up but then realize Andromeda would only consume the atomic energy and grow even larger.Dr. Mark Hall, a surgeon, barely arrives in time to successfully disarm the nuclear weapon and prevent it from detonating.

A surprising element of The Andromeda Strain as a thriller is that the global threat is stopped not by human interference but by chance. One day, the bacterium simply disappears. The team believes Andromeda has migrated toward a higher altitude because it grows more easily in an atmosphere with less oxygen.

None of the scientists are really changed by these events. They are simply thankful that this microbe didn’t cause an apocalypse. They trust that a future threat also will eventually be rendered harmless, but they don’t make any substantive move to prevent future threats by extraterrestrial bacteria.

In the epilogue, a spacecraft, Andros V, blows up while reentering the atmosphere. The team fears that this is because Andromeda had mutated to eat through its heat defense system.