What can we learn from science fiction? Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and its sequel, The Andromeda Evolution

The truth.  Truth is the only way forward.  Lies and misinformation can destroy any plan, even a good one.  Created by writer Daniel H. Wilson in collaboration with the Michael Crichton estate, The Andromeda Evolution arrived last year 50 years after The Andromeda Strain was first published, the book that launched Crichton’s fame as master of the technothriller.  The Andromeda Evolution has all the components of Crichton’s best works–the trademark structure of a team of unique experts colliding to prevent catastrophe, the integration of cutting edge science to both inform the reader and carry the plot forward, and the surprising juxtaposition of the improbable and the unimaginable.  The ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness was eerily creepy last year, and here in March 2020 with a real pandemic threatening the planet, it’s even more so.  It all begins with a disaster in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, complete with lies–government clashes and misinformation campaigns–and ends with a surprise also ripped from last year’s headlines.  The Andromeda Evolution is now available in paperback here at Amazon from HarperCollins.

The influences and now, unfortunately, familiarity for readers will harken back to many other fictional tales with virus or pandemic components in sci-fi, conjuring callbacks to Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor, Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage II, The Philadelphia Experiment, The Cloverfield Paradox, 2017’s Life, or Crichton’s own novels Sphere and Congo.  More recent fictional touchpoints for addressing virus crises include zombies as in Netflix’s Kingdom, and The Living Dead, both reviewed at borg this week, and even aliens: Who now doesn’t feel like Donald Sutherland–suspicious of everyone who walks by–in Invasion of the Body Snatchers simply visiting your local grocery store?  More fantasy accounts can be found all over the origin stories of superheroes, like the Hulk, Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four, Deadpool, and in DC’s Swamp Thing series, where the environment itself fights back.  Add these to attempts at more realistic stories, the modern, mainstream pandemic thriller, like Outbreak and Contagion.

But can we learn anything from science fiction to help us in the real world, right now?

Those watching the news, working in healthcare facilities, and sheltering at home can certainly find shared experiences as a starting point.  But there may be even more.  Like how not to handle crises.  How the human condition delivers all kinds of different personalities, some who help, some who contribute, and some who hinder.  Reading The Andromeda Evolution or revisiting any of the above books, movies, and TV shows may be something you’re not ready for yet.  If you are ready, they also may provide ideas.  Like anything we might be forgetting.  They also may illustrate that no one can say “we never could have planned for this” or “nobody ever figured this could happen.”  Those assertions may be said aloud, but science fiction proves them as falsehoods.  And if you have kids at home, maybe the superhero stories listed above could help explain how viruses work in real life.

But fiction isn’t the real thing.  Much of the science fiction above includes conspiracy theories and relies on that ugly feeling of paranoia that niggles at everyone from time to time.  So use your brain.  Science fiction can contribute ideas when it’s in its best form, but it’s not typically, or necessarily, a road map for action.  Nothing defined Crichton’s trademark storytelling as much as his interaction of characters, always an unlikely grouping of personalities that some far-off puppetmaster thinks is the right team to solve problems.  A mix of the wise, the pragmatic, the cerebral, the sensitive, and the reactionary, common to the Crichton elite team are individuals who must struggle to get along like any group trying to complete a project in the real world, just as we’re seeing with the likes of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, or the immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, or President Donald Trump.  Everyone has a piece of the puzzle, but can everyone work together to solve the puzzle before it’s too late?

In The Andromeda Evolution that means introducing us to Dr. James Stone, son of The Andromeda Strain bacteriologist Dr. Jeremy Stone.  The son is a late addition to a core unit assigned to investigate and prevent the spread of what appears to be the Andromeda Strain, a dreaded, fast-moving viral strain his father faced so many decades ago that almost destroyed Earth.  Haunted by a lifetime of living with the threat of the virus’s return, Stone has acquired expertise under his father’s wing.  With the alert of a new threat, on a moment’s notice he’s dropped at Ground Zero with only hours to collect data with other similar elite minds to try to save the world again.  In The Andromeda Evolution, everything you think you know about the constructs of modern science and technology is a lie, dating back to the original Andromeda Strain virus, documented in Dr. Michael Crichton’s original account (recall Crichton was in medical school when he began his career as author).  Hidden by world governments, never losing ground as the world’s primary threat to security and survival, the Andromeda Strain was real–in the novel.  NASA, the Center for Disease Control, all the framework for technological initiatives we think about every day from the 1970s forward have been preparing humanity for the return of the dreaded AS-1 and AS-2. (Read my full review of The Andromeda Evolution here at borg).

The dynamic of the novel’s approach is easy to grasp, and something you may walk away with of potentially practical value.  Using experts in areas readers may not be experts on, the characters become accessible because they can’t help but exhibit the human frailties and quirks that everyone shares, so readers understand why it’s difficult to solve each new impossible task, and why they must overcome these barriers so the human spirit may live on, to fight another day.  It also allows educated readers plenty of opportunity to have their own inner-arguments along the way, and no doubt some readers may be able to stay ahead of the science from time to time as not only scientific principles collide, but entire disciplines (and maybe even fiction genres).

The Andromeda Evolution is now out in paperback, available here at Amazon (audio version read by Julia Whelan here).  And if you missed it, don’t forget the original novel The Andromeda Strain, now in a 50th anniversary edition, also available in audio, read by David Morse.

C.J. Bunce

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