Saturday, July 20, 2013

Book Review: Andromeda Strain and other books by Michael Critchon

First, let me apologize for choosing a low quality cover image.  The reason I did is because this is the cover I associate with the book.  I think it was in junior high, but it may have been late elementary, I used some of my paper route tip money to purchase some books through Scholastic or Troll at school.  This particular purchase was a 3-pack of Michael Crichton novels: Andromeda Strain, Congo, and The Great Train Robbery.  I knew Crichton at the time because of the movie Jurassic Park, of course.  At the time, as far as I can recall, I was trying to read Jurassic Park the book that I had checked out from my homeroom teacher.  It was a tough read for a junior high age student.  It was probably because of that and my new-found obsession with Star Wars novels that I didn't get around to reading any of the Crichton books I had.  Later on my sophomore year of high school, late in the school year too, I finally picked up The Andromeda Strain because it was the shortest of his books I had on hand.  I finished it in about a day, because it was very gripping.  I remember my dad picked it up and read it the next evening and told me there had been a movie about it that he'd seen years ago in a drive-in or while in the Navy (or both?).  That led to me reading all of Critchon's novels that I could get my hands on over the next couple of years.  I remember reading and listening to many others.  I also fell in love with Sphere and Timeline.  Together this one and those two remain my favorites of his, although the movies for all of them were pretty bad.  Also, before I review the book, I watched the SyFy TV miniseries of The Andromeda Strain just a couple of years ago while grading late-night at school and was disappointed with the changes they made to it, although it was pretty good on its own.

I read this one again because of Science Friday's Book Club chose it back in January and it made me want to re-read it (although I finally listened to their review, just this summer).  I happened to listen to an abridged version this time, and I was impressed with the abridgment's ability to avoid talking about the diagrams.  The novel was as good as I remembered it being, although I don't like to re-read books much anymore.  I've found that in the past I maybe read a lot, but didn't comprehend everything.  That I might read a couple of pages with thinking about other things and so I wouldn't fully focus and would miss chunks.  I've also had the same problem with audiobooks, which is why I hated listening to non-fiction for so long.  Now, I've learned that if I need to pause and contemplate something that it is OK to take a break while reading or pause while listening to a book.  Anyway, I have read this novel at least two and maybe three times [I know I lost it while reading it the last time] before listening to it again here, so I didn't forget too much.

To summarize the plot of the book, without giving anything away, an American space probe is launched [keep in mind this book was originally published the year we landed on the Moon in the infancy of the Space Age, but end of the Space Race] and crashes back down early for unknown reasons in the wrong location and has brought back with it a pathogen that killed all in the desert town it landed in except for two- the town drunk and an infant.  Classic Critchon there are science explanations as the book goes and worst-case scenario happenings.  A response team, Project Wildfire, of five scientists is brought in to study the pathogen and to figure out how to neutralize it or find a treatment.  At the time, this was a real concern, and when the early Moon missions came back, the astronauts were put in containment suits, and then they and their recovery crew, some medical personnel , and some other staff were quarantined for three weeks.  When President Nixon greeted the Apollo 11 crew upon their return it was done through a box, as was much for their early debriefing.

The concern was that they'd bring back a a foreign microbe or take a microbe with them into space that would mutate and become hazardous.  The premise here was the same.  This still remains one of my favorites of his.
A quick review of his other books, since I don't see myself rereading them, but have read all of his fiction [except his older ones he wrote under pen-names].

  • The Andromeda Strain- reviewed above, one of my favorites
  • The Terminal Man- Good, and this issue is coming back up as our society has become even more connected to digital technology and personal enhancement technologies are being developed.
  • The Great Train Robbery- historical fiction, good.  I've heard the movie is good.  One small thing here bugs me, see notes below.
  • Eaters of the Dead [republished as The 13th Warrior, to match the movie title]- very good, I forgot about this one being a favorite when I listed the three above.  Again, more historical fiction than fiction, but the premise is great.  He had a college professor friend who was going to start a literature class called "The Great Bores" about classic novels that everyone is supposed to read, but really should just fade away.  Included were The Bible, The Odyssey and Iliad, and the course would start with Beowulf.  Beowulf is one of his and my favorite classics, and so he argued that it was possible that the legend was born out of truth.  He pointed to recent [at the time] archaeological evidence that Troy was a real place (giving validity to The Iliad and The Odyssey) and to evidence that Jason and the Argonauts were real.  So the professor threw down the gauntlet and asked Critchon to imagine how Beowulf might be real.  This great novel is what came out of it.  What I like most about it though, is again in classic fashion (like The Andromeda Strain) Critchon goes as far as to create and cite fake sources for the manuscript that he is allegedly translating and interpreting, and then cites real sources for the facts and background information.
  • Congo- I only listened to an abridged version of this, didn't like it much.  Also, confirmed I'm not a fan of most female readers of audiobooks, although since then I have found several that I love.  Have not been able to find a copy of the movie to watch.
  • Sphere- Another favorite, movie stunk by comparison (in fact, I had a friend recommend I never waste the time wtaching it, and I tried it anyway, it started out following very true to the book, but quickly mucked it up and was truly a waste of time).  Book is favorite though.
  • Jurassic Park- great book and movie.  Not the easiest read.
  • Rising Sun- a crime/thriller/drama, not science fiction.  OK book.
  • Disclosure- a crime/thriller/drama, not science fiction.  OK book.
  • The Lost World- great book, not as good as Jurassic part.  Horrible movie, I still regret paying to see it in the theater.
  • Airframe- science, but not science fiction, more of a drama book.  I learned a lot from it, but didn't like it.  Having said that, I have a lot of students who tell me it is their favorite of his.  I will say I was distracted while listening to this one [I listened on cassette in my dorm room one weekend in college while playing computer games (headphones over headphones at times)].
  • Timeline- Another of my favorites and probably his last good novel.  I've read and listened to it multiple times.  Movies was sub-par.
For some reason about this time, Critchon decided to stop having scientists as the main characters, or at least as the main characters who were involved in the plot and knew the circumstances.  His novels started becoming worst-case scenarios with technology still, but lack the science explanations until the resolution.
  • Prey- OK, this is the first novel I read when it was new, got it for Christmas, but was disappointed.  Inspiration for the book was nanotechnology, and there were a lot of great articles that read because of it though, including "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom"- Richard Feynman.
  • State of Fear- this book was not very good, but served to fuel my global warming skepticism that I had when I started teaching.  Unfortunately I read a lot of the articles he referenced and didn't give fair weight to the other side.  Furthermore, I was reminded of a quote from The Andromeda Strain, "The Rule of 48: All scientists are blind."  I'm now convinced that Global Warming or Global Climate Change is occurring, although whether we are the cause doesn't matter- it is still a problem we need to grapple with and the other results of change (like decreasing our dependence on non-renewable resources) just make sense.  I'm curious if his position, like Richard Mueller and myself, in light of another decade's worth of evidence.
  • Next- not very good.  Also, I alluded to the part of The Great Train Robbery that bugged me above, this book brought that issue back to mind, although it was solidified with the next book.
  • Pirate Latitudes- the first of two novels published posthumously, I was of course, very sad to hear he had passed away.  This one was a lot like The Great Train Robbery, historical fiction.  Most of the characters were real-life characters.  It was good, but as with Next and The Great Train Robbery pedophilia played a role in the book.  Certainly that might just be part of the culture, or at least his warped view of it, that he was writing about, but it played a part in all three of these and it just feels wrong.  It was only really important to the plot in one book, and it was the least descriptive in that one (Great Train Robbery).  It just bugs me that this theme came up so much and was really unnecessary. 
  • Micro- The other posthumous book, and it was incomplete and was finished by Richard Preston. I've not read any of his yet, but I own two and I know the Biology teacher at my school used to have his The Hot Zone as a  choice for a reading project.  Anyway, much like Critchon's other three last sci-fi novels, this one was a disappointment.  I suppose he is famous enough for Jurassic Park and some of his other works that this won't taint his legacy, but I agree with many other reviewers that this was a horrible last curtain to go out on.  Furthermore, Preston is a nonfiction writer and may not have been the best choice to finish th series.  Of course, as always with posthumous books I'm always curious to know which parts were written by whom, but I doubt we'll ever know.
  • If you are like me and when you find an author you like you exhaust all of their novels then my recommendation for Critchon is to start at the end and work your way ack, they get better as you go for the most part.  Otherwise stick to the four I recommended and maybe add Terminal Man and Lost World.

No comments:

Post a Comment